The statistics are shocking: 200 million girls and women across the globe, in 31 countries, have been subjected to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), according to a UNICEF estimate. This is three times as many women and girls as live in the UK. Many of these were children who were not yet 15 years’ old when they endured this cruelty. The details of the four different types of FGM forced upon girls are stark and gruesome — it may involve partial or even total removal of the external genitals. That women continue to undergo the practice in the ‘modern’ 21st century world is breathtaking.
FGM violates the human rights of a child, yet it remains an uncomfortable subject and continues to be veiled in secrecy.
There are no advantages for women, and certainly there is no medical reason for FGM. Some girls die as a result. They are often cut with unhygienic razor blades. Sometimes girls are held down by older women who believe it is in all women’s best interests. FGM is regularly carried out without antibiotics, anaesthesia, or sterile equipment. The pain is unimaginable, and the procedure can lead to infection, urinary tract problems, extreme shock and serious haemorrhage. In adulthood, there can be infertility, menstrual problems, difficulty giving birth, or the death of an infant. FGM breaks women’s spirits. The psychological impact is likely to last a lifetime. And, of course, controlling a woman’s sexuality is the motivation for FGM; it takes away any chance of a woman enjoying a satisfying and pleasurable sexual relationship.
Fewer girls are being cut today. Figures released by the UN suggest that a girl is one-third less likely to undergo the procedure than they were 30 years ago; so the numbers have declined over the last 25 years but remain horrifying. FGM persists still and is widespread, and some groups oppose attempts to ban it, arguing that uncut women are not accepted in their societies, that a ban would go against their religion. Some believe it is hygienic to be cut, that it is the correct way to ensure a girl or woman maintains her virginity. It is also said to enhance male pleasure during sex. Really? Increase a man’s enjoyment during penetrative sex by inflicting torture on young girls and women? Some communities regard it as essential as a rite of passage and argue that it makes women more ‘marriageable’. Women who have not undergone FGM are sometimes ostracised and thought of as unhealthy or unclean.
In some countries where it is against the law, such as Uganda, the practice persists. FGM takes place illegally in the UK, with instances of babies being cut before the violation can be discovered, as it might well be after they have started school. And there is no excuse for FGM to be carried out clinically by medically trained practitioners using anaesthetics. This carries a risk that it could become normalised and more acceptable.
FGM is not new. Circumcised mummies from the fifth century BC have been discovered in ancient Egypt, where it was used to underline the inequality between classes. It was also inflicted on female slaves in ancient Rome to discourage them from having sex and becoming pregnant. It took place for some centuries in European countries, records being kept for instance of FGM being used as a treatment in the London Surgical Home for Women in the second half of the 19th century. It was used to treat certain ‘sexual disorders’; lack of enjoyment of sex with your husband was considered one such disorder! There are records of it being carried out in the United States at around the same time. Despite different arguments used to justify FGM, the overriding motivation was always about controlling women’s sexuality.
There is some confusion about FGM’s origin and how it spread, but it is a practice that endures across the world. There are many more instances in some African countries, but we should not dismiss it as something that happens elsewhere, overseas, or as other countries’ business. People blame ‘other’ religions, ‘other’ cultures, ‘other’ societies, but, although the main concentrations are in Africa and the Middle East, there are girls who are brutalised in this way in some parts of Asia, Latin America, Western Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand; and where it has spread, it is sometimes referred to as an ‘immigrant’ problem. It is a worldwide problem and the responsibility of us all not to sweep it under the carpet. We owe it to these violated young women and girls to speak out, not to dismiss it or consider it taboo.
There is action and there is help: Womankind Worldwide, for instance, is providing girls with information, bringing the damaging effects of FGM out into the open, providing safe houses for girls who have fled, initiating mediation between girls and their families when girls try to resist, and providing legal advice and defence.
The United Nations called for an end to FGM on the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation on 6th February 2012. This day is marked every year. Does this have an impact or is the day and the practice quietly forgotten? Has it once again slipped from our immediate consciousness and become, like so many abuses in the world, just one of those things that happens and that we believe we are powerless to change?