The struggle to end forced female genital
mutilation (FGM) on the bodies of girls and young women world-wide
is making slow progress. There is still much to be done, to change
the laws and sanctioned practices of clitoridectomy, excision
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is the
term used by the World Health Organization and other opponents
of the practices to refer to the removal of part, or all, of
the female genitalia. In areas across the globe where the procedures
are practiced, there have been objections to the term "mutilation,"
along with arguments that the cultures which value these traditions
do not seek to intentionally disfigure or harm their children.
As a result, some writers have attempted to utilize more politically
neutral terms, such as "female genital cutting" and
"female genital surgeries." However, along with the
World Health Organization, Amnesty International, and many other
groups, we at STANDARDS understand the practices to be unnecessarily
painful, disfiguring, and brutal. We therefore join others in
using the term "FGM."
The performance of the procedures range
from operations on anesthetized women or girls by skilled medical
professionals in sterile clinical settings to the use of glass
shards, tin edges, razor blades, or other slicing implements
-- without anesthesia.
Clitoridectomy, also called "female
circumcision," involves the removal of some part of the
clitoris. While the least severe procedure for clitoridectomy
involves the removal of only the clitoral hood, there is more
commonly very little consonance between this practice and male
circumcision: most often, a clitoridectomy procedure removes
most or all of the clitoris. (It is noteworthy that many advocates
within and beyond the medical communities also currently consider
male circumcision to be an unneccessary procedure amounting to
Excision is the removal of both the clitoris
and all, or part of, the labia minora.
Infibulation, also known as "pharaonic
circumcision," is by far the most severe form of FGM: the
procedure involves clitoridectomy, excision, and cutting of the
labia majora to create raw surfaces, once the vulva, which are
then stitched or held together, using thorns, silk, catgut sutures,
or thread. Often, a small piece of wood or reed is inserted in
the body, developing a small hole through which urine and menstrual
blood can flow. Less conventionally, smaller amounts of tissue
are removed, leaving a larger opening in the body.
Where This Happens
According to Amnesty International, an
estimated 135 million of the world's girls and women have undergone
some form of genital mutilation, and two million girls a year
are at risk of mutilation -- approximately 6,000 per day. The
procedures are well-documented in Africa, as well as in some
countries of the Middle East. FGM is also practiced, mainly among
immigrant communities, in parts of Asia and the Pacific, North
America, Latin America and Europe.
While there have been reports of FGM
among certain indigenous groups in Central and South America,
little information is available.
Similarly, there are no figures to indicate
how common the practices are in Asia. According to some reports
studied by Amnesty International and other groups, FGM is practiced
among Muslim populations in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Malaysia,
yet very little hard data exists for these countries. In India,
a small Muslim sect, the Daudi Bohra, practices clitoridectomy.
In the Middle East, FGM is practised
in Egypt, Oman, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates.
In industrialized countries, FGM occurs
predominantly among immigrants from various nations where mutilation
is practised. The procedures have been reported in Australia,
Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, the
UK and USA. Young girls -- even infants -- living in industrialized
countries may undergo illegal FGM procedures performed by physicians
from their own communities who are reside in the new country.
More frequently, traditional practitioners are brought in from
the country of origin, or girls are sent abroad to be mutilated.
No figures are available on how common
the practise is among the populations of industrialized countries.
It is well established, however, that female genital mutilation
was routinely practiced as recently as the 1940s and 1950s, by
doctors in England and the United States who believed the procedures
worked to "combat" hysteria, lesbianism, masturbation
and other perceived sexual "deviance" in girls and
women. The "prevention" of "deviance": in
some societies, the rationale for FGM includes guarding against
infidelity by insuring the woman's genitals are sown shut; reducing
the sex drive of women to ward off "unfeminine" behaviors";
and delineating gender roles, by removing the clitoris and labia
-- considered the "male parts" of a woman, replete
with fears that the clitoris might "prick" the man
-- and, after FGM, girls are considered to be imbued with the
more desirable qualities of docility and obedience.
