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This is the story of four extraordinary young women. It’s easy to slip into hyperbole when writing an editorial like this, but “extraordinary” is the appropriate description. Occasionally you come across people who make a lasting impression on you, and that was the case with OYE scholars Neris, Rosa, Sandra, and Oriel during my three-week visit to the Organization for Youth Empowerment in El Progreso, Honduras.

Neris’ diminutive physical size (well under 5′) and infectious laugh belie her personal intensity and her desire to complete her education. Often in my travels, I see some pretty tragic circumstances. Neris, however, has a positive family environment and lives in one of the most beautiful areas that I’ve ever seen. Campo Monterrey is deep in the plantation region of Honduras. We drove an hour and a half through miles of banana, sugarcane, and palms (used to make palm oil) to her family’s modest home…

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Posted by on June 26, 2012 in Uncategorized


The Perils of Tradition: Female Genital Mutilation

It was Halima Bashir’s poignant memoir ‘Tears of the Desert’ that first intrigued me about this brutal rite of passage. She describes in disturbing detail the traumatic ritual she was subjected to at the early age of eight – not by some stranger, but by her own grandmother. ‘The pain was so great I will never forget it’, she says. In her grandmother’s hut, Halima was pinned down by women while one of them cut away all external genitalia with a razor blade, stitching the area closed afterwards to leave only a small hole for menstrual blood and urine. There was no anesthetic.

What is FGM?

Female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as ‘female genital cutting’ (FGC) or ‘female circumcision’ refers to all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. The practice is extremely painful and has serious immediate and long-term health consequences.

The World Health Organization has classified FGM into four different types:

  1. Cliteridectomy: the partial or total removal of the clitoris;
  2. Excision: the partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora;
  3. Infibulation: narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal by cutting and repositioning the labia minora and/or the labia majora, with or without excision of the clitoris. Also known as pharaonic circumcision, it is the most severe form of FGM;
  4. Other: all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes including piercing, incising, pricking, scraping and cauterizing the genital area.

The procedure usually takes place in the girl’s home, or the home of a neighbor or relative. It is often performed by traditional practitioners such as midwives or barbers. The girl undergoing the procedure is held down, usually by older women. Genital mutilation may be carried out using a razor blade, a knife, scissors, broken glass, a tin lid or some other cutting instrument. When infibulation takes place, thorns or stitches may be used to hold the two sides of the labia majora together and the legs may be bound together for up to forty days. Usually no steps are taken to reduce the pain.

FGM gravely violates the basic human rights of girls and women including the right to health, the right to protection from inhuman practices and torture, the right to physical integrity, the right to security and protection from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury, abuse or maltreatment, as well as the right to life when the procedure results in death. FGM constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women and is a violation of the rights of children.

“Usually it is a gruesome ordeal with a lot of crying from the girl, and even with the child’s screams no one does anything about it and her screams are ignored”.

Who is affected?

The procedure is carried out at a variety of ages, but most commonly occurs between the ages of 4 and 8. In Africa, 3 million girls are at risk of FGM each year. Between 100 and 140 million girls and women worldwide are living with the consequences of FGM. In Africa, about 92 million girls age 10 years and above are estimated to have undergone FGM.

FGM is practiced extensively in Africa and is common in some countries in the Middle East and Asia. With increased immigration, FGM has become a global problem as it has spread to Europe, Australia and North America.

Percentage of women 15-49 years old who have been cut

Percentage of women 15-49 years old who have been cut

 Source: UNICEF global databases, 2011. Based on DHS, MICS and other national surveys, 1997-2010

Percentage of women 15-49 years old who have been cut and the percentage of women 15-49 years old with at least one daughter circumcised, in selected countries with available data

 Source: UNICEF global databases, 2011. Based on DHS, MICS and other national surveys, 1997-2010

Why is FGM practiced?

FGM predates most modern religions, including Islam and Christianity, but has acquired a religious dimension. It is endorsed by the community and supported by loving parents with what is believed to be the best interests of the girl.

The practice is deeply embedded in the social norms of the community and there is immense social pressure on all young girls to conform. A girl who does not undergo FGM is likely to be severely penalized by her community, and is often despised, taunted, ostracized and made the target of ridicule.

FGM-practicing communities view the rite as normal and wrongly justify it under the guise of:

  • Custom and tradition;
  • Preservation of virginity and chastity;
  • Curtailing the woman’s sexuality and preventing her from being oversexed;
  • Enhancing the girl’s feminity, often synonymous with docility and obedience;
  • Social acceptance, especially for marriage;
  • Family honor;
  • Enhancing fertility;
  • Increasing the man’s sexual pleasure;
  • Hygiene, aesthetics, purification, cleanliness and health;
  • Religion.

