Data from World Health Organization say more than 125 million girls and women alive today have been cut in the 29 countries in Africa and Middle East where Female Genital Mutilation is concentrated. FGM is mostly carried out on young girls sometime between infancy and age 15. Hopefully one day, FGM will be seen as the abomination and perversion it is, and will be banished from the earth.
What is FGC/FGM?
Female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as female genital cutting (FGC) and female circumcision, is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) 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.” FGM is practised as a cultural ritual by ethnic groups in 27 countries in sub-Saharan and Northeast Africa, and to a lesser extent in Asia, the Middle East and within immigrant communities elsewhere. It is typically carried out, with or without anaesthesia, by a traditional circumciser using a knife or razor. The age of the girls varies from weeks after birth to puberty; in half the countries for which figures were available in 2013, most girls were cut before the age of five.
The practice involves one or more of several procedures, which vary according to the ethnic group. They include removal of all or part of the clitoris and clitoral hood; all or part of the clitoris and inner labia; and in its most severe form (infibulation) all or part of the inner and outer labia and the closure of the vagina. In this last procedure, which the WHO calls Type III FGM, a small hole is left for the passage of urine and menstrual blood, and the vagina is opened up for intercourse and childbirth. The health effects depend on the procedure but can include recurrent infections, chronic pain, cysts, an inability to get pregnant, complications during childbirth and fatal bleeding.
Around 125 million women and girls in Africa and the Middle East have undergone FGM. Over eight million have experienced Type III, which is most common in Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan. The practice is an ethnic marker, rooted in gender inequality, ideas about purity, modesty and aesthetics, and attempts to control women’s sexuality. It is supported by both women and men in countries that practise it, particularly by the women, who see it as a source of honour and authority, and an essential part of raising a daughter well.
FGM has been outlawed in most of the countries in which it occurs, but the laws are poorly enforced. There has been an international effort since the 1970s to eradicate the practice and in 2012 the United Nations General Assembly voted unanimously to take all necessary steps to end it.
Text and images Wikipedia.
The Orchid Project
Julia Lalla-Maharajh with children in Ethiopia. Photo by London Evening Standard.
The Orchid Project is a NGO founded in June 2010 by Julia Lalla-Maharajh (photo) who was volunteering in Ethiopia when she came across the scale and extent of female genital cutting there. When she returned to the UK she was determined to do something about FGC. She volunteered with various NGOs working on FGC to discover more about the possibilities for ending FGC. Read more about The Orchid Project, learn more about FGC and know how you can support the project and help to eliminate this heinous practice from the planet: http://orchidproject.org/.
Why does FGC happen?
Female genital cutting is a social norm. This means that it is held in place by the entire community. One individual acting alone cannot shift a social norm – the entire community must work together collectively. Men and women often support FGC without question because it is a traditional practice that has existed in a community for generations. Many communities believe that a girl needs to be cut in order to marry well. Despite the fact that it is harmful to women, FGC is sometimes seen as an issue that women confer onto other girls. Even if a mother does not want her daughter to be cut because of her own painful experience, she is unlikely to forego the practice because of the social sanctions in place.
In some communities, a girl who is not cut is seen as unclean and sexually promiscuous. On the other hand, the belief is that a girl who is cut will make a good marriage because she is thought to be cleaner, more fertile and will be a virgin until her wedding night.
A victim of genital mutilation in Somalia. Photo from Global Sisterhood.
When a woman is sealed closed after being cut, people think that it means that she will not have intercourse until she is married. This means that even if parents understand the dangers and negative health impacts of cutting their daughter, they may still choose to do so because they perceive the benefits as outweighing the disadvantages. Those who support female genital cutting (FGC) often believe that it is closely linked to cleanliness, virginity, healthiness, beauty and morality.
Because practising communities often believe that cutting a girl eliminates her sexual desire, there is often little understanding that desire is psychological rather than physical. There are many superstitions around the practice. For example, it is sometimes believed that if a girl is not cut, her clitoris or labia will grow to unseemly, masculine proportions. Others believe that female genitals are unclean and that an infant can die during birth by coming into contact with the mother’s clitoris. Others still believe that if a woman is not cut, she will become a prostitute. To many, being cut is synonymous with being healthy, chaste and beautiful.
Today, many will also cite religion as a reason for FGC. But FGC is not prescribed by any of the major religions. The practice is thought to have originated around 2,200 BC, before the advent of Islam and Christianity. FGC can be practised by Christians, Muslims, Jews and atheists alike.
How many girls and women are affected?
The UN estimates that worldwide 125 million women and girls are currently living with the consequences of FGC. A further 30 million girls are at risk of being cut in the next decade across 29 known practising countries in Africa and the Middle East. However, this figure under-estimates the real number of girls affected, because other countries (e.g. Indonesia) are not included.
It is hard to give accurate figures, because data gathering outside of Africa tends not to include FGC. It can also be hard to collect information from women and girls about their experiences, because of the taboo within the community to speak about FGC. As something that happens primarily to children, there is also an issue about accuracy of reporting on their behalf.
What actually happens during FGC?
When a girl undergoes female genital cutting, some or all of her external genitals are cut away. This can be part or all of her labia, part or all of her clitoris and part or all of her clitoral hood (the prepuce). In its most extreme form, all of her external genitals will be cut away. This often happens in very basic circumstances with rudimentary tools; it is unlikely that there is any anaesthetic or that conditions are sterile.
