What is Female Mutilation and Why Is it Still Happening Today?
August 28, 2012
The Fresh Outlook
An estimated 3 million women worldwide are at risk of genital mutilation, but this is not simply an international issue.
Today women all over the world still have to fight for the most basic right of control over their own bodies. One of the most terrifying prospects women face is the threat of female genital mutilation (FGM). This cultural tradition involves the partial or complete removal of the external genitals, and is performed across Central Africa, in the Southern Sahara and in parts of the Middle East. In Egypt over 90 percent of girls are forced to have FGC before the age of 14.
FGM is often referred to as female circumcision, but experts use the term ‘mutilation’ to describe the traumatic nature of the practice and to reflect the violation of women’s rights. It simply cannot be compared to male circumcision.
A common misperception is that FGM is only performed by Muslims – in fact it is not supported by any major religion and instead crosses religious barriers. Christians, Muslims and Jews are all known to conduct FGM, a custom which outdates all of these religions. Most commonly women are subjected to FGM before they reach puberty, but it can happen to any woman of any age. The age at which girls are cut varies widely from country to country.
There is an outrageous number of health risks associated with FGM. These include haemorrhaging, infection leading to fever, abscesses and the gruesome prospect of immediate death. The majority of girls are cut without anaesthesia, causing unimaginable pain. Almost every woman will experience bleeding and soreness after the procedure. FGM is performed by untrained individuals using tools like scissors and razor blades. FGM can effectively ruin the whole of a woman’s life – long-term effects include numerous gynaecological problems, pain during menstruation and sex, problems going to the bathroom and an increased risk of contracting STI’s. The operation makes it difficult for women to conceive, and even more difficult to give birth. Some women have to be cut open before labour and many more deliver still born babies. The trauma of being held down by and mutilated in this way is guaranteed to last a lifetime and a large majority of victims display signs of post-traumatic stress disorder such as anxiety, sleeping problems and depression.
But why would anyone want to inflict an operation like this upon a woman? There is any number of untruths surrounding FGM. Some people believe that the external genitalia are unclean, that they cause complications in child birth and that the clitoris continues to grow with a girl until it is cut off. Pressure to conduct FGM is manifested by the expectations of certain community and its tradition. Those girls who are not cut are branded as dirty, are badly treated and find it difficult to marry. The main intention of removing a woman’s external genitals is to stunt her sexual desire and thus preserve her virginity.
This farce of ‘community tradition’ is not to be believed. Cutting a woman’s genitals does not make her a better or purer person and it is tremendously dangerous – FGM is a method of control employed by men. For many men it improves the appearance and neatness of the female genitals and can make sex more pleasurable.
The Fresh Outlook spoke with a representative at the Centre for Reproductive Rights (CRR) to find out more about the international fight against FGM. CRR are a global advocacy organization that fights to ensure reproductive rights are treated as fundamental rights. For a woman this includes everything she needs to maintain her reproductive health; contraception, preventative care, safe and legal abortion, and comprehensive prenatal, obstetric/gynaecological, and postpartum care. The organization has worked for over a decade across Africa to ‘advance women’s access to reproductive health services through law and policy reform.’
One of their main concerns is the serious health risks FGM poses, the CRR said: “FGM has physical as well as psychological health repercussions. It has been linked to obstetric complications and increased risk of death, both at the time of delivery and post-partum. It can cause obstructed labour which can result in obstetric fistula (a hole either between the rectum and vagina or between the bladder and vagina).”
This affliction results in a leakage of faeces or urine and the women who suffer from it are shunned from their communities. According to CRR, a study conducted by WHO (World Health Organisation) found that women who undergo FGM are ‘more likely to experience complications during delivery, including postpartum haemorrhage – one of the major causes of maternal mortality.’
Aside from the massive health risks, CRR is keen to highlight that FGM constitutes a gross violation of the rights of women and girls. This includes the right to protection from torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and the right to life. CRR plays an integral part in the fight against FGM, through its legal research and advocacy. The organization provides decision makers, advocates and academics across Africa with hardback copies of its research, free of charge. It has developed and published resources which are available online, including the case of M.N.N. v Attorney General of Kenya, one of the first reproductive rights cases to be brought before the Kenyan High Court. M.N.N. is a young Kenyan woman with a tremendously harrowing story. She was abused by her doctor, who then proceeded to mutilate her, whilst she visited the hospital to give birth to her second child. For more about her story please visit this link: http://reproductiverights.org/en/node/2435.
This week in Somalia FGM was banned under the country’s new constitution. Almost 96% of Somali women undergo one of the more extreme forms of female genital cutting. The new constitution prohibits the circumcision of girls and states that it is: “a cruel and degrading customary practice [...] tantamount to torture.”
Whilst enforcing this law may prove to be extremely difficult, it is a step forward in the global fight for women’s rights. Somalia will join 20 other African countries which have already banned the practice in response to the African Union’s crackdown on the issue.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is an issue that only effects people half way across the world. Up until the 1950s FGM was used in the UK as a treatment for ‘lesbianism’, hysteria, epilepsy and other ‘female deviances’. We are not so different to women in the Middle East and Africa. The Home Office estimates that 24,000 girls under 15 years old and living in the UK are at risk of female genital mutilation.
The Fresh Outlook spoke to a local primary school teacher who wanted to remain anonymous, about the effect of FGM in British schools.
There is a strong African community in her school’s area and many of its pupils come from Somali families.
The unnamed teacher said: “We are very aware that it [FGM] happens to the school children,’ she added ‘I am certainly not the only teacher with these concerns.”
She thinks that in order to address the problem it should be discussed openly and frankly the community must be educated about the dangers of FGM.
Minority Ethnic Women’s Network Wales (MEWN Cymru) work to empower women in minority groups. Some of their clients are victims of FGM, they said: “They lose their confidence especially when they marry men from other cultures. Sometimes it is not the physical scare that traumatises them, it is the psychological scare of not finding the right life partner who understands why they had to go through FGM.”
They say that since FGM was criminalised in the UK “no arrests or prosecutions have been made, meaning the practice could have gone underground.” But the work they do at MEWN Cymru is of the greatest importance; they aim to create awareness of FGM amongst minority groups, run confidence building courses and sensation programmes “to keep clients abreast with UK laws on what is acceptable/unacceptable and what is considered punishable.”
The UK Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985 makes it an offence to carry out FGM or to aid, abet or procure the service of another person. Additionally the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003, makes it against the law for FGM to be performed anywhere in the world on UK permanent residents of any age. If you are caught doing this you will face a prison sentence for 14 years in jail. More shockingly fear of FGM does not grant an individual asylum in any European country despite the fact that FGM is internationally recognised as a violation of human rights of girls and women.
There are many women in this world who are robbed of a voice to speak out against the cruelty they suffer. We, alongside groups like CFRR and MEWN Cymru, must be the voice of these people by promoting education and advocacy about female genital mutilation.
By Laura Barton
[Image courtesy of BlantantWorld.com]