It is important to note that many FGM-practicing groups come from patriarchal societies, where a woman’s access to land and resources is exclusively through her husband. In order for a woman to be eligible for marriage it is essential that she is a virgin. The association between virginity and FGM is so strong, that a girl who has not undergone the procedure has virtually no chance of marriage, hence her main means of survival and access to resources will be denied her.

While the practice of FGM remains in the female sphere and women are commonly considered the perpetrators of the practice, the underlying role of men cannot be over emphasized. FGM is universally recognized as a traditional custom resulting from male-dominated societies and the subsequent powerlessness of women. It is a deeply rooted tradition which serves as a complex form of social control of women’s sexual and reproductive rights.

Physical consequences

FGM is a cruel and harmful practice which interferes with the ordinary functions of girls’ and women’s bodies. The practice is such a powerful social norm that families have their daughters cut even when they are aware of the harm it can cause.

Immediate health complications may include:

  • severe pain and shock;
  • excessive bleeding;
  • infection, including HIV and Hepatitis B and C;
  • urine retention;
  • open sores in the genital region and injury to adjacent tissues;
  • death.

Long-term consequences may include:

  • chronic pain
  • chronic vaginal and pelvic infections;
  • recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections;
  • cysts and abscesses;
  • menstruation difficulties;
  • damage to the reproductive system, including infertility;
  • kidney damage;
  • sexual dysfunction;
  • pain during sex and lack of pleasurable sensation;
  • increased risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases;
  • the need for later surgeries. For example, when infibulation occurred, the vaginal opening has to be cut open later to allow for sexual intercourse and childbirth. Sometimes it is stitched again several times, including after childbirth, hence the woman goes through repeated opening and closing procedures, further increasing both immediate and long-term health risks.

Psychological consequences

Case histories and personal accounts taken from women indicate that FGM is an extremely traumatic experience for women and girls, which stays with them for the rest of their lives. Young women receiving psychological counseling report feelings of betrayal by parents, incompleteness, regret and anger. Research shows that women who have undergone FGM have the same levels of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as adults who have been subjected to early childhood abuse, and that 80 per cent of the women suffer from mood and anxiety disorders. A number of emotional problems have been reported, including:

  • a sense of loss, including loss of sexual pleasure;
  • lack of sexual desire;
  • depression;
  • anxiety;
  • long-lasting painful memories of being circumcised, including panic attacks;
  • ongoing resentment and bitterness towards family members responsible for FGM;
  • flashbacks during pregnancy and childbirth.

How to end FGM

While the practice has persisted for over a thousand years, evidence shows that FGM can end in one generation. Considered a sensitive issue, it has been widely viewed as a private act by individuals and family members rather than state actors. But the health and psychological consequences of the practice, as well as its underlying causes, make it imperative for societies, governments and the entire international community to take action towards ending FGM.

Education of both boys and girls is a powerful tool and a major step towards eradicating this horrendous custom. Though outlawing FGM may not immediately end the practice, implementing and applying laws against it would certainly deter at least some parents from performing this harmful and dangerous ritual on their daughters. Awareness campaigns are also essential in educating the parents and the community about the disastrous long term consequences on the girls’ physical and mental health.

Overall, the prevalence of FGM has declined. Steps have been taken at international level to end this brutal practice and many countries have enforced laws against FGM. In most industrialized countries, FGM is forbidden. Sadly, the ritual is still practiced extensively in some countries in Africa and the Middle East. In countries where FGM is forbidden by law, it is sometimes carried out behind closed doors or abroad.

‘I now understand this should never have been done to me. I realize my mum and grandma are poor people with simple beliefs, who inherited the custom from previous generations, but sometimes I blame them. They should have thought for themselves. I have lost something – a loss of womanhood – for you have no sensitivity left.’ (Halima Bashir)



FORWARD (2009) FGM is always with us: Experiences, Perceptions and Beliefs of Women Affected by Female Genital Mutilation in London: Results from a PEER Study

UNICEF 2011 State of the World’s Children

WHO (2000), ‘Female Genital Mutilation’, Fact Sheet No. 241.

United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child

UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women

African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child

UN General Assembly resolution 56/128 on Traditional or Customary Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Girls

African Union Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa (2003)

WHO, UNICEF and UNFPA (1997), Female Genital Mutilation: A joint statement, World Health Organization, Geneva


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Hungry for Education. Let Afghan Girls Go to School!

In a country where adult literacy is as low as 28 per cent, education for both girls and boys should be seen as a major priority to ensuring a better future for the Afghan nation. The reality, however, is different. Despite formal efforts to build schools and educate women and girls, extremists constantly terrorize children, especially girls, out of going to school. The Taliban has recently closed down about 50 schools in Southeastern Afghanistan in response to an Afghan government decision to ban motorcycles in the southern districts of Ghazni province.

