Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)

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Do you know what Female Genital Mutilation is? I’m about to tell you and I’m going to tell you right up front, it will probably be graphic and not for the faint of heart, but I think it is very necessary to know what this is all about.

First it’s important that know that you may have heard of it before – it goes by a lot of names. Female Genital Mutilation, Female Genital Cutting, Female Genital Circumcision, Female Genital Alteration, Female Genital Excision, and Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting to name a few. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to refer to it as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). The controversy over what to call it stems from the fact that people who practice FGM feel that mutilation is too strong of a word, but the people against FGM feel that it is mutilation and it brings attention to that. Some prefer circumcision, but many people this is drawing an unfair comparison between this and male circumcision (which I will admit will probably never be talked about on my blog and I am not very knowledgable about it, but it’s done – at the very least – for very different reasons. I feel it is outside of the scope of my blog, but for your awareness, there are people who feel that because there is such an outcry against FGM that there should be equal amounts of outcry against male circumcision). The World Health Organization (WHO) defines this as, “”all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” There are four different types. Warning Graphic descriptions.  “Type 1, excision of the clitoral hood, the skin around the clitoris, with or without partial or complete removal of the clitoris (clitoridectomy); Type 2, excision of the clitoris with partial or complete removal of the labia minora; Type 3 (infibulation), excision of all or part of the labia minora and labia majora, and the stitching of a seal across the vagina, leaving only a small opening for the passage of urine and menstrual blood; and Type 4, miscellaneous acts, including burning or cauterization of the clitoris, scraping and cutting of the vagina (gishiri cutting [where it is cut to make it larger]), and introducing corrosive substances into the vagina to tighten it.” (From Wikipedia)

To me, while they are all horrible, I think type three is definitely the most harmful and painful so I’m going to talk a little more about that one. In this one, sometimes the girl’s legs are even tied together for 2 to 6 weeks so that she can’t move and to basically allow the two cut sides to seal together. These two sides are usually stitched or glued together with things like thorns as stitches or eggs, sugar, and animal waste as a glue. Not only that, but this one is often cut open repeatedly as it is needed, either when she gets married so she can have sex or when she gives birth to children so that there is room for the baby to be born and it is sometimes sealed up again afterwards. Where people have this, the women speak of three feminine sorrows: “the first sorrow is the procedure itself, followed by the wedding night when a woman with Type III FGM has to be cut open, then childbirth when she may have to be cut again.” Type three carries the most risk of complications, which I’ll talk about further down.

“There were two circumcisers – they moved quickly from one girl to the next, cutting their labia. It was horrendous. And none of the girls cried out, because they’d had it drilled into them that they had to bear it without making a sound.” – Cath Holland

It can happen in hospitals under general anesthesia or it can happen by people referred to as “traditional circumcisers” typically with little to no anesthesia using unsterilized things (not even worth calling instruments) like broken glass, tin lids, razor blades, knives, and scissors to name a few examples. It can happen to girls all the way from infants to 15 years old or sometimes women right before they married or give birth to their first child. It happens in 28 countries and also in some immigrant groups in places like America and Europe (though until the 1950s, it was practiced in England and America to “cure” women of “female deviances”). It happens to singular girls and it happens to groups of girls at the same time. There are reports of girls being held down and struggling against the people holding them down so much that their bones are broken. The estimations of women who have been subject to this around the world range from 60 million to 140 million women. (Estimates work this out to about 4 girls a minute). An estimated three million more girls every year face the potential that this will happen to them.

“These families do not do this out of spite or hatred; they believe this will give their daughters the best opportunities in life. We would like a conviction, not against the parents, but against a cutter, someone who makes a living from this.” – Jackie Mathers

Why is this so bad? Besides the obvious, FGM has a lot of risky side effects: often times a lot of pain, shock, hemorrhaging (severe bleeding, sometimes enough that the girls die), infections (including tetanus and UTIs), urine retention (where you can’t pee), ulceration, fever, and septicemia. Long term you can face things like chronic pain, recurring infections, recurring cysts, difficulty giving birth, more likely to have a C-section, anemia, keloid scars (I do not know how to explain this – check the Wikipedia article on it if you’re interested), urinary incontinence, pain having sex, sexual dysfunction, menstrual disorders, fistulae (again, Wikipedia article), infertility, increased risk of HIV infection (though the jury is out on this – there are mixed results), chronic anxiety, depression, other psychiatric problems, kidney stones, other kidney problems, failure to heal, increased risk of hepatitis, pelvic inflammatory disease, bladder stones, increased chance of episiotomy in labor, increased chance of extended hospital stays with labor, psychological effects that are similar to PTSD, Dysmenorrhoea (extremely painful periods), pelvic and back pain, the need for more “surgeries” later, and increased newborn death. The rates on the birth statistics for example are so shockingly high it’s clear to see this has very little benefit. For example, with Type III (which carries the most risks, but certainly not all – the others do too), the infant mortality rate is 55% high and the mother is 70% more likely to suffer dangerous hemorrhaging. I think if we focused on eliminating FGM, we could make huge strides in infant and maternal mortality. FGM is a huge factor in maternal/infant mortality in the areas where it is practiced. This is a real solution to help end the problem.

