“Mama tied a blindfold over my eyes. The next thing I felt my flesh was being cut away. I heard the blade sawing back and forth through my skin. The pain between my legs was so intense I wished I would die.” –Waris Dirie, UNFPA Goodwill Ambassador and spokesperson on FGM
1. What is FGM?
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) has been defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” Most of the victims live in African countries, some in the Middle East and Asian countries and it is increasing in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, USA and Canada.
FGM is usually performed by an older experienced woman with no medical training. In primitive areas, anaesthetics and antiseptic treatment is not used and the tools consist of knives, scissors, scalpels, pieces of glass and razor blades. A mixture of herbs is placed on the wound to tighten the vagina and stop the bleeding. The age of the girls varies from infants to girls to the age of 10 depending on the community and family.
It is extreme form of discrimination against women and performed on innocent children that are not able to defend themselves. It is nearly always carried out on minors and is a violation of the rights of children. The practice violates a person’s rights to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death.
2. 4 types of FGM
According to WHO;
a) Excision (removal) of the clitoral hood with or without removal of part or all of the clitoris. Occurs in 85% of the FGM.
b) Removal of the clitoris together with part or all of the labia minora. Occurs in 85% of the FGM.
c) Removal of part or all of the external genitalia (clitoris, labia minora, and labia majora) and stitching and/or narrowing of the vaginal opening leaving a small hole for urine and menstrual flow. Occurs in Djibouti, Somalia, Sudan, parts of Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal.
d) All other operations of the female genitalia.
3. History of Female Circumcision
Female circumcision, also known as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is not a recent phenomenon as it has been dated back as far as to 2nd century BC when a geographer, Agatharchides of Cridus wrote about the subject that occurred among tribes residing on the western coast of the Red Sea (today’s Egypt). Based on the current areas practicing FGM, it seems as the tradition has originated from Egypt and spread. Others believe that the custom was rooted in the kingdom of the Pharaohs.
As Islam rose throughout the region, Egyptians raided territories in the south and exported Sudanic slaves. Female slaves were sold at a higher price if they were “sewn up” as they became unable to give birth. After many converting to Islam, this practice was abolished as Islam prohibits Muslims from harming their body and enslaving others.
Today this primitive tradition has reached the coasts of America, Europe, Australia and Canada. Numbers from Amnesty International estimates that 135 million women have experienced FGM and that between 2-3 million girls and infants undergoes this practice every year. In Africa alone it is about 92 million girls who has undergone FGM.
4. Medical consequence of FGM
FGM have absolutely no health benefits for the girls except doing harm and causing extreme pain. As the healthy genital tissue is being removed, the body cannot function in a natural way. Since this procedure is being practiced by people who have no medical training and without using any necessary anesthetic or sterilization, the FGM can lead to death by shock from bleeding or infections by the unsterilized tools. The first sexual intercourse will be extremely painful who will be needed to be opened and this is being performed by the partner with a knife. Besides bleeding there are several short and long term complications that these girls have to deal with and I have listed them shortly.
Depending on the degree of mutilation, short term health problems caused by FGM;
- Severe pain and shock
- Bacterial infection
- Urine retention
- Open sores injury to adjacent tissues
- Immediate fatal haemorrhaging (bleeding)
- Extreme pain as girls are cut without being numbed and the worst pain occurs the next day when the girls have to urinate
- Trauma as girls are forced and held down by several women
- Extensive damage of the external reproductive system
- Uterus, vaginal and pelvic infections
- Cysts and neuromas
- Increased risk of Vesico Vaginal Fistula
- Complications in pregnancy and child birth
- Psychological damage
- Sexual dysfunction
- Difficulties in menstruation
- Recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections
- The need for later surgeries such as to be cut open to allow childbirth and sexual intercourse after marriage. Sometimes it is also stitched again several times after childbirth.
- Problems urinating as girls are left with a small opening. This can slow or strain the normal flow of urine and lead to infections
- Gynecological health problems as they are not able to pass all of their menstrual blood out and have infections over and over again.
- Increased risk of Sexually Transmitted Diseases/Infections (STD/STI) including HIV as the procedure is being performed in unclean conditions
- Psychological and emotional stress. A study by Pharos, a Dutch group that gathered health care information of refugees and migrants revealed in February 2010 that majority of these women suffered from stress, anxiety and was aggressive. They were also most likely to have relational problems or fear for relations. According to the study, it is believed that an estimate of 50 girls is being genitally mutilated every year in the Netherlands.
