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Daughters of Somalia, a continuous pledge to end female genital mutilation

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Girls participate in an event at their school in Garowe, Puntland, during which Y-PEER explains the harmful effects of FGM. UNFPA Somalia/Tobin Jones

In Somalia, over 90 per cent or more of girls and women, have been subjected to female genital mutilation, or FGM. Despite the practice having devastating health ramifications for women and girls – including pain, bleeding, permanent disability and even death – discussion over how to end the harmful tradition, remains taboo.

The United Nations has called for collaboration at all levels, and across all sectors of society across the world, to protect millions at risk from FGM every year.

As the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation is marked on 6 February, the UN sexual and reproductive health agency, UNFPA, continues to lead the UN effort to end FGM.

Dear Daughters

Last fall, and in collaboration with the Ifrah Foundation, the UN agency launched the Dear Daughter campaign, as part of the effort to end FGM once and for all. The idea is to get individual parents not to cut their daughters. Through letter-writing, they pledge instead, to protect them, and support their right to govern their own bodies.

‘Dear Daughter’ works towards ending FGM in Somalia, which has one of the highest prevalence rates of the practice in the world. To date, 100 Somali mothers have signed the pledge.

By targeting rural and urban individuals and communities, that are making an extraordinary commitment, to change the FGM narrative. For Nkiru I. Igbokwe, gender-based violence specialist at UNFPA in Somalia, it is “accelerating the voices of women and men alike, to end FGM in the country”.

As part of the campaign, women living in an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp on the outskirts of the capital Mogadishu – home to 280 households that fled Danunay village nearly 250 kilometres away, due to insurgent violence – have been learning about the harmful effects of FGM.

Halima*, 50, a mother of five daughters and five sons, was among them. As a camp gatekeeper and a community member with influence, she was identified as someone who could advocate to help end the harmful practice that she and her first daughter had also endured.

Flashbacks

Like so many other women in her community, Halima underwent FGM as a child, subjecting her to lifelong health problems.

“The procedure was painful, with no anesthesia. I bled for days,” she recalled. “I was in bed for more than three months and urinating was a problem”.

When Halima reached adolescence, passing menstrual blood was also difficult, and as a newlywed, sex with her husband was a painful experience. When she became an expectant mother, childbirth was excruciating with labour lasting for days, putting her life at risk.

Despite her suffering, Halima allowed her first daughter to be cut, just like her mother had done.

‘She felt the pain’

“My daughter underwent the Sunna type of FGM (removal of part or all of the clitoris), and she felt the pain I have been through,” Halima said. But because it was not the more severe ‘pharaonic’ procedure (stitching the opening closed), people insulted them, she said, saying her daughter was unclean. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) is opposed to all types of FGM and is opposed to health care providers performing FGM.

“Throughout the training course, I had flashback memories of how the practice has badly impacted my life,” she said. 

Three years ago, a young girl in the same camp died as a result of FGM, and Halima started galvanizing the community, to try and make sure the tragedy is never repeated.

Changing the future for Somali girls

The Ifrah Foundation, together with the Global Media Campaign to End FGM, distributed UNFPA-supplied radio transmitters to 100 households so residents could listen to awareness campaigns and information.

“It has been a long-standing dream of mine to work to save girls from the unnecessary pain and suffering I endured as a result of FGM,” said survivor Ifrah Ahmed, founder of the foundation that bears her name. “Halima is an example of how we can change the future for all Somali girls”, she added.

Halima’s advocacy has expanded beyond FGM. She encourages pregnant and lactating mothers to visit health centres and raises awareness over sexual and gender-based violence.

She also notes that community members used to stay silent about rape due to fear of stigmatization, but now they seek help.

According to UNFPA, because of her leadership, almost 100 mothers have pledged not to practice female genital mutilation, sparing about 200 girls in the settlement.

“I don’t want my other daughters and other young girls to go through the pain we have gone through,” Halima said.

The numbers across the world

According to WHO, more than 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone FGM in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, where FGM is practiced.

Only in Somalia, based on the 2020 Somali Health and Demographic Survey, 99 per cent of women aged 15 to 49 in Somalia, have been subjected to FGM, the majority between ages five and nine. The survey also reports that 72 per cent of women believe it is an Islamic requirement, though some religious leaders have said Islam actually condemns it.