Still, "custom and tradition"
are by far the most frequently cited reasons for FGM, particularly
in areas and groups where mutilation is carried out as part of
the initiation into adulthood. According to Amnesty International,
Jomo Kenyatta, the late President of Kenya, argued that FGM was
inherent in the initiation which is in itself an essential part
of being Kikuyu, to such an extent that "abolition... will
destroy the tribal system."
In many FGM-practising societies, it
is difficult to impossible for a woman to marry, if she has not
undergone mutilation. Many proponents of the procedures argue
that FGM enhances fertility -- including the belief that a woman
who has not been mutilated may not bear children.
Worse, "hygeine" and the enhancement
of male sexual pleasure are often cited as reasons for performing
FGM. Women are considered "unclean" without the procedures,
and in some communities are not allowed to handle food and water
until the "initiation" has been performed. The genitalia
of women are considered "ugly" and unwieldy: in some
FGM-practising cultures, there is the belief that the genitals
of a woman will grow and hang between her legs, unless the clitoris
is removed. Others believe that a man will die, should his penis
come in contact with the clitoris, or that babies will die during
birth, if the head touches the clitoris.
Connected with this is the perception
in FGM-practising communities that women's unmutilated genitals
are ugly and bulky. In some cultures, there is a belief that
a woman's genitals can grow and become unwieldy, hanging down
between her legs, unless the clitoris is excised. Some groups
believe that a woman's clitoris is dangerous and that if it touches
a man's penis he will die. Others believe that if the baby's
head touches the clitoris during childbirth, the baby will die.
Notably, although a pro-feminist viewpoint
obtains in all the literature seeking to eradicate FGM practices,
one of the most prevalent, yet least discussed, aspects of cultures
in which the female body is brutally altered to promote childbearing
and/or marriage is the notion of compulsory heterosexuality.
We have not, to date, found information regarding lesbian rights
movements in areas of the world where FGM is routinely performed
on women. In fact, in many parts of the world (including the
United States), FGM -- especially clitoridectomy -- has been
practiced to "prevent" lesbianism.
The physical consequences of FGM can
lead to shock; hemorrhage; serious chronic infections of the
urinary and/or reproductive tracts; the development of stones
in the bladder and uretha; kidney damage; excessive scar tissue;
dermoid cysts; the spread of HIV through repeated use of unsterile
implements; even death. Yet the incidence of these health risks
cannot be reliably estimated: supporters of FGM claim that major
complications and problems are rare, while opponents of the practice
claim that they are frequent.
Beyond medical health risks, women who
are "sewn shut" after FGM procedures must undergo painful
dilation of the opening, in order to experience first intercourse.
In many instances, further cutting is necessary to widen the
entrance to the woman's body, before intercourse can occur. Some
new wives experience severe physical damage at the hands of husbands
unskilled at this cutting.
After childbirth, some women are reinfibulated,
to make their openings "tighter" for their husbands.
Due to the inherent health risks and
possibility of death associated with FGM, international health
advocacy groups and human rights organizations have bonded to
change global perceptions regarding the practices of ritual mutilation.
As there is no single religion to which
FGM is attributed (in fact, the procedures are enacted upon the
bodies of women within many faiths), genital mutilation cannot
be viewed as simply a spiritual practice.
And, as the cultures in which FGM is
most common routinely represent the practices as methods of controlling
women's sexualities and gender identities, international organizations
consider FGM a human rights violation.
It is unacceptable that the international
community remain passive in the name of a distorted vision of
multiculturalism. Human behaviours and cultural values, however
senseless or destructive they may appear from the personal and
cultural standpoint of others, have meaning and fulfil a function
for those who practise them. However, culture is not static but
it is in constant flux, adapting and reforming. People will change
their behaviour when they understand the hazards and indignity
of harmful practices and when they realize that it is possible
to give up harmful practices without giving up meaningful aspects
of their culture.
Joint statement by
the World Health Organization, UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and
UN Population Fund, February 1996
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Struggle Against FGM
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