FGM: Obstructing the Passage to Womanhood
Updated: Jun 28, 2020
By Dasha Asienga, Copy Editor
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a fatal practice that still occurs in 29 different countries around the world. Also known as female circumcision, FGM refers to procedures that involve the partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or to injuries that affect the female genital organs that have been exacted for non-medical purposes. There are four types of FGM, varying in levels of severity. Type I is referred to as clitoridectomy, which is partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or its foreskin. Type II is referred to as excision, which is partial or total cutting out and removal of the clitoris and labia minora (the smaller inner folds of the vulva). Type III, the most severe of them all, is referred to as infibulation or the pharaonic type. This practice involves excising the clitoris and labia of a girl, and stitching the edges of the vulva to prevent any sexual intercourse in the future. Of course, a small opening is left for the passage of urine and menstrual blood. Type IV involves any procedure on the genitalia of women, sometimes out of personal choice, such as piercing, pricking, incising (decorating with cuts), scraping, or cauterizing (burning). In half of the countries where FGM is performed, the majority of girls are cut before the age of five, and in the rest, between the ages five and fifteen.
As implied by the definition and types of FGM, the practice is accompanied by severe side effects. Immediate effects include bleeding, pain, and difficulty urinating. Infections are also common due to the use of unsterilized tools on open wounds. These effects can lead to death within days of the operation. “The pain inflicted by FGM does not stop with the initial procedure, but often continues as ongoing torture throughout a woman’s life,” says Manfred Nowak, the UN special rapporteur on Torture. Many women also experience various long-term physical, sexual, and psychological effects, including chronic pain, chronic pelvic infections, development of cysts (abnormal growths), abscesses (pus-filled swellings) and genital ulcers, excessive scar tissue formation, infection of the reproductive system, decreased sexual enjoyment, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Additional risks may include urinary and menstrual problems, infertility, and painful sexual intercourse. Evidently, there are no health benefits.
Despite the fatal risks associated with FGM, some cultures and communities still practise it. In fact, 200 million girls and women alive today have been cut. According to UNICEF, the 29 countries in which FGM is still practiced are located largely in the broad strip from the Atlantic Coast to the horn of Africa. The countries that display the largest percentages of FGM practices (above 75%) are Burkina Faso, Gambia, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Mali, Eritrea, Egypt, and Djibouti, with Guinea at 96% and Somalia at 98%. Other countries (under 74%) are Ethiopia, Mauritania, Liberia, Guinea Bissau, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, Central African Republic, Yemen, Tanzania, Benin, Iraq, Ghana, and Togo, Niger at 2%, and Cameroon and Uganda at 1%.
This begs the question: why do these countries practise FGM? Infibulation is specifically performed to prevent women from engaging in sexual intercourse or make women “tight” for their husbands, but this only accounts for 10% of all FGM cases. The most prevalent type is Type I, clitoridectomy. The reason why the procedure is performed varies from region to region. In some communities, FGM is universally performed and largely unquestioned because many girls feel compelled to conform to the societal norms in order to be accepted. Just like circumcision in men, FGM is believed to be a rightful passage to womanhood. It’s also practised to ensure marital loyalty and premarital virginity — as the clitoris is removed, there is minimal pleasure in sexual intercourse, and consequently, less sexual desire. It is believed that the sole purpose of sexual intercourse for the woman is to conceive children: the clitoris is considered unclean, so FGM is deemed to increase purity and marriageability. "Cutting girls is something our people have done for hundreds of years. No one can convince us that it is wrong," asserts a traditional practitioner from the Maasai community in Kenya. Despite increased education against this practise, many community leaders consider it a sacred cultural norm.
FGM is recognized internationally as an inhumane practice that violates the rights of girls and women. There has been wider international involvement, including introduction of monitoring bodies and resolutions, to condemn the practice. There have also been revised legal frameworks, with the implementation of laws against FGM in 26 countries in Africa and the Middle East. But surely, more needs to be done to end this fatal degradation of the right of passage to womanhood. For example, this practice was banned in Kenya in 2011, but that has only driven the practice underground, through illegal collaborations between medical practitioners and parents. According to the Brookings Institution:
“Moraa (not her real name), a girl from Nakuru in the Rift Valley [in Kenya], explained how her mother, a primary school teacher, brought a nurse to their home during school holidays to cut her at dawn when she was barely 8 years old. Moraa feels resentful and bitter towards her parents, especially her mother for colluding with a nurse to have her cut without her consent, and has considered suing her parents for violating her rights. Moraa’s story is just one of many cases of medicalized cutting.”
All women and girls have the right to bodily autonomy — and the right to reject FGM.