"Grief," by Emmanuela Copal de León


Beyond Comfort


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 and infibulation.

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 "genital mutilation.")

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.


Human Rights


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




Find Out More/ Become Active in the Struggle Against FGM


Amnesty International

PATH (Program for Appropriate Technology in Health)

Third World Women's Health

TransAfrica Forum

Women's Human Rights Resources - Reproductive Rights

World Health Organization


Links for Ending Violence Against Women


Equality Now

Women for Women International

V-Day: Until the Violence Stops



Editorial, "Beyond Comfort" © 2001 by Canéla Analucinda Jaramillo

Original Graphic, "Grief" © 2001 by Emmanuela Copal de Léon



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