Female genital mutilation (FGM) is often synonymous with female genital circumcision, but the latter label is misleading and only serves to soften the barbarity of FGM. While the general topic of circumcision does generate its own debate, FGM is not something that can logically be defended. Nevertheless, it is a pervasive practice that is always associated with gender inequality, no matter where it takes place.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines FGM as “all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” It is often practiced by an older woman with no medical training using scissors, a shard of glass, a razor or scalpel. The girl may be held down; perhaps another woman will sit on her chest to ensure her stillness. Anaesthetic is rarely used and the likelihood of the equipment being properly sterilised or adequate aftercare being provided is also small.
Waris Dirie, UNFPA Goodwill Ambassador, has described her experience of FGM: “Mama tied a blindfold over my eyes. The next thing I felt my flesh was being cut away. I heard the blade sawing back and forth through my skin. The pain between my legs was so intense I wished I would die.” In some parts of the world, there is even a small, yet worrying shift toward the medicalisation of FGM, thus legitimizing it and making experiences like Dirie’s even more common.
So why is this invasive and deeply distressing procedure carried out? FGM is a pervasively cultural practice, a tradition upheld over generations, and the underlying motives for FGM are suitably archaic. It is primarily performed for reasons such as sustaining cultural identity, to increase the social acceptance or marriageability of the girl, to initiate girls into adolescence, to retain a supposed purity and to reduce female sexual pleasure, to name a few.
The WHO estimates that at least 140 million women are living with the consequences of FGM. It is a global problem, spanning areas such as the African subcontinent, the Middle East and parts of Southeast Asia. But FGM is not a frightening ritual merely consigned to far away lands; around as many as 65,000 girls are at risk of the procedure each year in the UK alone. Many girls will be taken abroad for the procedure, although others will undergo it here, often during the summer to allow time for healing before their return to school.
There is no justification for an outdated practice that causes the continued suffering, trauma and sometimes death of its victims.
FGM is forbidden in most of the countries in which it is practised and many governments and high profile figures such as UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon have thrown their support behind its elimination. But prosecutions are practically non-existent for a procedure that is almost impossible to monitor, despite awareness and campaigns flourishing, through movements such as The Girl Generation.
FGM is a gross violation of the human rights of girls and women and destroys the physical, mental and emotional health of those who undergo it. It is cruelty that is resoundingly felt; babies born to women who have experienced FGM have a likelihood of death that is up to 55 percent greater. There is no justification for an outdated practice that causes the continued suffering, trauma and sometimes death of its victims.