The Sad History And Persistence Of FGM

When most people think of female genital mutilation (FGM), they assume it is a primitive, uniquely African act. Yet according to the WHO, it has occurred in various ghastly forms in most societies. Perhaps it was because of this universality that in 1920, an international conference in Egypt marked the official beginning of campaigns to end the practice. But what exactly is FGM and why are 200 million women today affected by it, even after a century of campaigns against it?

The WHO defines FGM as all procedures that involve the partial or total removal of external female genitalia or any other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. Specific types of FGM are also identified by most medical entities, accounting for the different procedures performed based on culture, tradition, religion and so on. These types are as follows.

  1. Type 1 mutilation or cutting: This accounts for all procedures that include the partial or total removal of the clitoral hood and/or the entire clitoris. The latter is specifically known as clitoridectomy.
  2. Type 2 mutilation or cutting: This refers to the partial or total removal of the labia minora often in addition to the removal, partial or otherwise, of the clitoral glans.
  3. Type 3 mutilation or cutting: This is the narrowing of the vaginal opening by cutting and repositioning the labia majora and/or minora. It is also known as infibulation.
  4. Type 4 mutilation: This sadly refers to all other harmful practices to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes and by non-medical professionals. These practices include, but are not restricted to, pricking, incising, scraping, and cauterizing.

FGM is performed for various reasons. One major reason in Africa is tradition. In many cultures across the continent, female mutilation is tied to a number of traditional ceremonies celebrating milestones such as adolescence or even preparations for marriage. Some of these customs even seem strange, as there is no direct connection with the girls mutilated. For instance, in some cultures in Eastern Africa, as archeologist Dr. Sada Mire noted, genital mutilation is done to appease the gods who bring rain – with many blaming the growing abandonment of the practice for droughts suffered in the region.

Such religious beliefs are also a prominent reason for the persistence of FGM all around the world. Despite the fact that none of the major religions outrightly support FGM, there are many religious movements all around the western world that advocate it. In many parts of the United States, for instance, female genital mutilation and cutting occurs in some Christian sects in order to prevent girls from growing up to be “sinful” women. In an interview with The Guardian, Renee Bergstrom talked about how she was circumcised as a child in order to prevent her from ever being tempted to masturbate and explore her sexuality. Additionally, while FGM is practiced in many Muslim societies, organizations such as the Islamic Relief Worldwide argue that Islam must never be used to justify the practice, stating that the Prophet Muhammed would never have condoned a practice that harms others.

Perhaps worse than the others, another reason for performing FGM is no reason at all. Many girls have been forced to go through the pain of genital cutting without any justifiable reason. Many have gone through it just because their mothers or sisters also went through it. This is just a case of patriarchal attempts to control women and their sexuality by forcing them to go through unimaginable pain just for the sake of it. For many, unimaginable pain from the lack of anaesthetics is actually the least of their worries. In addition to withstanding the pain, they often have to contend with severe haemorrhaging, shock, potential urinary and tetanus infections, and even death. 

There are also many other complications that can arise later on in life. These complications include post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression,  suicidal thoughts, negative genital and sexual image, low libido, chronic pain, vaginal cysts, infertility, lacerations during sexual intercourse, and increased likelihood of caesarean delivery during childbirth and postpartum haemorrhage.

Babies born to mothers who undergo FGM are likelier to be born with severe birth asphyxia and are at risk of early neonatal death. These complications during birth and sexual intercourse for women who have undergone FGM is due to the fact that scarred genital tissue does not stretch and instead tears. That is why many such women are at a risk of dying during childbirth.

Due to the sad consequences of FGM, many have protested and advocated against it leading to the practice being illegal in many countries, including 26 in Africa and the Middle East alone. Yet, the fact that girls are still at risk of mutilation in 2020 means we still have a long way to go. Like Naimah Hassan said in her 2019 Ted Talk, FGM is most likely a symptom of a greater problem – society’s attempts to control women’s sexuality and subdue them. Simone de Beauvoir would agree with this as female genital mutilation can be seen as an attempt by society to “create” women and teach them “femininity.”

Ultimately, the best method of fighting mutilation is empowerment and education. If people are aware of the negative consequences of FGM on girls, they will be more willing to abandon the practice as it has no real benefits. Understanding gender equality and balance will also be crucial in the fight against mutilation as it will hopefully help in solving the “othering” problem de Beauvoir identified.

Women who have gone through FGM can be encouraged to contribute to or lead educative conversations about it and general sexual education. There are many organizations all over the world that aim to educate people against FGM that can benefit from support from them. They range from established household names like the International Planned Parenthood Foundation to smaller up-and-coming NGOs such as Linda Initiative, which aims to “lead through the uncomfortable” when it comes to sexual education. 

For those who still choose to force children to go through the pain of mutilation, stricter punishments should be given. Countries should be commended on trying to outlaw the practice by effective policing. Just last year, a British woman was sentenced to 11 years in prison for mutilating her 3 year old daughter. This might not seem like a big deal, but the fact that it is actually the first FGM case in the U.K. not to end in acquittal is a big step in the right direction. Currently, in the U.K., the maximum sentence for female genital mutilation, which has been illegal since 1985, is 14 years.

An approach that strikes a balance between culture and modernity will be key to ensuring that FGM is widely discarded. Many practitioners consider FGM an important part of their culture and traditional identity, making it a very delicate issue. Kenyan activist Sarah Tenoi proposes a solution based on the questions “How can we end the practice without abandoning culture?” She answers this by suggesting that alternative practices could replace mutilation. 

Sarah, a woman of the Maasai tribe, actually already has some success in proposing alternative traditional practices in Kenya. In an interview with The Guardian, she discussed how other ceremonially symbolic activities such as the shaving of a girl’s head and pouring milk on her thighs during traditional rites of passage have been slowly replacing FGM. 

Female genital mutilation, due to its nature and underlying causes, has been particularly difficult to get rid of. However, with more public awareness, education and sensitivity to cultural attitudes and beliefs, the practice can be overcome and largely looked at as a vice of the past.

Zoe Mebude-Steves
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