8 The act of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM) is a common practice in Africa and has been for many centuries. In Africa, about three million girls are at risk annually, and between 100 to 140 million girls and women worldwide are currently living with the consequences of FGM. In Africa alone, about 92 million girls age 10 years and above are estimated to have undergone some form of female genital mutilation, and the practice is most common in the western, eastern, and north-eastern regions of Africa. There have also been cases of female genital mutilation in some countries in Asia and the Middle East, and among certain immigrant communities in North America and Europe. FGM encompasses all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or any other injury to female genital organs for non-medically related reasons. FGM is most commonly carried out by traditional village circumcisers, but is increasingly being carried out by health care professionals. This is a very disturbing fact, especially since FGM is recognized internationally as a violation of human rights. Not only does FGM reflect gender inequality, but it is also an extreme form of discrimination against women. Additionally, it is a violation of the rights of children. FGM is most commonly carried out on minors (girls generally receive the procedure between birth and fifteen years of age). There are also other implications that violate a person’s rights to their own physical security and integrity, not to mention the right to be free from inhumane or degrading treatment. The procedure can also lead to death, which is a clear violation to the right to life.
There are no health benefits of FGM. Alternatively, much harm is inflicted on women and girls that can result in life-long complications. It interferes with the natural functions of girls’ and women’s bodies. Immediate complications include severe pain, shock, bleeding, bacterial infections (such as tetanus or sepsis), urine retention, open sores in the genital region, and injury to nearby genital tissue. Long-term issues can include recurring bladder and urinary tract infections, cysts, infertility, an increased risk of childbirth complications and newborn deaths, and the need for later surgeries to re-open the vaginal opening by cutting it in order to allow for sexual intercourse and childbirth.
One problem with the eradication of female genital mutilation is that it is a cultural practice not fully understood by the western world. There have been attempts at putting an end to FGM, but the success of stopping FGM is dependent on having the right approach. Reasons that FGM is committed include a mix of cultural, religious, and social factors within families and communities. A lot of times, social pressure to conform to what others in the community are doing offers a reason for female genital mutilation. In many cases, it has also become considered a necessary part of raising a girl properly to ensure that she does not participate in premarital sex or commit any sexual acts that would compromise her integrity. Another related reason for the practice of FGM in many communities is beliefs about what is considered proper sexual behavior. The procedure is believed to reduce a woman’s libido, and therefore is believed to reduce her “risk” of committing illicit sexual acts. A 60 year old man from Uganda was asked why the practice was carried out, and his response was “It was hoped that it would tame the women’s sexual desires since we (the men) had to move long distances grazing our animals. Therefore, it would prevent the women from being unfaithful to their husbands”. This is an example of discrimination against women in the form of female genital mutilation. It is just as likely that a male would be unfaithful to his wife, so it is unfair to mutilate a woman’s genitals as a preventive measure for infidelity. However, individual men and heads of household are not the only one’s responsible for the continued practice of FGM. Often times, community leaders, religious leaders, circumcisers, and even medical personnel can contribute to the continuation of the practice. The deep-rooted cultural implication of female genital mutilation as a tradition is used as a main argument for upholding the practice.
Thankfully, not everything surrounding female genital mutilation is negative. There have been in the past and continue to be international efforts to support the abandonment of FGM. In 1997, the World Health Organization (WHO), together with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) issued a joint statement against the practice of female genital mutilation. A new statement was issued in 2008 with wider United Nations (UN) support that used new evidence collected in the past ten years to highlight the increased recognition of issues with human rights violations and legal issues associated with the practice. The statement includes current data on the frequency and scope of FGM and summarizes research about why FGM continues and ways to stop it.
There has been recent success in the Africa region, as UNICEF recently reported that 6,000 communities across Africa have abandoned female genital mutilation/cutting. UNICEF is working in coordination with the UNFPA in 12 out of 17 priority African countries and have begun to see results, which is very encouraging. For example, in Ethiopia, the prevalence rate has dropped from 80% to 74%, in Kenya from 32% to 27%, and in Egypt from 97% to 91%. Although these statistics still seem very high, and it may appear that there haven’t been drastic drops in prevalence rates, any number of women that can be saved from this practice is significant. Furthermore, I believe that if even some communities can begin to abandon the practice, their abandonment can spread to other communities and encourage putting a stop to FGM. It is easier for cultures to end a cultural practice or change cultural norms when they hear reason from those who share a culture and history with them rather than listening to western ideas that do not correlate with their own. I believe one of the fundamental problems of ending FGM lies in the fact that those in the west that are trying to help don’t take cultural differences into consideration. We must respect other cultures and try and propose a non-threatening and non-condescending approach to make a successful change. The UNFPA-UNICEF joint program is doing just that. They have taken a culturally sensitive approach that includes dialogue and social networking. The hope is to abandon the practice within one generation by involving all groups within a community, from religious leaders to young girls themselves. Instead of condemning FGM, the program focuses on encouraging a collective abandonment in order to avoid alienating those who practice it and instead bringing about their voluntary renunciation of the practice. It takes time for social norms and cultural practices to change, but with the steps currently being taken and the hopeful continued success of abandonment, the harmful practice of female genital mutilation can be ended within one generation and end the suffering of millions of helpless women and girls.
The video link below shows a documentary done by UNICEF on female genital mutilation/cutting. I think it is a great video. It shows not only the importance of women empowerment, but also the importance of empowering men and communities to have the courage to speak out against their cultural traditions when they know it is wrong. The video give s a great summary of what is being done to try and put an end to this terrible act, and includes survivors, parents, and advocates of ending the practice of FGM.