In the harshest form of FGC, the wound that is left may be sewn closed with thorns or string. A small hole is left for menstrual blood and urine. The wound then heals over and the scar tissue “seals” her vagina. A girl will then have to be cut open, just enough for sexual intercourse. When she goes into labour, she is cut open even more. After this she may be re-sewn and cut open again every time she gives birth.
What are the different types of FGC?
The entire female external genital organ is called the vulva and is composed of the labia majora (the outer lips), labia minora (the inner lips) and the clitoris which has a hood (the prepuce). The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies FGC into four categories dependent on severity (initially there were three categories, the fourth was added later):
Type 1: The clitoris or clitoral hood is partially or fully removed (also known as clitoridectomy)
Type 2: As well as the clitoris, the labia minora are partially or fully removed. The labia majora may also be cut
Type 3: The clitoris, labia minora and labia majora are cut away, and the remaining skin is sewn or sealed together leaving a tiny hole for menstrual blood and urine. This is commonly known as infibulation
Type 4: All other harmful procedures to the female genitals including pricking, piercing, rubbing, scraping and the use of herbs or other substances.
Physical impacts of FGC
The physical impacts of female genital cutting can be incredibly harmful to a girl’s health and are likely to affect a woman over the course of her lifetime.
– In the most extreme cases, FGC can cause death. The cut can cause a girl to haemorrhage or die from tetanus in the weeks following the procedure. Often communities do not have a basic knowledge of how infection happens to make this connection
– In the short term, shock, open sores, cysts and keloid scarring are amongst the less severe physical impacts. Sometimes, the same knife or basic instrument is used to cut many girls without being sterilised, making girls vulnerable to HIV infection.
– Girls who have been infibulated are likely to have trouble passing urine as the urethra may be obstructed and urine cannot escape easily. They will be prone to bladder infections.
– Once a girl starts menstruating, it will be hard for menstrual blood to pass through the small hole. This may cause extremely painful periods as the stagnant menstrual blood causes bacteria to build up and cause pelvic inflammation and severe abdominal cramps. A woman may experience bleeding for the duration of her monthly cycle. At the most extreme, this can cause internal infection which may result in death.
– Infertility is common for women who have undergone FGC. Because of the stagnation of menstrual blood and other vaginal secretions and the resulting inflammation of the pelvis, the womb may be affected.
Emotional and psychological impacts of FGC
The trauma and memory of being cut as well as the pain a cut woman may experience throughout her life, especially during sexual experiences and child birth, are also likely to result in further distress. If a woman has undergone type 3 cutting (infibulation) she may relive the initial trauma, when she is cut open and re-sewn for intercourse and at birth as well as experiencing further physical and psychological trauma.
A 2010 study about the experiences of cut girls in Iraqi Kurdistan found that “all circumcised participants remembered the day of their circumcision as extremely frightening and traumatizing. Over 78% of the girls described feelings of intense fear, helplessness, horror, and severe pain, and over 74% were still suffering from intrusive re-experiences of their circumcision.”
Studies such as this one reveal that girls who undergo FGC go on to experience lower self-esteem, more anxiety and personality disorders than uncut girls of their age, as well as symptoms of depression.
At what age does FGC happens?
The age at which a girl is cut depends on a specific cultural context. In some communities a girl may be cut during infancy, for example, in areas of Ethiopia, a girl may be just nine days old. In others, it may be later as a teenager. In half of the countries that practice FGC, the majority of girls are cut before age 5. Elsewhere, cutting occurs between 5 and 14 years of age. A global trend is that girls are being cut at a younger age.
In some communities, girls undergo FGC in their early teenage years and the procedure acts as a rite of passage into womanhood. In other cultures, FGC is precursor to child marriage. There are also instances of women of any age choosing to undergo FGC. Image above from http://bulletinoftheoppressionofwomen.com/.
FGC is a violation of women’s and children’s right
Female genital cutting is widely recognised as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. At the most basic level, FGC damages healthy tissue of a girl’s body without her permission. It also contravenes a number of international and regional treaties and conventions including the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Where does FGC happens?
Female genital cutting has been documented in 28 African countries and in countries in the Middle East such as Yemen, Oman, Kuwait, Brunei and areas of Iraq and Iran. FGC is also known to take place parts of Asia, including Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. There is further anecdotal evidence for FGC taking place in a number of other countries where data has not yet been collected. In Africa there is limited evidence of FGC taking place in Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
Map printed from http://orchidproject.org/fgc-map/
FGC has also been reported in Singapore, the Maldives and the Philippines, while a type of FGC known as ’introcision’ was reported among the Embera-Chami tribe in Colombia, although the practice was declared to be abandoned in a ceremony in 2011. This particular form of FGC has also been reported in communities in Peru, Eastern Mexico and Brazil. The same report also talks of FGC among aboriginal tribes in Australia, but this has since been refuted. FGC is also practiced among diaspora communities in Western countries (including parts of Europe, the USA and Australia).
With more than 125 million women around the world living with the effects, FGC is a global issue that urgently needs to be eliminated from the earth.
Text and infographics: http://orchidproject.org.
Watch the film that changed the law in Kurdistan society. Two filmmakers have spent almost a decade reporting the greatest taboo subject in Kurdish society: female genital mutilation.