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What is female genital mutilation and why does it still happen?

This Saturday marks the International Day of Zero Tolerance of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). It is a day when communities around the world will come together to call for an end to the practice of FGM. (Photo UNICEF / Olivier Asselin: CC BY-SA 2.0)
This Saturday marks the International Day of Zero Tolerance of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). It is a day when communities around the world will come together to call for an end to the practice of FGM. (Photo UNICEF / Olivier Asselin: CC BY-SA 2.0)

The practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) has been met with outcry across the world - there is even a day dedicated to the outlaw of the practice on 6 February every year. Nevertheless, it continues in many parts of the world. In this guest blog, Isabelle looks at what FGM involves and why it is proving so hard to eradicate.

In mid-January this year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a report on female genital mutilation (FGM) in the United States, which includes updated estimates of girls and women at risk.

They found that approximately 513,000 females in the U.S. were at risk in 2012, which is more than three times higher than the original estimate based on 1990 data. This increase is solely attributed to the rise in the number of immigrants from countries that practice FGM. Despite the procedure being illegal in the U.S., some immigrants maintain the practice by having their daughters cut locally or sending them to their countries of origin for “vacation cutting”.

Anti-FGM campaign poster
Despite visible campaigns against FGM, it continues to be carried out in many countries (Photo Amnon Shavit: CC BY-SA 3.0)
With the increase in global migration, there is the very real risk of FGM spreading to and gaining ground in countries where there were previously low incidence rates. Now, more than ever, it is crucial to put an end to this unjust practice.

Health & security compromised by cruelty

The UN and WHO define female genital mutilation, also known as female circumcision or cutting, as any procedure that involves altering and/or injuring female genitalia for non-medical purposes. The procedure has absolutely no benefits―health or otherwise―for females, and is carried out on young girls between infancy (sometimes just days after birth) and age 15. Children are the ones who suffer most from FGM.

Although it mainly occurs in Africa and the Middle East, FGM also happens in other parts of the world such as India and Colombia, albeit with lesser media attention. Over 125 million females who are alive today have been cut, and many of these procedures have been carried out by traditional circumcisers who use unsterilized cutting instruments and don’t provide anaesthesia. However, a growing concern is that more and more medically trained professionals are performing FGM.

Apart from violating the right to be free from inhumane or degrading treatment, FGM carries with it a range of associated health problems. Immediate consequences include excessive pain, sepsis, haemorrhage, and even death. Long-term health complications such as PTSD, recurring infections, and infertility can also arise.

The real cause of FGM

Female genital mutilation is internationally recognized as a violation of human rights, yet it is often carried out under the guise of tradition, religion, and/or social convention. Undoubtedly, though, this practice is rooted in gender inequality: the ongoing and prevalent culture of violence and discrimination against girls and women.

In many communities, FGM is used to “prepare” a girl for adulthood and marriage; to control and discourage any sexual activity outside of wedlock; and to make the girl “clean” by removing body parts that are considered to be “unclean”. The mutilation is often followed by infibulation, the stitching together of external genitalia to prevent sexual intercourse.

Parents, relatives, community leaders, religious figures, and even medical personnel contribute to sustaining this crime and families with uncut daughters face social exclusion. Sometimes migrants, who didn’t practice it before, adopt FGM when moving into areas where it is practised.

Blame and shame

Social activist Fran Hosken aptly described FGM as a “training ground for male violence”. Astonishingly, though, a large proportion of FGM supporters are women themselves. Not only are they the ones who perform the procedures, but they’re also the ones who enforce it―even if the practice is banned by, for example, a male head of the community.

The Guardian has reported on powerful, all-female secret societies that exist across Sierra Leone. The groups are headed by soweis, older women who hold the most senior rank. These women, sometimes even with the consent of the parents, will forcibly take a girl to the “Bondo” bush (an area in the forest where FGM takes place), and carry out the cutting as an initiation into the group. They also publicly shame girls who don’t want to join their society, and view legislation against FGM as an attack on their culture. This points to another problem.

Although there is growing opposition against FGM, particularly among proponents of the feminist movement, there is also a rising criticism of this opposition―criticism that makes accusations of cultural colonialism. This is despite the fact that most of the time, this “rite of passage” is forced upon children, and many of the advocates who speak out against it were once subjected to FGM themselves.

What can be done about FGM?

Malala Yousafzai condems FGM
FGM has been denounced by many prominent female rights activists, including Malala Yousafzai (Photo DFID: CC BY 2.0)
The real question is: what is preventing its eradication? Most countries where FGM is practised have actually criminalised it; the African Union has also adopted the Maputo Protocol, which explicitly refers to the elimination of traditional practices that are harmful to women. Additionally, there are many global campaigns in place to combat it, including International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation on the 6th of February.

Yet laws are not always enforced, procedures occur in secret, and communities continue to put girls through this trauma. How do we move away from misconceptions about female purity and the never-ending attempt to control female sexuality? The answer is education.

Studies indicate that FGM occurs less frequently when girls’ mothers have had access to primary and secondary education. Not only will education inform FGM practitioners about the health implications, but education will also equip women to provide for themselves―thus putting less importance on “grooming and preparation” for marriage. Finally, education also emboldens young girls to question the ritual.

The Guardian notes that not all rural communities are pro-FGM. One Sierra Leone chief, who has banned the practice in his village, believes that it holds the community back from development. He affirms that if soweis had other forms of income or were taught to farm the land, they would be encouraged to “drop the knife”. Educational initiatives in high-risk areas would help with such issues and, although not easy to implement, they could be the key to ending this dangerous, unnecessary practice once and for all.

At SOS Children we are committed to the eradication of FGM. Take a look at what we're doing to tackle the problem in The Gambia & Guinea Bissau