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UN Week – 3/5/12

March 6, 2012

This blog entry is written by members of our blogging community and expresses those experts’ views alone.

by John and Douglas Carey 

Contents of this issue: Female genital mutilation; Businesses cooperating.

Female genital mutilation.

The ghastly subject of FGM was featured at the UN on February 28th. A concert was presented in the General Assembly Hall, aimed at raising global awareness of and support for efforts to end female genital mutilation, or “female cutting”, sponsored by the Italian Government, in cooperation with UNICEF and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

If anyone wants to read about the details of FGM, an article in The Atlantic issue of October 1995 will probably be an eye-opener. It is online at The article pointed out that the practice had been outlawed in France, Germany, Denmark, Switzerland, Sweden and Belgium as well as in the states of New York, Minnesota and North Dakota.

The Atlantic mentions estimates that almost half the women in Africa had been circumcised, nearly 100% in Somalia, over 90% in Ethiopia and 50% in Egypt.

At the UN on February 28th, a woman named Saran Dioubate said that when her great aunt and other older women came to collect her for the operation, even though she had been young, if someone had explained to her what would happen, she would have said “no”. She now knew countless other young women who still lived with the trauma caused by the operation, as well as serious immediate and long-term health consequences, which included severe bleeding, urination problems, infections and childbirth complications.

She said that her mother had not initially given her consent, but she had eventually bowed to family pressure. Even though her experience had been difficult, Ms. Dioubate acknowledged that traditional cultural attitudes towards the practice were changing, and noted that her sister, three years her junior, had not been cut. Still, everyone must keep working, including in Africa, because “this practice has to end”, she declared.

Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of the UNFPA, said it was estimated that from 100 million to 140 million girls and women had under-gone some form of genital mutilation or cutting, and at least 3 million girls were at risk of undergoing the procedure every year. “This is a clear viola-tion of their fundamental rights, and it is extremely harmful to their health,” he said, adding that both UNFPA and UNICEF believed the practice could be brought to an end “during our lifetimes”, by working in partnership with Governments and local communities.

A Grammy-winning singer and songwriter from Benin named Kidjo said that, while many countries and communities had abandoned the practice, centuries-old behavior could not be stopped everywhere in a decade. Changing deeply ingrained social and cultural practices required both time and money. Highlighting the difficulties that might lie ahead, she said that one sensitive issue was that many of the people tasked with cutting were women; it was often their only job and that job gave them income, as well as status in their communities.  So the challenge was finding a way to replace those jobs and maintain livelihoods, while not lowering the status of the former practitioners.

She cautioned against following the traditional pattern of Western Governments telling African Governments “what, when and how to do something”. And while African countries must be a part of the solution, the diverse nature of the continent must be taken into consideration, she said, noting, as an example, that people in her country alone spoke 58 different languages. 

Businesses cooperating.

Expecting to welcome its 7,000th corporate participant last week, the United Nations Global Compact had sent out a call to companies still doubt-ful about sustainability issues to “come down from the fence” and join the movement, Executive Georg Kell said at a Headquarters press conference.

Mr. Kell was providing an update on the role of business at the up-coming United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (“Rio+20”) and on the Global Compact’s plans to stage a Corporate Sustainability Forum from 15-18 June. After 10 years of mobilizing businesses around the world, there was growing evidence that creating long-term value while embracing universal principles made good business sense, and a growing number of companies were engaging, he said. Although more than 3,000 had already been de-listed for failure to make regular disclosures, there had been progress.

Starting several months ago, he said, the Compact had begun mobilizing for Rio+20, particularly the private sector component, which, it was to be hoped, would deliver innovation and collaboration under the theme “For a Future We Want”. It was expected that some 1,000 executives from more than 100 countries would be mobilized in hopes of establishing firmly the notion that corporate sustainability was the way to go. The Global Compact initiative was launched to promote responsible business practices everywhere, on the basis of United Nations values and principles.

Mr. Kell said that while the movement was still growing, it was disappointing that it had not grown as fast as anticipated. Although 7,000 corporate participants from 135 countries, organized through 100 networks, was a big number, it was not yet transformative enough, he pointed out, noting that, as things stood, it represented less than 10 per cent of the relevant corporate population. It was the Compact’s hope that Rio+20 would deliver very strong encouragement for corporate sustainability, and make it possible to demonstrate that most of the solutions needed already existed; make the case for disseminating solutions rapidly; and call on Governments to put in place the incentive structure and enabling environment required for the rapid diffusion of solutions on critical issues such as water, climate, social development and women’s empowerment, among others.

The Global Compact Office was now entirely focused on mobilizing that effort, he said, expressing hopes of attracting 1,000 corporate participants and investors. Already, some 400 business schools had started inte-grating the Global Compact into the MBA curriculum, he noted, adding that chief officers of stock exchanges as well as civil society partners had also been drawn into the program as part of its implementation. All those efforts were intended to send a signal that the business community was increasingly willing to step up to the task despite the fact that the numbers were not growing fast enough.

He said the Compact was experimenting with two models of collaboration, including an anti-corruption model under which collective action at the country level was taking off on a large scale. That initiative entailed foreign and local companies working together with “rule makers” to im-prove the enabling environment, he said. The second model required companies to place greater emphasis on gender equality, he said, pointing out that some 130 companies were expected to meet in New York next week to work on that particular issue, with the active participation of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of UN‑Women.

Which brings us back to FGM; now that UN Women is organized, can it launch its own anti-FGM campaign? Or must it tread lightly on FGM out of respect for time-honored and deeply embedded, though badly mistaken, customs?

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