The issue of female sexuality has long been a taboo subject, and still is to a certain extent, even in our seemingly liberal society. A recent study by Barbara Bartlik of Cornell University has even come to the conclusion that women are taught to suppress their sexuality. The test group in the study refused to admit that they were aroused by many of the pornographic films they were shown, while the men in the test group were more willing to admit to their own arousal and acknowledge their own sexuality. This is a generalisation, but it seems that unknowingly, women are taught throughout their lives that their sexuality is something which should be hidden and suppressed. To be indoctrinated by societal expectations is one thing, but to have your sexuality physically suppressed through violent means is another. Female Genital Mutilation does exactly that, and for some girls in Britain, it is becoming an increasing risk.
For those who are unaware, Female Genital Mutilation or ‘FGM’ involves cutting off the top of the clitoris. This leaves the woman in question in serious physical pain and unable to enjoy sex. In some countries, this is a tradition, but is being increasingly recognised as detrimental to the wellbeing and freedom of women and girls. It is estimated that almost 70,000 women in the United Kingdom are at risk of this, and while some girls are being taken abroad to have their organs cut, it is thought that more and more of these illegal operations are being carried out in the UK.
There are some who liken male circumcision to FGM. I’m not an advocate for the former, but there is one key difference between the two: you can still enjoy and have sex if you are circumcised. However, the removal of the top of the clitoris means that sex is either painful or impossible for the rest of one’s life. Medically, infections and tears can often mean that the removal of the foreskin is necessary, but there are no benefits whatsoever to FGM. Victims are left unable to walk or urinate after having their organs cut, and the matter of being unable to enjoy sex shows that it is essentially a matter of oppressing women’s health and sexual freedom. I understand that this may be a long-standing tradition for some cultures, and that I’m viewing the issue through Western eyes, but after hearing the testimonies of FGM survivors, most notably supermodel Waris Dirie, it is definitely a traumatic and damaging experience for the woman involved.
There is hope for FGM victims however. The NSPCC has opened a help line, and NHS clinics are beginning to open around the country aimed specifically at girls who have had their organs cut. Social services are also getting involved, as well as the Minister for Public Health, and this publicising makes me feel as though we as a country are becoming more aware of the issue. Programs to help eradicate the practice both in the UK and abroad are also coming into place. There haven’t been any convictions for practicing FGM in this country so far, but the response of public services and charities is a step in the right direction. Specialist charity The Orchid Project is also continuing its tireless campaign of education and publicity, globally as well as domestically.
It is important to value other cultures and traditions in the UK, but it’s a different matter entirely when the mental and physical health of women and girls is at risk. It’s definitely a positive that there has been a drive to help those affected, and programs of education to help change the perspective of those who would otherwise believe in the practice are being introduced. The secret nature of FGM makes is more difficult to circulate awareness for than other very obvious forms of misogyny, but the UK is making some very definite and positive steps to change this. It just goes to show that there is hope for victims of injustice, and by working hard enough as a collective, we can make a change when it comes to FGM.
Photos: The Orchid Project and Wikimedia Commons