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Ebola outbreak creates opportunity for reduction in Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting in Sierra Leone

Freetown 6 February 2015

As today marks the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C), UNICEF, UNFPA and other development partners are calling on all stakeholders — from health workers, traditional initiators or soweis, traditional and religious leaders to policy makers and influencers — to mobilize against this harmful practice.

FGM/C violates the human rights and undermines the health and well-being of some 3 million girls worldwide each year. More than 130 million girls and women in the 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East where the practice is concentrated today have undergone some form of FGM/C and the impact on their lives is enormous.

In Sierra Leone, FGM/C is deeply rooted in the local social norms with over 88% prevalence. However, with the outbreak of the Ebola virus disease in the country, the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs has requested for a temporary ban on the practice in order to mitigate the spread of the disease. Traditional leaders have also developed by-laws in their respective communities to stop Ebola.

“Promising preliminary findings from ongoing assessments have shown that the number of FGM/C cases has reduced in some areas due to these actions and the fear of bodily contamination. It is an excellent opportunity to explore further the reasons for the decline apart from the fear factor and promote open dialogues on the wellbeing of girls and women at community and national levels. We need to continue working together and understand better the social dynamics that have been set in motion as a result of Ebola to ensure that this progress translates into sustainable long term changes in attitudes and behavior ”, said Roeland Monasch, UNICEF Representative in Sierra Leone. “UNICEF will continue to support efforts aimed at eliminating FGM/C including working with the soweiis [the traditional initiators] by engaging them as promoters of the health of girls and women in their communities”.

UNICEF has conducted research studies on the prevalence and factors contributing towards the abandonment of the practice. Based on these findings, UNICEF is supporting the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs (MSWGCA) and other partners to develop a national strategy for the reduction of FGM/C together with an implementation plan. It also takes into account the impact of Ebola on FGM/C and use the momentum to achieve the change in attitude and behaviour. UNICEF is also working with MSWGCA and partners to mobilise soweiis, traditional and religious leaders, women, men and young people to change the social norms and end the practice as change needs to come from within the communities. Breaking the silence and disproving the myths around FGM/C are the first steps along the way to eliminating it altogether.

Similarly, UNFPA also in partnership with the MSWGCA and other partners will continue to engage communities in the promotion of sexual reproductive health and rights of women and

girls through community led advocacy groups for the reduction of FGM/C. UNFPA is working with Ministry of Health and Sanitation to support both Midwifery schools to review the curriculum and integrate FGM/C in the training module of midwives and engage the midwives’ association to be well-positioned in leading efforts to eradicate the medicalization of FGM/C.

“Societies worldwide have abandoned practices that have been found to be harmful and sought alternative methods that are not harmful,” said Dr. Bannet Ndyanabangi, UNFPA Representative in Sierra Leone. “Community, religious and traditional leaders and practitioners need to have a frank conversation about eliminating FGM/C in Sierra Leone. When there is scientific evidence that indicates FGM/C is harmful to girls and women, then the practice needs to evolve. UNFPA will continue to support the ministries, community groups and implementing partners in promoting health rights of girls and women.”

On this International Day, the UN Secretary General, Mr Ban Ki Moon has called upon all people and partners to end FGM/C and create the future we want where every girl can grow up free of violence and discrimination, with full dignity, human rights and equality.

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