Some refer to it as female circumcision, cutting, mutilation even ‘genital genocide’, but how about child abuse? The practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) on teenage, infant, or even baby girls is widespread in the Middle East, Asia and North Africa. In the absence of understanding and consent, young girls are pinned down before they are subsequently cut, removed, altered and sewn.
The World Health Organisation estimates that around 200 million girls have been subject to FGM procedures, spanning 30 different countries in the concentrated regions. It follows the partial or complete removal of the external female genitalia in 3 different levels of extremity. The first and least severe type, of FGM is referred to as a ‘clitoridectomy’ and is the complete or partial removal of the clitoris. The second type is called an ‘excision’ and is the complete or partial removal of the clitoris and labia minora and/or majora. The third and most severe type is referred to as ‘infibulation’ and involves the cutting, repositioning and sewing of the genital area to cover and seal the vaginal opening. When a woman is married and considered ‘ready for sex’ she is ‘deinfibulised’ whereby her vaginal seal is cut open.
The procedures of FGM possess no medical justification or benefits. If anything it exposes a multitude of health implications which are consequential to the practice. This includes physical implications such as infection, chronic pain, excessive bleeding in menstruation, urinary problems, fever and even death, just to name a few. Additionally, the procedure induces a number of psychological and mental issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder, shock, low self-esteem, anxiety and depression.
What then is the justification for FGM if not for health and well-being? Many claim the procedure is a ‘religious requirement.’ Mostly incidental to the regions in which it is practiced, Islam is often exploited for the purpose of validation. Unlike male circumcision which is a requirement under both Islam and Judaism, and professes a number of proven health benefits, FGM has no religious or medical justification. Verily, male circumcision does not affect the sexual drive of a man, whereas FGM is for the explicit purpose of shaming and, in essence, destroying the same desires possessed by women. Thereby it is less of a religious or medical debate and more of one derived from a powerfully engrained cultural mentality, which has led to perhaps one of the most gruesome manifestations of misogyny thus far. It is a strong example of how cultural norms are often practiced in the presence of ignorance, and how the lines between religion and culture are often blurred.
However contrary to what most people would think it is often not the men in these predominantly patriarchal cultures who coerce girls into the procedure. It is most often the older women in the communities and families who compel their daughters, granddaughters or younger sisters into getting cut out of fear of social isolation. If a girl has not been cut, this is often kept as a family secret out of fear of social rejection. The procedure is strongly associated with notions of aesthetics, femininity, purity, modesty, chastity, status and pride, and serves the purpose of suppressing female sexuality and preserving virginity. It is deeply embedded in gender inequality and ultimately teaches women that the inherent sexual desires which make us human are dirty, impure and something to be ashamed of. This is strongly reflected in the local terminologies adopted in reference to the practice which, unlike the majority of the world, are not demonstrative of contempt. In Arabic, the practice is referred to as ‘Tahara’ which is another word for ‘purification’. In the Bambara language of Mali, it is referred to as ‘boloki’ which translates to ‘washing your hands’. And in the Eastern Nigerian Igbo language, it is called ‘iwu aru’ which translates to ‘having a bath’.
For the rest of the world, it brings to light a number of grave concerns surrounding gender inequality, discrimination and human rights violations. It is viewed to constitute an extreme form of discrimination against women and has been compared to the practice of foot binding in traditional Asian cultures. It is seen as a violation of one’s right to be free from inhumane, degrading or cruel treatment, and infringes upon a person’s right to physical integrity, health and security. Additionally the performance of the procedure on minors constitutes a number of violations of the rights of children, as they are severely harmful and detrimental to the child’s quality of life.
Since 1997, The World Health Organisation in conjunction with The United Nations Population Fund and The United Nations Children’s Fund, have made continuous strong efforts to eliminate the practice of FGM. This is through issuing joint statements, reviewing public policy and legal frameworks, publishing reports and guidelines in regards to the management of the health implications of FGM. Over the years, and with the introduction of new laws in the countries in which it is present, there has been a rapid reduction in FGM cases around the world; however it still remains an issue in many countries.
Although it is always right to be mindful and respectful of the cultural beliefs and practices of others, where they are out rightly violent, detrimental to well-being and unjustifiable, it is necessary to challenge them. Culture is not static, but fluid and ever changing, and sensitivity and tolerance should be shown in addressing these issues. The changing of perceptions and further education for these communities should be fostered to help build awareness and understanding in the attempting to eliminate the practice.