5. Where is FGM practiced?
Southeast Asia; Indonesia, Malaysia,
Central Asia; Tajikistan
Eastern Europe; Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia
Middle East; Yemen, UAE, turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Palestinian territories, Pakistan, Oman, Jordan, Iraq and Kurdistan, Iran,
Africa; Zimbabwe, Zaire, Uganda, Togo, Tanzania, South Africa, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Senegal, republic of Congo, Nigeria, Niger, Mozambique, Mauritania, Mali, Malawi, Libya, Liberia, Kenya, guinea-Bissau, guinea, Ghana, Gambia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Egypt, Djibouti, democratic republic of the Congo, cote d’ivoire, Comoros, Chad, central African republic, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Benin, Algeria
The majority of cases of FGM are carried out in 28 African countries. In some countries, (e.g. Egypt, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan), prevalence rates can be as high as 98 per cent. In other countries, such as Nigeria, Kenya, Togo and Senegal, the prevalence rates vary between 20 and 50 per cent. It is more accurate however, to view FGM as being practised by specific ethnic groups, rather than by a whole country, as communities practising FGM straddle national boundaries. FGM takes place in parts of the Middle East, i.e. in Yemen, Oman, Iraqi Kurdistan, amongst some Bedouin women in Israel, and was also practised by the Ethiopian Jews, and it is unclear whether they continue with the practice now that they are settled in Israel. FGM is also practised among Bohra Muslim populations in parts of India and Pakistan, and amongst Muslim populations in Malaysia and Indonesia.
6. Religion or culture?
Although FGM happens in countries with Muslim majority, and people think that it is associated with Islam, FGM is not supported by any religion and condemned by many religious leaders.
In fact FGM is a pre-Islamic tradition and since Islam prohibits humans from harming and mutilating their body, therefore FGM is forbidden in Islam. In Ethiopia, Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, Senegal, Benin, and Ghana, Muslim population groups are more likely to practice FGC than Christian groups but in Nigeria, Tanzania, and Niger, the prevalence is greater among Christian groups.
Today FGM is a mixture of cultural, religious and social factors. For instance, the social pressure to perform FGM because others in the same community do it keeps the practice strong. As from the religious view, the parents thinks that FGM is necessary to raise the daughter properly and make sure that she is a virgin until she is married even though no religious scripture supports this. It is motivated by the thought of proper sexual behavior.
7. Reasons and justification
- custom and tradition
- religion; in the mistaken belief that it is a religious requirement
- preservation of virginity/chastity
- social acceptance, especially for marriage
- hygiene and cleanliness
- increasing sexual pleasure for the male
- family honour
- a sense of belonging to the group and conversely the fear of social exclusion
- enhancing fertility
8. What can be done to prevent and abolish FGM?
Each community should arrange meetings where they discuss, talk and consider opinions about FGM. Here it would be important to allow the elder generation to speak with the young. It is important to spread out and explain about the harsh health problems FGM causes.
Next important thing is education. Education is the key to everything. As we can see, this is happening in areas where most people is illiterate or doesn’t have the possibility to go to school. The generations repeat themselves and the circle is hard to break. Another important thing would be that Islamic scholars and other religious leaders should change the perception about FGM as people listen to them.
Every country and community should work towards changing the attitude as women feels they are being disloyal to their culture for not choosing FGM. This pressure can change if doctors and other health care workers would talk with women about the dangers of FGC and offer other options that don’t involve cutting. Some human rights advocates also suggest that men could help reduce the practice of FGC by openly marrying uncut women. Many human rights organizations are also calling on religious leaders to openly confirm that their religions do not require women to have FGC.
Last, if the countries establish strict laws and investigate cases regarding FGM, then it will have some effect but it will not be enough to abolish it as 18 African countries has laws or decrees against FGM. Even countries with the highest rates of FGM have recently openly noted the need for banning this practice. Fines and jail sentences are typically minor, but most view any sanctions against FGC as a good start.
It is important that everyone is aware of this heinous practice that mutilates the female body. It is hard to understand how parents can perform this on their infant babies who are not able to defend themselves. Every country should implement various strategies to eliminate FGM and it starts with education and communication.