Reclaiming African Leadership to end FGM/C

5 February, 2024


Written by Maïmouna Balde Bah, Research Fellow, Population Council Inc, Nairobi, Kenya

Growing up in Guinea, where FGM/C is widespread, dissenting voices against the practice were scarce, and typically originating from “outside”. By exploring the history of the fight against FGM/C, my aim is to inspire African changemakers to reclaim the legacy of past generations. Celebrating past initiatives led by Africans will strengthen their rightful role as leaders in the forefront of continuous endeavors to enable change in their communities and beyond.

The Africa-Led Movement to End Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) is characterized as a diverse network encompassing various stakeholders and activists dedicated to combating violence against women in their communities.[1] In my capacity as a researcher, I contribute to this movement by synthesizing existing knowledge on FGM/C, identifying gaps in knowledge and practice, and\ offering guidance for the implementation of evidence-based initiatives in collaboration with implementers, activists, and policy-makers. In a manner akin to the Griots in pre-colonial African kingdoms, we aspire to amplify the voices and knowledge of all individuals and ensure their contribution is considered towards the realization of a world free from violence against women and girls.

In accordance with this legacy, this reflection seeks to delve into the historical underpinnings of the movement and its significance in the contemporary globalized world, marked by ongoing endeavors to decolonize, reindigenize, and localize global health initiatives. Due to the paucity of historical records concerning anti-FGM/C movements prior to the colonial period, this discussion will focus on campaigns to eradicate this practice that can be traced back to the 20th century.

Although FGM/C is practiced across diverse regions, it remains most closely associated with the African continent, where it is believed to have originated, and where the highest prevalence rates persist to this day.[2] What is less widely recognized, however, is that the initial instances of resistance against FGM/C also emerged from within Africa and were primarily led by Africans. In the 1920s, the Egyptian Society of Physicians (ESP) played a pioneering role in condemning the harmful effects of FGM/C, receiving support from government officials, the media, and religious scholars. [3]

It was not until the 1930s, over three centuries after the initial European colonization of Africa, that FGM/C began to attract the attention of colonial powers. During a 1931 conference on the well-being of African children organized by the Save the Children Fund in Geneva, certain European delegates criticized the passive stance of colonial governments toward what they saw as “barbaric practices and pagan rites”, advocating for the criminalization of FGM/C. [3] This marked the commencement of anti-FGM/C campaigns, with the Church of Scotland initiating campaigns in Kenya, for example.[4] [5]

In a context where most African communities were still resisting the invasion of their territories by colonial nations, accompanied by atrocities and inhumane treatment, these paternalistic campaigns encountered not only resistance, but became central to the struggle for independence in many countries. Consequently, after enacting anti-FGM/C legislation in 1956, the British colonial government later rescinded all resolutions related to FGM in Kenya.

However, this juridic approach did not gain widespread support among European delegates, contributing to limited action until the 1950s and 1960s. In May 1952, FGM/C resurfaced in a resolution from the Economic Council and United Nations Social Committee (ECOSOC) focusing on women’s human rights violations in trust and non-self-governing territories. This resolution called for immediate measures to eliminate customs harming women’s well-being. In 1958, ECOSOC requested the World Health Organization (WHO) to study the persistence of rituals harming girls and measures to end them. Yet, in 1959, the WHO declined, citing the issue’s divergence from its competence/jurisdiction due to social and cultural factors. [5]

Once again, Africans played a pivotal role in the anti-FGM/C Movement as African women reiterated the demand to WHO in 1960 during the UN seminar on women’s involvement in public life in Addis Ababa, and in 1961 through ECOSOC. However, it would not be until the 1970s that the movement to combat FGM/C would truly gain the attention of the international community, within the feminist movement. Framing FGM/C as a reflection of the universal and adverse effects of patriarchy, FGM/C gained prominence at international conferences and national campaigns, with organizations in Africa raising awareness about the issue as part of broader efforts to enhance women’s status. For instance, during Burkina Faso’s inaugural International Women’s Day in 1975, information about the harmful effects of FGM was disseminated through popular media. [6]