In 2020, UNFPA provided 52,225 Somali women and girls protection, prevention or care services related to female genital mutilation. While there is no national legislation outlawing the practice, Puntland state passed a FGM Zero Tolerance Bill last year. 

This year, WHO will launch a training manual on person-centered communication, a counselling approach that encourages health care providers to challenge their FGM-related attitudes, and build their communication skills to effectively provide FGM prevention counselling.

COVID-19 challenges

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the risk of female genital mutilation continuing unfettered, with the UN predicting than an additional two million girls will be victimized in the next ten years.

Prolonged school closures have provided cover for girls recovering from FGM. In addition, movement restrictions have prevented campaigners against FGM from accessing some villages.

In 2018, it was estimated by UNFPA that globally 68 million girls were at risk; now the figure stands at 70 million.

*The name in the story has been changed for privacy and protection.

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Zimbabwean peacekeeper selected as UN Military Gender Advocate of the Year 2021 Award

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Following reports of sexual and gender-based violence against women collecting firewood in Rubkona, South Sudan, Captain Irene Wilson Muro and and Major Winnet Zharare (2nd from the right) reached out to local women to discuss ways to stem the abuse. Photo: UNMISS

A Zimbabwean peacekeeper who recently completed her assignment with the UN Mission in South Sudan, will receive the 2021 United Nations Military Gender Advocate of the Year Award. 

Military Observer Major Winnet Zharare, 39, served in Bentiu, South Sudan in 2021-2022, and will receive the award from the Secretary-General António Guterres during a ceremony marking the International Day of UN Peacekeepers on Thursday, 26 May 2022.

Created in 2016, the United Nations “Military Gender Advocate of the Year Award” recognizes the dedication and efforts of an individual military peacekeeper in promoting the principles of UN Security Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, as nominated by Heads and Force Commanders of UN peace operations.

Secretary-General António Guterres commended Major Winnet for her award. “Major Zharare is a role model and a trailblazer. Through her service, she has demonstrated the invaluable role that women play in building trust, advocating for change and forging peace,” he said. “Her example shows how we will all gain with more women at the decision-making table and gender parity in peace operations,” Mr. Guterres added. 

Major Zharare expressed her gratitude and pride in receiving  the award which, she said, “motivated [her] to maintain [her] course towards gender equality.”

“My parents gave us equal opportunities with my brothers, so I believe that equal opportunities should be given to both men and women in all aspects of life,” she added.

Major Winnet Zharare deployed to UNMISS in November 2020. Throughout her 17-month-long service, she advocated for gender parity and women’s participation, within her own ranks, among local military counterparts, and in host communities.

As the Chief Military Information Officer in UNMISS’  Bentiu field office, she helped ensure that patrols included both women and men to improve protection efforts as well as build trust between host communities and the Mission. Her efforts also contributed to an increase in  gender-aggregated data so that issues raised by local women and girls would gain appropriate attention.

Advocating for gender parity and womens’ participation in an environment where they are traditionally excluded from decision-making, she encouraged local civilian and military authorities and community representatives to involve both men and women in meetings with the UN. Her diligence and diplomatic skills quickly gained her the trust of local military commanders who would systematically reach out to her on issues pertaining to women’s protection and rights. During her patrols and numerous community engagement initiatives, Major Zharare also successfully encouraged men and women to work together in farming and in the construction of dikes around Bentiu town to alleviate food shortages and prevent further displacement.

Major Zharare is the first Zimbabwean peacekeeper to receive this prestigious award.

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‘New dawn’ for Europe as War in Ukraine Strengthens EU and Support for Enlargement

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The European Union surprised the world, and even itself, with the speed, scale and unity of its response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This “new” Europe is ready to project both soft and hard power on the world stage, European leaders told participants at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2022.

Christine Lagarde, President, European Central Bank, on the panel at the session, European Unity in a Disordered World?, said the Ukraine war has revealed how powerful Europe is collectively: “This is a new dawn for Europe.”

The war on Ukraine has also revealed weaknesses – including global supply chain vulnerabilities and over-reliance on Russian energy, she said, but Europe is addressing this and can begin to flex its muscles on the global stage. “Europe has untapped purchasing power, trading power, technology power, pension power and moral power.”

