Female Genital Mutilation: The perilous practice that keeps surviving through culture

by Magdalini Tsakyri

Introduction

For the majority of girls, at the early age of 10 till their adolescence, school duties and outdoor games are key concerns. Yet, for some girls this age is marked as a violent moment; the moment of clitoris removal; a practice known as female genital mutilation (FGM) or cutting which is concerned a global issue. Although this worldwide phenomenon has been declared as one of the biggest violations of human rights, it has been estimated that over 200 million girls have undergone genital mutilation. This practice can be found in societies and cultural communities all around the world, more specifically in certain communities located in 30 countries in Africa, but also in certain ethnic groups in Asian Countries and the Middle East. (WHO)

It should be mentioned here that the rise of international migration has also increased the number of girls and women living in the various diaspora population – including Europe and North America-, who have already undergone or may undergo this practice. In order to cease the FGM practice, people need to recognize the phenomenon and therefore declare it a global concern since, during international migration, people from different cultural backgrounds tend to bring along their social beliefs with them, no matter the social implications that they may have; hence, the FGM. (WHO/NHS)

A powerful social norm

This practice is well known for many years and its health impacts are widely known in many countries. In fact, it’s not a religious or political thing but a social one. The reason why it is still performed varies from one region to another and the main purpose is based on cultural and social factors. The reason that FGM survives through culture has to do with the power of social norms, the existence of different beauty standards and financial reasons.

People who have social preferences care about what people of their concern do or approve of. They have expectations that influence their behavior based on their beliefs, which can be factual or normative. Social norm, i.e. something I will do because I think you, as my peer group, expect of me, is actually a social expectation that is so powerful that it holds it in place (Bicchieri). This strong expectation leads to social pressure.

However, in these communities, female genital mutilation is a practice from which people define the value of a girl. Being cut is translated with persons being compliant, culturally respectable and marriageable. It is believed that women with a clitoris can be hypersexual and as a result, they are more likely to lose their virginity prior to marriage. The cut of female genitals, therefore, will control their sexuality and will not put them in the risk of staying unmarried and consequently have a bad reputation in their society (Berg, Denison/ Steals). As a result, it can be advocated that this practice is positively correlated with the social structure of the community, which is based on heavily strong social norms. Hence, this is an ongoing phenomenon and this is why women themselves are the ones who are passing along this practice to their daughters and granddaughters. Unfortunately, they do not realize the damage they cause, because they have undergone the same practice. Technically, they protect FGM by keep practicing it. For them, this is a duty they must perform in order to do their part in their community. (Shell-Duncan)

Another reason is related to myths and taboos about women and their beauty, which differs in every society. For instance, in the majority of African countries, where FGM is being practiced, a closed vulva is considered feminine, pure and clean, whereas urinating slowly without noise is considered polite. Ironically, from a health perspective, a vulva that is not closed can be viewed as a huge hole from where bacteria and diseases can enter( J. Abdulcadir).

Despite the social norms and beauty standards, a crucial factor is also the economic one. The moment the girl is being cut, the possibility of getting married increases. Marriage will bring to the family economic benefits since marriage settlements usually include a dowry such as money or animal exchange given to the girls’ families. Also, performing mutilations is a highly recognized job, therefore, performers object that they will lose their only financial income (Serour).

Female Genital Mutilation & Health Risks

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injuries to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. The procedure has no known health benefits. It has four different types. The first is the partial or total removal of the clitoral glans and/ or the prepuce/clitoral hood and the second type is the partial or total removal of the clitoral glans and the labia minora with or without removal of the labia majora. The third type, also known as infibulation, includes the narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of the covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the labia minora or labia majora, sometimes through stitching, with or without removal of the clitoral prepuce/ clitoral hood and glans. Lastly, the fourth type includes all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes. (WHO)

The FGM constitutes a breach of the established human rights and is a vital threat to the girls’ physical and mental health. This practice raises serious health and mental complications for the girls and women who have undergone it.

They are facing the risk of crucial infections since FGM is performed by people who have no medical knowledge and in most cases, they use tools that haven’t even been sterilized. People from those communities due to the lack of information and knowledge are not aware of the significant impacts they might cause. Just imagine that tools such as an ordinary knife, a pair of scissors, a blade or even a razor can be used more than once to cut female genitals. A common infection might be tetanus but since its symptoms start to appear after the period of two weeks no one actually connects it with FGM. It is worth mentioning that, a high rate of HIV in Africa is related to FGM  since in lots of cases they use the same razor in a group of girls without knowing if any of them is HIV positive and therefore spread HIV. Also, in many of these cultures, they save the razor for future cuts. (WHO/UNFPA).

