Accelerating the Eradication of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting in Eritrea

2014 A child portrayed by her home holding her sibling in the town of Hagaz.

By Samuel Isaac

The practice of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) in Eritrea has been declining since initial data were collected in 1995. The percentage of girls and women who have undergone FGM/C declined from 95 percent in 1995 to 89 percent in 2002 and 83 percent in 2010.[1] In fact, 83 percent (the data point from 2010) might hide even greater recent progress, since the respondents who answered positively – women between 15 and 49 years old – would have been cut as young girls, several years before 2010.

In Eritrea’s case, where cutting is traditionally performed when girls are younger than 5 years old (only 15 percent were cut at age 5 or later, according to the 2010 survey), the best measure of the current trend is the rate that reflects the incidence of FGM/C in under-15 and under-5 girls.[2] Using this measure, 33 percent of under-15 and 12 percent of under-5 girls have undergone FGM/C, as of 2010.[3] In addition, data collected in 2014, which mapped the status of FGM/C in 112 villages, indicated a further reduction in the prevalence of the practice: only 18 percent of girls under 15 had been circumcised and only 7 percent of girls under 5 years old.[4] These results reinforce that the prevalence of FGM/C in the younger generation is continuing to decline.

However, the change in the practical cessation of FGM/C remains disproportionately slow when compared to the progressive change in the knowledge and attitude of Eritreans on the practice itself. For example, despite the dropping numbers of women and men who believe that FGM/C should continue (for women, 57 percent in 1995, 49 percent in 2002, and 12 percent in 2010; and for men, similar drops with only about 10 percent in 2010), cutting declined only 6 percent in each of the above mentioned surveys.[5] Why is it that the practice of FGM/C continues despite the positive attitudinal change?

Change in knowledge and attitude alone is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the total abandonment of FGM/C. FGM/C is influenced by societal norms. In order to bring an end to the practice, communities need to initiate a process of positive social change and develop an attitudinal shift that favors girls and women who were not cut. Moreover, because social convention theory tells us that community members make decisions interpedently rather than develop preferences based on individual beliefs, progress can be made through public denouncements of FGM/C and community decisions to ensure girls are not cut.[6]

Measuring real change in the practice of FGM/C might be challenging due to interview biases that tend to result from Demographic and Health Surveys and/or Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS). In both such cases, mothers may or may not report the truth about whether their daughters are circumcised, fearing legal repercussions or guilt (especially considering the wealth of knowledge on the harmfulness of the practice). Therefore, how reliable is DHS/MICS data? A pilot clinical assessment program was undertaken in one regional administration that actually confirmed the progress mentioned above. The results showed 25.6 percent of under-five girls in 2008 were found to have been cut, 4.13 percent in 2012, and 2.1 percent in 2015 respectively. However, the ethicality of these clinical assessments still remains controversial because they necessitate physical assessments of girls – by itself, a violation of the privacy and right of the child.[7] But these numbers do show significant progress has been made. What must Eritrea do to completely abandon FGM/C?

Given recent statistics and the adoption of a law in 2007 banning the practice,[8] Eritrea is at a critical turning point. However, to meet the Sustainable Development Goal 5 of eradicating FGM/C completely by 2030, the country needs to intensify its efforts. Three critical pillars for this transformation are the following:

  1. Enforce policy and legal frameworks: Eritrea promulgated a law that bans FGM/C in 2007. Eritrea has also ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which both promote the abandonment of FGM/C.
  1. Provide quality services for protection, prevention, and care: Integrate the prevention and abandonment of FGM/C with reproductive health, gender and child protection programs.
  1. Promote community mobilization: Create opportunities for public declarations of collective commitments to abandon FGM/C with the goal of changing the norm from “cut” to “intact” girls.

[1] National Statistics Office (NSO) [Eritrea] and Fafo AIS [Norway], Eritrea Population and Health Survey 2010, Asmara, Eritrea: National Statistics Office and Fafo Institute for Applied International Studies, 2013, 345.

[2] Ibid., 348.

[3] Ibid., 354.

[4] UNICEF and Eritrean Ministry of Health, Unpublished Report, 2014.

[5] NSO and Fafo, Eritrea Population and Health Survey 2010, 363.

[6] Cristina Bicchieri, The Grammar of Society: The Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms, Cambridge University Press, 2006.

[7] Article16 of CRC: No child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his or her honour and reputation.

[8] Proclamation 158/2007, A Proclamation to Abolish Female Circumcision [Eritrea], No. 158/2007, March 20, 2007,

Samuel Isaac is a 2016 G. Barrie Landry Fellow at the Harvard FXB Center, where he is pursuing a certificate in child protection through the Harvard-UNICEF Child Protection Certificate Program.

Photo courtesy UNICEF Eritrea