Female Genital Mutilation: An Enduring Global Threat That Must End

Today, according to the United Nations, it is estimated that 200 million girls and women have been subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM). Alarming as it is, the rate at which the procedure is occurring only continues to grow as our global population grows as well. Although the precise origin of FGM remains unclear, scholars believe it first came into practice in Africa thousands of years ago, was later adopted by certain sects of Islam, and then spread around the world through migration. However, while it certainly is true that the percentage of women cut is higher in Muslim and Christian communities in Africa, the history of FGM goes beyond religion, as observed by John Chua, an associate professor at Richmond University London. Chua, who has spent a good part of a decade traveling and researching FGM around the world, has found that it is a native practice on every continent of the world except Antarctica, having emerged at various times and places through history. Today, it is generally agreed upon that there are no significant benefits of FGM and that the potential implications are very dangerous – making it clear that it should end. However, to effectively combat this extreme practice, it must be treated as a global issue that is not limited to one particular place, culture, or religion.

Different cultures offer explanations on why they practice FGM. In certain parts of Iraq, for example, uncut females may be deemed “unclean” by others and would therefore be prohibited from even serving water. In the Pattani province of Thailand, female circumcision is believed to prevent various diseases including HIV and AIDS. In Peru, among women of the indigenous Shipibo tribe, there is a belief that uncut girls might become homosexual. And in Colombia and Panama, indigenous Embera mothers say that they cut their babies to stop the clitoris from growing into a penis.

Religious communities too have often practiced FGM in the past and many still do today. For example, certain Muslim sects consider cutting mandatory under Islam. However, there is no verse in the Quran supporting FGM and many Muslims from other sects dismiss the hadith, a narration describing traditions of the Prophet, allegedly supporting this practice. In Russia, the Christian Skoptsy sect which emerged in the 1760’s was also known to practice extreme genital cutting as well. Numbering possibly 100,000 members in the early 1900s but declining soon after, they cited a passage in the New Testament, Matthew 19:12, in order to justify male castrations, removals of the clitoris, and breast amputations. Chu also located various church and medical documents in America from as late as the 1960s that recommended cutting. In fact, Dr. Renee Bergstrom, a survivor of FGM, went public with her own experience of being cut in a church clinic to prevent her from masturbating only last year. However, the number of elderly white FGM survivors in America is still unknown, possibly due to the fact that many might not even remember having been cut.

FGM has been justified not only by those following customs or religious beliefs, but also by men of science. In the mid-19th century, some British doctors believed that a larger clitoris was a sign of sexual depravity and that cutting the clitoris could cure various sicknesses. Such doctors included Isaac Baker Brown who, in his 1866 book “On the Curability of Certain Forms of Insanity, Epilepsy, Catalepsy, and Hysteria in Females, recommended clitoridectomy as a cure. Although he and similar doctors eventually lost their influence in Britain, their ideas spread far across the ocean into the U.S. Starting in the 1860s and continuing for nearly a century, some American doctors recommended cutting the clitoris to prevent females from masturbating, which they regarded as a cause of other illnesses.

Regardless of the justification, FGM has serious implications for the sexual and reproductive health of girls and women. The exact effect depends on the type of FGM performed, the skill and experience of the practitioner, the hygiene conditions under which it is performed, the amount of resistance and the general health condition of the female undergoing the procedure. However, there is usually some form of complication in all cases. According to the UN Population Fund, immediate complications include “severe pain, shock, haemorrhage, infection, urine retention, ulceration of the genital region and injury to adjacent tissue, wound infection, urinary infection, fever, and blood poisoning.” Long-term consequences could include “complications during childbirth,  anaemia, the formation of cysts and abscesses, keloid scar formation, damage to the urethra resulting in urinary issues, painful sexual intercourse, sexual dysfunction, hypersensitivity of the genital area, increased risk of HIV transmission, as well as psychological effects.” Furthermore, according to World Vision UK, FGM also correlates to early marriage because in some areas, girls that have undergone the practice are viewed as mature enough to become brides. For example, in some areas of Tanzania, a bride price can only be negotiated if the girl has undergone FGM, and in Sierra Leone, the practice is usually paid for by a girl’s to be husband and family before the ceremony. Furthermore, this, along with the resulting health complications, usually forces girls that have undergone FGM to drop out of school, which, in turn, hinders access to employment and financial independence. The medical community today has come to the consensus that there are no significant benefits to FGM, and considering its negative effects,  FGM should be put to a stop.

The first step is acknowledgement. As Chua noted, there tends to be disbelief and denial, with many people believing that FGM is not practiced in their community or country but rather is something that belongs in a distant place. Without acknowledgement, however, the fight against FGM cannot start. Governments around the world must recognize FGM as a human rights violation and pledge to fight against it. This involves not only criminalizing FGM and enacting anti-FGM laws, but also strictly enforcing these laws. Moreover, governments need to focus on training local police and other community leaders, both of whom play an important role in ensuring that anti-FGM laws are followed, on how to properly deal with FGM cases. Governments should also focus on education, the most important tool in stopping the FGM cycle. Given that FGM is a socio-cultural issue, work must be done to introduce social change; when the expectations and views of a society change, behaviour changes as well. For social change to occur, governments must continue to work hard with NGOs and other organizations to educate communities on the harms of FGM, to falsify misconceptions, and, if necessary, offer safe, alternative rites of passage. Teachers, religious leaders, and community heads in particular should be educated and trained as they hold some of the most influence in communities. Media, too, has a lot of influence in today’s world and should also be used to raise awareness. Similarly, increasing access to education for girls plays an integral role in stopping the FGM cycle as well. According to a 2013 report by UNICEF, the likelihood of a daughter being cut decreases as the mother’s level of education rises, as access to education allows for the introduction of new concepts, the exchange of ideas, and access to various sources of information in places that foster critical thinking. The same report also shows that girls and women with no education are much more likely to be in favour of the continuance of FGM. For example, approximately 38% of women and girls in Kenya with no education support the practice, whereas only 6% of women and girls with secondary or higher education support it. Above all, it is important to remember that girls from all different kinds of communities are at risk of FGM. Interventions should be implemented in not just Africa and the Middle East, but in smaller communities around the world where FGM occurs as well, such as in the Peruvian Amazon or the Russian Caucasus. Only then can FGM be combated effectively.

It is evident that FGM does not belong to a specific race, culture, or religion. Rather, culture, religion, and faulty sciences are merely used to justify the practice and create an illusion of conferring benefit. In reality, it is a universal fear of female sexuality that hides behind the justifications of FGM, which in turn leads to many complications and consequences that are putting the lives of girls around the world at risk. As such, FGM needs to stop. To end this extreme practice, everyone must realize its universality so that interventions can then be implemented appropriately. Only then can we save girls around the world.