Salamatu Jalloh was just thirteen, her life a budding promise of potential. Yet in January 2023, her story ended tragically, her lifeless body discovered wrapped in a pink and blue shroud on the earthen floor of a remote village in north-west Sierra Leone.

Salamatu’s death, alongside those of two other girls, was the result of a secret Bondo society initiation into womanhood. What began with anticipation and community celebration concealed a violent reality: the brutal cutting and removal of their external genitalia. Their deaths have cast a stark light on this harrowing practice, as reported by UNICEF.

Globally, 230 million girls and women have endured female genital mutilation (FGM), living with its devastating consequences. Despite ongoing campaigns to end this form of violence, the number of affected women and girls has increased by 30 million over the past eight years, with most cases occurring in African countries, which account for 144 million instances.

The Persistence of FGM

While some countries make progress in reducing the practice, others face setbacks due to changing ideologies and the impacts of instability and conflict. UNICEF estimates that the rate of decline must accelerate by 27 times to eradicate FGM by 2030.

To end FGM, we must first understand its evolving trends. A concerning trend is the conservative backlash, as seen in The Gambia, where religious leaders have called for the repeal of a 2015 ban on FGM following the conviction of three women for mutilating eight infant girls.

The “medicalisation” of FGM is another troubling trend, with more procedures performed by healthcare professionals. This false sense of safety legitimises the practice, increasing its prevalence in clinics, homes, and other settings.

The World Health Organization warns that such actions could encourage other countries to neglect their duty to protect girls’ rights.

The reasons behind FGM are deeply rooted in cultural and religious beliefs. Supporters claim it ensures cleanliness, marriage prospects, virginity, and family honour while preventing promiscuity and improving fertility. However, FGM has no health benefits and causes significant harm, including immediate risks like shock, haemorrhage, and infection, and long-term consequences such as maternal morbidity, infertility, and psychological trauma.

In countries like Somalia, Guinea, and Djibouti, the prevalence of FGM remains alarmingly high, with nearly universal practice. Conversely, Kenya has seen remarkable progress over the past fifty years, though the Somali community in its north-eastern province remains largely unchanged.

Conflict and fragility in countries like Somalia, Sudan, and Ethiopia exacerbate the challenge of eliminating FGM. In Ethiopia, progress is hindered by climate shocks, disease, and food insecurity, underscoring the fragile nature of these gains.

In regions where FGM is banned, the practice often goes underground, with procedures performed on younger girls to evade detection. This makes tracking accurate rates of FGM challenging. Moreover, some communities shift to “less severe” forms, like sunnah, which involves the removal of the clitoris but is still deeply harmful.

Conflict and climate change deepen poverty and displacement, eroding girls’ rights. In such dire circumstances, families may resort to commodifying daughters through marriage practices, where FGM becomes a marker of purity and a prerequisite for marriage.

To eliminate this horrific abuse, we must accelerate our efforts and deepen our understanding of these shifting trends. Only then can we honour the memory of Salamatu Jalloh and countless others by ensuring that future generations of girls can live free from the shadows of such traditions.

For further information on FGM see:

  1. World Health Organization (WHO)
    The WHO provides comprehensive information on the health risks, prevalence, and efforts to eliminate FGM globally.
    WHO – Female Genital Mutilation
    UNICEF offers detailed reports, statistics, and initiatives focused on the protection of children against FGM.
    UNICEF – Female Genital Mutilation
  1. United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)
    UNFPA works on the ground in many countries to combat FGM and supports survivors.
    UNFPA – Female Genital Mutilation
  1. 28 Too Many
    This charity focuses on research and education to end FGM in African countries, providing country-specific data and reports.
    28 Too Many
  1. Equality Now
    An international human rights organization that campaigns for legal and policy changes to end FGM and other harmful practices.
    Equality Now – End FGM
  1. The Guardian Global Development
    The Guardian’s Global Development section regularly features articles and reports on FGM and other related issues.
    The Guardian – Female Genital Mutilation
  1. Human Rights Watch (HRW)
    HRW provides reports and advocacy resources focused on the human rights implications of FGM.
    Human Rights Watch – Female Genital Mutilation
  1. National Health Service (NHS) – UK
    The NHS provides information on the health impacts of FGM and resources available in the UK for those affected.
    [NHS – Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)
  1. End FGM European Network
    This network connects organizations across Europe to share resources, strategies, and support for ending FGM.
    End FGM European Network

These sources offer a wealth of information, from statistical data and health implications to legal frameworks and support initiatives, all aimed at understanding and combating FGM globally.