In February I was asked to speak about Female Genital Mutilation at the Medical faculty of Bond University on the Gold Coast.
Students were aiming to bring awareness to this despicable custom and had made little cupcakes, which were for sale to raise funds for programmes seeking to stop Female Genital Mutilation or Cutting as it is also known.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/FGC) is practiced in African countries, such as Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire , Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda. Also in parts of Asia (India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan) by certain ethnic groups and also among some Arabian countries, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Yemen; Iraq; as well as in countries such as Canada, United States, Australia and Europe. The reason for the latter is immigrants bring their tradition and culture with them, when settling in new countries.
Of course it is fair to say that countries such as USA, Canada, Australia have outlawed this procedure, yet it is still practiced underneath the radar. Also FGM/FGC is now banned by law in Benin, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Egypt (Ministerial decree), Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Niger, Nigeria (multiple states), Senegal, Tanzania, Togo. In the Sudan only the most severe form of FGM/FGC is forbidden by law.
There are three levels of circumcision practiced.
1. The removal of the clitoral hood, (prepuce) with or without the removal of part or all of the clitoris.
2. Excision of the clitoris with partial or total excision of the inner lips (labia minora)
3. Excision of part or all of the external genitalia and stitching/narrowing of the vaginal opening (infibulation).
I remember reading of a young woman’s account of being taken by her mother back to her country of origin. She had no idea what was really going to happen. She was infibulated at the age of 8. The day before the operation was due to take place, a little girl who was also infibulated died. Of course when she heard of this she was terrified she too, was going to die.
When her turn came, her mouth was held by one woman, so she would not scream, there another two women held her chest and another two held her splayed legs. After the operation was done, she had rope tied around her legs to bring about healing of the tissue and development of scar tissue. She was constantly forced to go to the toilet because if she could not pass urine within the next 10 days then her mother would know there was something wrong.
Can you possibly imagine the pain of that? The memory and feeling of the infibulation would never go away. I have heard that is way worse than childbirth. This type of FMG/FMC is the worst type and is usually performed in places like Somalia, northern Sudan and Djibouti. Not to mention that in some communities, the raw edges of the wound are sutured again after childbirth, recreating a small vaginal opening. This is referred to as re-infibulation.
FGM/FGC is carried out with special knives, scissors, scalpels, pieces of glass or razor blades. Anaesthetic and antiseptics are not generally used except when carried out by medical practitioners. I have read another account of a young woman known as Monique, being infibulated in Mali when she was 10 years old. In her case the cutter ( an elderly woman who was especially designated for the task) poured alcohol into her wound. My God, how that would have stung. She never forgot that pain. Ironically she died during childbirth, in her 34th year, it was her fourth baby.
When these circumcisions are performed there is often a line up of female children around the same age. They all have the procedure done one after the other. There is generally no cleansing of the instrument used, which of give means that there is a likelihood of increased transmission of HIV.
FGM/FGC has both immediate and long-term consequences to the health of women. The immediate complications include: severe pain, shock, haemorrhage, tetanus or infection, urine retention, ulceration of the genital region and injury to adjacent tissue, wound infection, urinary infection, fever and septicaemia. Haemorrhage and infection can be of such magnitude as to cause death.
Infibulation can cause severe scar formation, difficulty in urinating, menstrual disorders, recurrent bladder and urinary tract infection, fistulae, prolonged and obstructed labour (sometimes resulting in foetal death and vaginal fistula and/or rectal fistula), and infertility (as a consequence of earlier infections). Cutting of the scar tissue is sometimes necessary to facilitate sexual intercourse and/or childbirth. Almost complete vaginal obstruction may occur, resulting in accumulation of menstrual flow in the vagina and uterus. During childbirth the risk of haemorrhage and infection is greatly increased.
Contrary to popular belief the practice of FGM/FGC is not prescribed by Islam, nor in the Bible. In fact, the practice predates Islam, and many religious leaders have denounced it. The practice cuts across religions and is practiced by Muslims, Christians, Ethiopian Jews, Copts, as well as by followers of certain traditional African religions. FGM/FGC is actually more a cultural than a religious practice.
Having seen the screening of Desert Flower which is the life story of Waris Dirie, a Somalian who escaped her country and found herself in Great Britain, I can only say it is one film that I will never forget. The story was amazing, in that her struggle for freedom from a forced marriage, shot her through several liaisons into the public eye. Waris has given a very emotional address to the United Nations and is one woman who has really brought this whole topic into the open.
Over 100 million women have been subjected to female genital mutilation/cutting, a practice that still puts up to 3 million of girls at risk each year. UNFPA (United Nations Family Planning Association) , as well as UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) addresses the practice of FGM/FGC not only because of its harmful impact on the reproductive and sexual health of women, but also because it is a violation of women’s fundamental human rights. The basis for a rights approach is the affirmation that human well-being and health is influenced by the way a person is valued, respected and given the choice to decide on the direction of her/his life without discrimination, coercion or neglect of attention. UNFPA addresses FGM/FGC in a holistic manner, within its cultural and religious context; however cultural arguments cannot be used to condone harmful practices such as FGM/FGC.
If you are moved by this article you can go to the following websites to make donations to bring about change.
There are a number of charities working to end FGM/FGC. Below are a few that are either dedicated solely to ending FGM/FGC or have strong projects working for this cause:
Tostan‘s mission is to empower African communities to bring about sustainable development and positive social transformation based on respect for human rights.
Forward The Foundation for Women’s Health, Research and Development is an international non-governmental organisation that works to advance and protect the sexual and reproductive health and human rights of African girls and women.
28 Too Many is a values based charity, created to help eradicate Female Genital Mutilation in the twenty-eight countries within Africa where it is still practised.
Daughters of Eve was founded in 2010 to protect young people from gender based violence, especially young women and promote their basic human rights.
WOMANKIND Worldwide helps women in developing countries – silenced or isolated by harmful traditions, conflict, violence and intimidation or the sheer exhaustion of surviving in poverty – to have a distinctive say in what goes on in their family, community and country.
FGM Education and Networking Project purpose is the dissemination on-line and offline of material related to female genital mutilation.
Amirah’s Voice is a non-profit organization that promotes awareness of Female Genital Mutilation/Female Circumcision (FGM/FC) and other forms of sexual abuse by building educational and outreach programs.
Women for a Change is an International NGO, run by women, inspiring new worldviews. They promote digital technology and the internet as key to advancing economic empowerment and education of women and girls.
No Peace Without Justice is an international non‑profit organisation founded by Emma Bonino and born of a 1993 campaign of the Transnational Radical Party that works for the protection and promotion of human rights, democracy, the rule of law and international justice.
Equality Now was founded in 1992 to work for the protection and promotion of the human rights of women around the world.