Over the past few years, the Taliban has shuttered or suspended dozens of schools — particularly those attended by girls — in restive parts of the country. Moreover, in 2008 alone, there were 256 violent attacks on schools, resulting in 58 dead and 46 injured. In 2007, arsonists were to blame for a total of 236 school incidents. In 2009, the number of school incidents escalated to a staggering 613. Violence on students have prevented close to 5 million Afghan children from attending school in year 2010.

But the first obstacle for Afghan girls’ education is cultural barriers. The root of the problem lies in a broad and persistent aversion to girls’ education among some segments of Afghanistan’s ethnic Pashtuns, the same ethnic group as the vast majority of the Taliban. The Pashtuns represent Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, comprising 42 percent of the country’s population. In Pashtun culture, a woman’s place is in the home. Insurgency groups have been responsible for numerous attacks on female education, including poisoning, acid attacks on girls going to school, as well as attacks on educational institutions and teachers.

Despite the challenges and threats, Afghan girls are hungrier than ever for education.

At the start of the school year in March, Afghan Education Minister Ghulam Farooq Wardak said there were 8.4 million children attending school in the country, 39 per cent of them girls.

“We are a country destroyed by war. People value boys’ education more than girls. But as human beings we all have the right to go to school. Families must change their attitudes. They must do the right thing – girls have the right to study and learn as boys do. And girls are even more important for the future of Afghanistan. It is us girls who will care for the home and country”, says Nafeesa Ghyasi, 56, principal of Hashim-e Barat High School for Girls, Mazar-e-Sharif, northern Afghanistan.


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The Worst Kind of Poverty

“We think sometimes that poverty is only
being hungry, naked and homeless.
The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and
uncared for is the greatest poverty.
We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.”

*** Mother Teresa

Of all types of child maltreatment, child neglect is the most common. Yet it frequently goes unreported and, historically, has been given less attention than abuse. While abuse often leaves visible bruises and scars, the signs of neglect tend to be less obvious, making it more difficult to detect. Nonetheless, the effects of child neglect can be just as harmful to a child’s health and development. In fact, some studies have shown that neglect may be more detrimental to children’s early brain development than physical or sexual abuse. Moreover, the majority of attachment problems are likely due to parental ignorance about development rather than abuse.

Child Maltreatment 2010









Source: Child Maltreatment 2010. United States Dept. of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families.
Available online at:

Definition and types of neglect

Researcher Dee Wilson defines neglect as “the behavior of a parent or caregiver when he or she fails or refuses to provide basic, necessary care for a child’s safety, health or well-being, such as medical or physical care, nurturance, protection, etc.”

While neglect may be harder to define or to detect than other forms of child maltreatment, child welfare experts have created common categories of neglect, including:

  • Physical neglect – failure to provide basic needs of food, clothing, shelter or adequate hygiene.
  • Medical neglect – denial or delay in seeking needed health care for a child although financially able to do so.
  • Emotional/psychological neglect – includes failure to provide adequate affection, nurturing or care; exposure to chronic or extreme domestic violence or spouse abuse or to inappropriate adults, such as witnessing drug use or inappropriate sexuality; permission to use alcohol or drugs; rejection; verbal assault; isolation; abandonment. Typically, emotional neglect is more difficult to assess than other types of neglect, but is thought to have more severe and long-lasting consequences than physical neglect. It often occurs with other forms of neglect or abuse, which may be easier to identify.
  • Inadequate supervision – failure to provide responsible and appropriate care to a child; leaving a child in unsafe situations or with an inappropriate caregiver such as a young child, a known child abuser or a person with a substance abuse problem; exposure to hazards such as poisons, electrical wires, stairs, exposure to smoking, guns and other weapons; unsanitary household conditions.
  • Educational neglect – allowing a child to engage in chronic truancy; failure to homeschool or to register a child of mandatory school age; refusal of recommended special education services.

Signs of neglect

Neglect can be an individual event or it can be chronic. While physical abuse and sexual abuse may occur episodically or as a single event, child neglect tends to be an ongoing pattern of inadequate or age inappropriate care. That is why neglect should not be regarded just as a single event.

Below is a list of common indicators of neglect, which are likely to be visible in the appearance or behavior of a neglected child:

  • Soiled clothing or clothing that is significantly too small or large;
  • Unattended diaper rashes or skin abrasions;
  • Headbanging or rocking for stimulation;
  • Consistent lack of supervision;
  • Poor hygiene;
  • Poor dental hygiene, decaying teeth;
  • Unattended medical conditions;
  • Fearfulness, anxiousness;
  • Inability to be comfortable;
  • Detachment, poor eye contact;
  • Speech difficulties and delays;
  • Signs of malnutrition (child is chronically hungry, has a bloated stomach);
  • Demands constant attention and affection;
  • Not attending school;
  • Not enrolled in school;
  • Lack of parental participation and interest;
  • Difficulty in generating play or socializing with others.