Roberta Metsola, President of the European Parliament, reinforced the point. “This is Europe’s moment,” she said. “Europe can become the global project for peace.”

Mistakes of the past will be rectified, she said. “For way too long we did not seriously consider an energy union where we can rely on each other rather than on a country that can switch us off at any time.”

Referring to the EU’s support and defence of Ukraine, she was emphatic: “This is not the time to talk about face-saving for Russia or appeasement.”

Eduard Heger, Prime Minister of Slovakia, also on the panel, said: “If Ukraine falls to Russian aggression, Slovakia is next.” He added that we must continue to provide military support as well as step up humanitarian aid. “Above all we need to give Ukrainians hope.”

“Let’s not compromise – we must remain faithful to the values of the EU – freedom, rule of law, human dignity and equal rights.”

Micheál Martin, Taoiseach of Ireland, said of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: “The people of Europe have spoken. Enough is enough.” In response there is much stronger unanimity between member states and more support than ever to accept the accession of new members.

He continued: “We see the EU’s future in terms of the green economy and in terms of the digitalization but also in terms of enlargement.”

Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherlands, called on European member states to continue to raise their defence spending. “The NATO alliance members are inseparable, but Europe must play its part,” he said. “This will help transform Europe from a soft power to a hard power.”

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Geopolitical Crises Forcing Leaders to Face up to Difficult New Realities

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Poland’s President Andrzej Duda delivered a harsh rebuke to Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, pledging “100% support” for President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and calling for Moscow to pay reparations to Kyiv. “I simply cannot accept that Russia can violate international law with impunity.”

Russian aggression against Ukraine has revived unity within the West and highlighted for many Western nations the importance of democratic values. Finland and Sweden, notably, have set aside their longstanding policies of neutrality and applied to join NATO. “We are in a totally new situation and have to wake up to that,” said Pekka Haavisto, Finland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, noting that the collapse of the post-war European security architecture, as well as Russia’s increased appetite for risk, were among the major factors prompting Finland to apply for membership.

Haavisto said that in this “grey time” between the Nordic country’s application to join the alliance and its potential full accession, when it will enjoy mutual security protection under Article 5 of the NATO charter, NATO members have given Finland and Sweden assurances that they will guarantee security. Asked about Turkey’s stated objection to extension of membership to Finland and Sweden, he expressed confidence that Helsinki can address concerns.

Alarmed by an increasingly competitive geopolitical landscape marked by mounting frictions between the United States and China, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Saudi Arabia, emphasized the need for cooperation.

“If we learned anything from COVID, it is that we need to focus on cooperation and I think we need to continue to look towards avenues to foster that cooperation. Even when there is difference, when there’s competition, we need to find mechanisms to talk to each other.” He noted that Saudi Arabia, which values both its extensive trade relationship with China and its national security relationship with the US, is well-positioned to facilitate dialogue between the world’s leading powers.

Prince Faisal’s remarks were echoed by Pakistan’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Hina Rabbani Khar, who commented on the “binary choice” that countries with close ties to both China and the US are increasingly asked to make. “We are typically asked this question all the time: Who do you choose? It shows how far we have fallen as a global community,” she said. This is particularly difficult, she noted, for a country like Pakistan, which is already in fiscal crisis and now faces “the superimposition of a food security crisis”.

Gregory W. Meeks, Democratic Congressman from New York’s 6th District and Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign, praised the bipartisan support for a recent Senate bill pledging $40 billion in humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine, as well as the broad international support that Ukraine has received.

He also focused on the potential food crisis, emphasizing the need to break the blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports so Ukrainian grain can be delivered to the many countries that depend on it. “You got to open [the port of Odessa] up because that’s not been just limited to what’s happening in Ukraine; this threatens the entire world.”

Madrid is host to next month’s NATO summit and Spain’s Foreign Minister, José Manuel Albares Bueno, praised the alliance’s response to Russian aggression in Ukraine. But he emphasized the threat that the looming food crisis, if left unresolved, could pose to Europe. Noting that the Sahel – the region of North Africa bordering the Sahara – is not only already deeply food-insecure, he warned that rising cereal prices could set off a potentially destabilizing northward migration. “Unity is our best defence.”

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