Except for immediate complications like genital tissue swelling, severe pain and shock,  it can also cause long-term complications such as urinary, vaginal, menstrual and sexual problems, scar tissue and keloid, risk of childbirth complications and of course morality due to deadly infections or bleeding. Also, it should be noted that women after marriage need to be cut again in order to enlarge the orifice corresponding to the vagina;  the vagina office that they will be able to have sexual intercourse. (Ismail)

Confessions from women who have undergone FGM

”..FGM is about controlling the sexuality of a woman so you don’t have sexual desire. It affects every area of your life and this happened to me because I was born a girl in the wrong place. This is a general problem, not an African or Middle East thing, it’s not white not black it has no color, it’s everybody’s problem. [..] Children are being abused because of a culture. Culture should not be a defense for child abuse.”

 [Khadija Gbla, Sierra Leone]

“If a white man or woman saw a white child that is mutilated, there would be screaming. I guarantee it would end. This is abuse against a child, so to say this is your ‘thing’, it’s to do with your religion or race, it’s all wrong. This is about child protection. I don’t see anything else, and I think it’s covered up by racism, and the idea that ‘I don’t want to get involved’. It’s pure violence against girls, and it destroys the rest of their lives. And for what? For who?

[Waris Dirie, Somalia]

Legal Framework and Overcoming the Issue

Although Female Genital Mutilation is globally considered a harmful practice, it has not been entirely prohibited. The fact that estimations show that if current rates remain constant, 68 million more girls will be cut between 2015 and 2030, makes this situation urgent and a national priority.

From a human rights perspective, significant decisions have been taken over the last years. In the Beijing Declaration in 1995, FGM/C was defined as a form of harmful practice affecting young girls (art. 39,93). Most recently in 2008, the United Nations stated on the Special Report on Torture that violence against women, including FGM, can be considered a violation of this convention. (OHCHR) More treaties have followed this example and declared FGM as a violation of Human Rights, like the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (The Banjul Charter), the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol), the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. (Leye,Van Eekert, Shamu, Esho, Barret&Anser)

The establishment of a strong legal policy system and the implementation of new laws has been a great step towards the eradication of  FGM. But laws alone cannot do much as in countries with a pluralistic legal system, the customary law often contradicts and therefore makes national law and policy enforcement hard (Swenson). Female Genital Mutilation was and still is a social norm based on social beliefs, which are deeply embedded in the community and this is the reason why the matter needs to be approached collectively. A unilateral approach to change a social norm simply cannot work. The most important is the linkage between people of a community, doctors, health care providers, teachers, regional organizations and administrations and community leaders that must have a strong connection through communication, in order to set an example in the whole community. Collaboration with leaders, community or religious, etc., will certainly make a change since leaders are the role models in these societies.

Awareness can be achieved through education, by enabling access to high quality and safe schooling, empowering girls and women so they will have an opportunity to understand and exercise the rights, as well as mobilization of the families and communities in order to understand the value and the benefits that women have in the society. People that their line of work includes FGM practices, should find alternative sources of income in order to not have financial burdens in the long run.

FGM is rooted in societies as the biggest moment of a woman’s life, it is celebrated as a ceremony, therefore, it is a tradition that it is hard to be broken. Nonetheless, since such beliefs have been created by societies so can they be broken by society itself.

Conclusion

Female Genital Mutilation or Cutting violates a series of well-established human rights principles and even though it appears that governments and international societies have adopted measures and legislation to limit FGM and protect women, the practice is still surviving behind the coverage of culture and tradition heritage. This heritage has stronger implications on women because women are the ones who embodied ” the tradition” of the nation through childbirth. (Steans) But as Navy Pillay endorses, ”When culture and individual rights are in conflict, human rights must prevail’’.

References

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Khadija, Khadija Gbla: Speaker, Trainer, Activist.  Available here.  [Accessed 8 April 2020].

Leye, E., Van Eekert, N., Shamu, S.et al. (2019) “Debating medicalization of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): learning from (policy) experiences across countries.” Reprod Health16,158. Available here.

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Serour GI. (2013) “Medicalization of female genital mutilation/cutting. African Journal of Urology. vl:19, pp:145–9. Available here.

Shell-Duncan, B., (2020).  “Women’s business? A social network study of the influence of men on decision-making regarding female genital mutilation/cutting in Senegal”. Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Canada, 42(2), p.e17.

Steans, J., (2013). Gender And International Relations. Polity.

Swenson, G., (2018). Legal Pluralism in Theory and Practice.International Studies ReviewInternational Studies Review, Vol 20, Issue 3, Pp 438–462 Available here.

United Nations Population Fund (2019). “Top 5 things you didn’t know about female genital mutilation”. Available here. [Accessed 10 April 2010].

United Nations,(1995) Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action, adopted at the Fourth World Conference on Women. Available here. [Accessed 27 March 2020]

World Health Organization. (2020). Female Genital Mutilation. Available here.

World Health Organization. (2020). WHO Joins The World In Marking The International Day Of Zero Tolerance For Female Genital Mutilation. Available here. [Accessed 18 April 2020].

World Health Organization (2016). WHO Guidelines On The Management Of Health Complications From Female Genital Mutilation.  Available here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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