Understanding Female Genital Mutilation

Female Genital Mutilation is an ancient practice most likely dating back to Northern Africa, but today exists in over 29 countries in Africa, Middle East, and Asia. It even has history in “civilized” countries, such as the US and parts of Europe, for medical “benefits”. Many wonder what female genital mutilation is – first and foremost, it is a violation of women and girls rights in many regards. I first heard about FGM a couple of years ago when researching health care for women around the world.  I was shocked to hear that a practice that sounded so medieval still existed in the modern world. There have been many movements to address FGM around the world, and many of them have been successful, but it has been a continuous effort. One of the largest problems around FGM has been that people are afraid to talk about it – the three words female, genital, and mutilation are all individually enough to quiet people. Put them together, and it’s a phrase no one wants to mention. But I want to talk about it, and I want others to understand it. In this blog, I plan to address what FGM is, what it means for girls and women around the world, and where we are today with FGM.

Female genital mutilation includes any procedure to remove partial or all of the external female genitalia. Other definitions also include FGM as any other force to female genital organs. These definitions both include that FGM is done for non-medical reasons. The World Health Organization divides FGM into 4 categories:

  1. Clitoridectomy – partial or total removal of the clitoris, and in rare cases, only the prepuce. (And if you don’t know your female anatomy, get to it! Especially if you are a woman. It’s good to know what your own body is!)
  2. Excision – partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without the removal of the labia majora.
  3. Infibulation – partial closing on the vaginal opening by creating a seal. This seal is created by cutting, stitching, and reorganizing the labia minor, or labia majora, and also sometimes the clitoris (clitoridectomy).
  4. Other – other violent acts toward female genitalia such as pricking, piercing, incising, scraping, and cauterizing.

Just reading these classifications makes my legs cross instinctively. Various ethnic groups typically practice different forms of FGM. Not only does this sound outrageously painful (some FGM procedures are performed under anesthesia, but girls can still be subject to excruciating pain), but unnecessary. Women’s genitalia are created as they need to be – to perform reproductive acts, go to the bathroom, and give birth to children. In my personal opinion, if there was something seriously wrong with our bodies, so much so that it needed to be cut off, we would have evolved from it or created safer, more widely practiced medical procedures. But more about that in a bit.

While some claim FGM is is for health benefits, there is absolutely no truth to this. All FGM does to girls and women is create severe side effects, both immediate and long-term. Traditionally, local circumcisers who perform FGM are seen as local agents of health care. Most commonly a simple blade is used to perform the procedure. After the “procedure” women can experience severe pain, bleeding, swelling, infections, injury, shock, and even death. Long-term repercussions are equally tragic – urinary problems, vaginal problems, menstrual problems, scar tissue, sexual pain, childbirth complication, continued FGM (women who are “stitched up” may experience this again after giving birth), and psychological problems. Its important to focus on the psychological concepts here too. Its terrifying to consider mutilation of a body, but infant girls, young girls, and women that experience this are subject to severe body transformation without consent. As rape and violence affect women psychologically, so does FGM. It leaves them with questions and struggling to find self-identification.

FGM is rooted in deep male-dominant culture and religion. There are mixed reasons for why FGM is performed. In some areas, it is an appearance preference of women’s genitalia. FGM is also considered by many to be a practice that makes women’s bodies more hygienic. It also is required in some religions, particularly in Northern Africa. Female genital mutilation reminds me of foot-binding in China (and, no, I thought of this before I read the FGM Wikipedia article). It was an ancient tradition that tailored to society’s views of women’s social status, wealth, and marriage eligibility. It was a horrendous, painful practice, but it was seen as a norm. This is much like FGM in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Men and women alike supported FGM as a part of culture. But we cannot ridicule these people who have performed FGM, encourage it, or include it in their tradition. While it is a terrifying practice, we cannot scream that these people are stupid or barbaric. The practice of FGM is barbaric, but the people are not. FGM has been passed down for thousands of years (I’m talking ancient Egypt here, people), and they way to combat it is not through ridicule.

Education, education, education. Education is my mantra and my response for a large contingent of world problems (future blog post in the working, don’t you worry). One of my all-time favorite books is Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. If you haven’t read it yet, do yourself a favor and overnight it. I’m serious. You won’t regret it. The book focuses on the oppression of women and girls around the world, and one of their main points is the importance of education. Before I get off on one of my infamous education-tangents, Kristof and WuDunn mention the work of Molly Melching in their book. Melching founded an organization in Dakar, Senegal called Tostan (“breakthrough”). Melching’s work is an extraordinary example of international aid in the form of education, empowerment, and sustainability. Tostan focuses on human rights violations in Africa, particularly in female genital mutilation and child marriage. Tostan has been highly successful in moving women into less oppressive roles in their community. Tostan has partnered with the Senegalese government to abandon FGC by 2017 in Senegal. Melching’s and Tostan’s work are proof that a grass-roots, education-oriented approach to FGM and women’s rights is the most effective way to go. I am quite awestruck by Melching and her impressive, honest work. She is so inspiring to me, and gives me hope when an issue like FGM seems so far-reaching and pervasive.

Other world organizations such as UNICEF, WHO, and the UN have been vocal in ending FGM. There is now an International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation founded by the UN in 2003. There is a hashtag on Twitter, #EndFGM. Additionally, the Ebola outbreak was a tragic epidemic, but has opened an opportunity for combatting FGM. Local circumcisers stopped performing FGM, afraid of the Ebola disease being transmitted through bodily fluids. As FGM has come to a near standstill in many West African countries, activists have realized what a crucial time this is to combat FGM. As FGM becomes more recognized around the world, so does the response to it. I honestly believe that FGM is under more scrutiny than ever, and that we are experiencing change and progress unlike before. Let us not ridicule those who see it as a part of their history, but encourage sustainable education-based efforts to end female genital mutilation. I believe our world is at a fundamental turning-point, worldwide, in women’s rights and health care, and female genital mutilation is one more piece of altering this oppression.

Photo: A campaign against female genital mutilation – a road sign near Kapchorwa, Uganda. 2004. 

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