Consequences of child neglect

Pregnancy and the first three years of life are the most active periods of brain development in our lives. This is the time when the human brain develops to 90 percent of adult size and puts in place the majority of systems and structures that will be responsible for all future emotional, behavioral, social and physiological functioning during the rest of life. Research has demonstrated that neglect during infancy, including nutritional deficits during pregnancy, can impact a child’s development of brain capacity and size, as well as his ability to develop intimate and emotionally healthy relationships.

Children experiencing emotional neglect are likely to have delays in motor, language, cognitive and social development. Emotional neglect can lead to the child’s poor self-image, depression, alcohol or drug abuse, destructive behavior, criminal behavior and even suicide. Aggression, cruelty and lack of empathy are other major problems with neglected children, whose ability to emotionally ‘understand’ the impact of their behavior on others is impaired. Indeed, they will often feel compelled to hurt others – siblings, smaller children, animals – without showing remorse when confronted about their behaviors. Children emulate adult behavior – a neglected child will learn that this is the ‘right’ way to interact with others, which may cause problems in his future social interactions.

Preventing child neglect

The majority of neglect is due to ignorance and chaos in the caregiver’s life. All too often, parents are overwhelmed with an array of stressors, including financial insecurity, limited parenting skills, single parenthood, substance abuse, depression, interpersonal violence. The parents of neglected children are not necessarily poor. They may equally be financially well-off.

We have the collective responsibility to promote healthy families and loving, responsible individuals, thereby preventing neglect. We must promote public education and services that prevent child neglect. We can accomplish this by:

  • Increasing services to families such as parent education, early childhood education, providing emotional support, knowledge and guidance on how to be a good parent;
  • Providing mental health support to emotionally and depressed parents, who possibly experienced neglect whey they themselves were children;
  • Increasing efforts to address social problems such as domestic violence, substance abuse and poverty, which are related to child neglect;
  • Increasing public awareness and public education about the serious consequences of child neglect and the ways to prevent it.

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SOS Famine

SOS Famine is a wonderfully ambitious project encouraging children across the world to share their ideas and develop a sense of their own responsibility in ending the world hunger. The project uses text, images and footage created along with the children during workshops to create a real connection between children from very different parts of the world, living a very different lifestyle.

sosfamine logoA former business manager, traveler and adventurer, Alain Jens, the project’s initiator, is a firm believer in the powerful potential of our younger generations to build a better tomorrow, with fewer injustices. This is enough motivation for him to embark on this solo road trip around the world to meet the children and make them rediscover the true meaning of sharing, the respect for people and the environment.

The project works in schools and along teachers. The project’s website – – provides the platform for interaction between children from the schools around the world. Each class has a dedicated page where children can share their thoughts, ideas, projects and promises to build a hunger-free world.

SOS Famine aims to give voice not money. It is fuelled by the belief that “we have the technical means and the resources to eradicate hunger from the world so it is now a matter of political will, and political will is influenced by public opinion”. (Jacques Diouf, FAO Director-General)

Alain has put all his savings (and heart) into this project, including his old Land Rover, which he completely revamped and customized for this trip.

Visit the official website to find out more about this inspirational project and sign the petition to end the world hunger. Connect with Alain on Facebook and donate fuel to help him continue on his journey, if you can.


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World Water Day 2012

World Water Day has been held annually on 22 March since 1993 when the United Nations General Assembly designated 22 March as the International World Water Day.

According to a report issued earlier this month by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO), between 1990 and 2010, over 2 billion people gained access to improved drinking water. This marks the achievement of one of UN’s Millennium Development Goals – to halve the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water.

“For children this is especially good news,” said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake. “Every day more than 3 000 children die from diarrhoeal diseases. Achieving this goal will go a long way to saving children’s lives.”

However, much remains to be done, as 783 million people are still without access to safe drinking water, and billions without sanitation facilities. The report says that people living in rural areas are several times more likely than their urban counterparts to be without access to safe drinking water. Overwhelmingly, it is women and girls who are bearing the burden of water collection, the report states.

“Safe drinking water must reach everyone”, says Sanjay Wijesekera, UNICEF’s chief of water, sanitation and hygiene. “We cannot celebrate progress until those who are hardest to reach can also turn on a tap, or go to a well or pump and get enough safe drinking water for their daily needs.”


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Never too Young to Make a Difference

No one is too young or too old to stand up for justice and get involved in making the world a better place, while setting an inspiring example for others.