Surprisingly, African pioneers faced resistance to change not just within their own communities, but also from the international community,where some “international experts” supported the continuation of FGM/C. In 1975, during the Wellesley Conference on Women and Development, a contentious exchange unfolded between an Egyptian female doctor (who had lost her position due to advocating for FGM abolition) and an American expatriate anthropologist who contended that these procedures were integral to the cultural identity and solidarity of Sierra Leonean women. [7] Furthermore, in 1976, a report commissioned by the WHO to American Dr Robert Cook, characterized clitorectomy (now defined as FGM Type 1) as a method “to counter failure to attain orgasm” for certain women and deliberately omitted its classification as a form of FGM/C. [7]

In 1979, global efforts against FGM/C gained traction with WHO and UN agencies committing to eradicate the practice. The WHO Seminar in Khartoum that year produced pivotal recommendations by nine African and Middle Eastern countries, emphasizing health education and rejecting medicalized FGMto reduce complications by conducting less severe forms of FGM. Later, at a follow-up meeting in 1984, the Dakar conference led to the formation of the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices, present in 29 African countries today.

Further, in the 1990s, women’s rights movements reframed anti-FGM campaigns, spotlighting it as a human rights violation and violence against women. This approach aligns with international instruments like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, CEDAW, and the Banjul Charter.[8]

Three decades later, endeavors to end FGM/C continue, facilitated by various interconnected networks that have arisen within both the African continent and its diasporic communities. Notably, the Africa-Led Movement to end FGM/C, bolstered by the support of the United Kingdom (UK) Government, stands as a prominent example. However, despite notable transformative efforts, the reduction in FGM/C prevalence has been gradual and has occurred in tandem with the concerning emergence of medicalization* in certain nations. In this context, the Africa-Led Movement provides an avenue for the reassertion of indigenous principles in the global campaigns against FGM/C. This could involve harnessing African legal instruments and leveraging the inherent dynamics of African social structures to facilitate sustainable change. Additional efforts are needed from donors, implementors, and activists to invest in Africa-led initiatives and help redefine its contemporary role.

Acknowledgements: I thank Chi-Chi Undie (Population Council Inc.) and Stella Muthuri (Population Council Inc.) for their insightful review and comments to refine this piece.

* “Medicalization” of FGM/C refers to situations in which FGM is practiced by any category of health care provider, whether in a public or a private clinic, at home or elsewhere. It is viewed as a mitigation strategy by some communities (to reduce health risks). This phenomenon is particularly prevalent in Sudan, Egypt, Guinea and Kenya.



[1] Options’ consortium’s definition. This consortium is the Technical Support arm of FCDO’s ‘Supporting Africa-Led Movements to End FGM’ program.

[2] UNICEF global databases, 2022, based on DHS, MICS and other national surveys, 2004-2020.

[3] Berer, M. (2015). The history and role of the criminal law in anti-FGM campaigns: Is the criminal law what is needed, at least in countries like Great Britain? Reproductive Health Matters, 23(46), 145–157. https://doi/10.1016/j.rhm.2015.10.00

[4] Pentcheva, Ralitza (2009). Les mutilations sexuelles féminines sur la scène internationale : vers un discours universaliste?, pp.185. Université du Québec, Montréal

[5] ALDEEB Abu-Sahlieh, Sami A. (2001). Circoncision masculine, circoncision féminine: débat religieux, médical, social et juridique, L’Harmattan, Paris,

[6] Boyle, Elizabeth Heger et Corl, Amelia Cotton. (2010). Law and Culture in a Global Context: Interventions to Eradicate Female Genital Cutting. Annual Review of Law and Social Science. 6(1), 195–215.

[7] Hay, Margaret Jean. (1981). Reviewed Work: The Hosken Report: Genital and Sexual Mutilation of Females by Fran P. Hosken. The International Journal of African Historical Studies, vol. 14(3), 523–526. JSTOR,

[8] Shell-Duncan, Bettina. (2008). From Health to Human Rights: Female Genital Cutting and the Politics of Intervention. American Anthropologist 110( 2), 225-36.