“Why would anyone want to go and cut up a seven- or eight-year-old child? People need to wake up — you are hurting your child, you are hurting your daughter, you’re not going to have a grandchild, so wake up.” – Miriam, a victim of FGM

Then the question is to ask why? Why would something like this be done? It seems so awful, so unbearable. There are many reasons. Some people think it is just part of how parents raise their child “right.” The women are often seen as “cleaner” after the procedure. It is said to “ensure” that women remain virgins before marriage and during marriage don’t have affairs and is also supposed to help if a much older man marries a younger woman so that she doesn’t have a higher sex drive than him. It is also believed to lower women’s libido (which goes back to making sure that women remain virgins before marriage and don’t have affairs during marriage). Sometimes, they even try to sell it as rape protection (though this is twisted – here, let’s cut you up so that no man tries to rape you). Sometimes the labia and clitoris are viewed as parts of a man, so taking these away makes someone more feminine. Tied up with that is the belief in some places that if a man or a baby touches the clitoris they will die and/or it will make the woman’s breast milk poisonous. Sometimes they think this procedure makes a woman fertile (even though the exact opposite is true) or that it will take away bad odors or that it will prevent vaginal cancer (all fictitious “health” benefits). It is also sometimes believed that if the clitoris isn’t cut off, it will grow so big that it drags on the ground (again, another falsity). Some places think it keeps a woman’s face from turning yellow or makes it more beautiful. It is often viewed as a right of passage – something that turns a girl into a woman and women who are never mutilated are often seen perpetually as a child in their society. In fact, there is a story from Kenya of a woman who chose not to have FGM done to her and then later on when she decided to run office, the people running against her used this as something to attack about her. Often, it is not men pushing and promoting this like one would think, but older women or women themselves wanting it, being taught these things about how it is good for you. Though, the men play into this as well as they will often times not marry a girl unless she has had this done to her. Both men and women play into the idea that it is for the family’s honor and reputation. And even if the parents decide not to have this for their daughters, they still have to be wary of their relatives who believe in FGM, who may kidnap the children and forcibly perform this. There is a lot of back and forth over whether or not it is a cultural practice or if it is a religious practice. I don’t have the answer but I think the answer is that it can be both – it is a cultural practice in some places and some religions include it in their practices in other places. Some Muslims practice it, but they aren’t the only religious group to practice it and not all Muslims do (there is a lot of people who I think associate FGM with Islam, but it definitely should not be the case since many don’t and many communities practice it without religious associations and there have been Christian and Animist groups that practice it as well). In fact, it is believed that FGM was happening before Islam even existed and a lot of Muslims argue that there is no grounds for FGM in Islam. The issue of women and Islam is not always as straightforward as it seems.

“Human rights transcend cultural relativism by definition, but the cultural-religious argument has to be taken into consideration for implementation of policy.” – Stephan Isaacs

It’s not hopeless – people are really trying to bring an end to this. February  6th every year is the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation. I think also it goes to having a cultural change. I think that those people need to be taught that women can control themselves sexually and just be abstinent before marriage and then during marriage be faithful without someone needing to mutilate them. There is also evidence that this change will come from NGOs helping communities make these cultural changes more than laws, since in many countries, laws by overarching bodies seem to be resisted or not enforced. Indeed, many countries where FGM is practiced has laws making it illegal. Some Western countries help further by granting asylum to women who will have to go through forced FGM (though of course, they must be able to prove this). It is clear that the laws are doing very little, so the change needs to come from other places and there are many NGO’s actively working on it. Holding community meetings is another strategy that is being tried.  Educating people about the harmful effects is also being tried (and what I like about this is they often have respected women already in the community teaching younger women and girls about it – a much more sustainable and viable solution in my opinion). They also are trying to introduce alternative rights of passage and have had some success with replacing FGM with a separate right of passage ceremony. I believe, as do many people, that a harm-elimination strategy is best, as opposed to a harm-reducation strategy (one example would be moving it so it happens in hospitals so it’s “safer” – making the harm less, but not at all reducing it). That means completely eliminating the danger of FGM that women and girls face, not just making it less. Surgeons have also recently developed reversal techniques for this procedure. Of course, it’s not going to be completely like it was, but something is better than nothing for the women who have already gone through this.

This is another youtube video but embedding has been disabled. It is very graphic in nature and there is some nudity, but it does speak to two women who were mutilated at a young age.

Further Reading (Note, I haven’t read them, just found them):


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