February 6th is International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). FGM includes: “procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons” (WHO, 2016). This usually involves cutting and removing parts of a girl’s/woman’s genitalia with razor blades, scissors, nails and glass without anaesthetic. There are no health benefits whatsoever to these “procedures”- in fact the reality is very much the opposite. It’s a sad reality for the millions of girls and women worldwide who face confusion, pain, suffering and violation through the practice of FGM as parents, family members and the wider community attempt to suppress girls’ sexuality, preserve their “honour”, adhere to social pressure and increase their daughters’ “eligibility” as brides by adhering to male demands, outdated traditional cultural practises and a false/differing interpretation of religion. More than 125 million girls and women have been cut in the name of FGM across 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East with 3 million at risk each year (UNICEF, 2013; WHO, 2016). Educating communities and spreading the word are key to putting an end to this barbaric practice. So, let’s bust the myths and get the key facts about what exactly FGM is, how, why and where it happens and look at how you can campaign against this gross violation of human rights.
Busting the myths
1. FGM is the female equivalent of or can be compared to male circumcision
FALSE: Female genital mutilation is sometimes also referred to as FGC (Female Genital Cutting) and also incorrectly labelled as “female circumcision” by certain people but this is totally inaccurate. Whatever your stance on male circumcision – FGM is entirely different. It is child abuse, violence and torture aimed at controlling a female’s sexual behaviour, denying her sexual pleasure within marriage itself and preserving her “honour” for the sake of others according to certain social-cultural beliefs and norms regarding marriage and female sexuality.
2. FGM is an Islamic practice
FALSE: Whilst unfortunately there have been certain so-called “scholars” who support FGM, FGM is un-Islamic. Not only does it pre-date Islam as a cultural practice, it is neither “required” according to Islamic standards and goes against Islamic principles such as health, not inflicting bodily harm, free will and a woman’s right to sexual pleasure within marriage. The Muslim Council of Britain for example has specifically denounced the practice as un-Islamic. FGM is a cultural issue not a religious requirement. It is misunderstood in religious terms, misplaced, misused and therefore practiced by some Muslims, Jews and Christians and also some animists.
3. FGM is only an African/Middle Eastern issue
FALSE: FGM is instead a global issue. It is prevalent and most common in Africa (27 countries in the African subcontinent to be precise), including Egypt in North Africa and many sub-Saharan countries such as Somalia, and also in Middle East (e.g. Kurdistan, Oman, Yemen and Jordan). However, FGM also occurs in both Malaysia and Indonesia and within migrant communities in Europe, the USA and Australia. UNICEF has now reported that FGM is practised in Indonesia although in a less “severe” form of scratching rather than in the form of slicing off flesh. FGM firstly does not represent (any one) culture or people as a whole – even though it does form part of certain socio-cultural traditions amongst some people. Secondly, due to migration, FGM affects girls and young women whose older family members are migrants but they themselves are not e.g. young American and British born girls whose parents previously migrated abroad. In an increasingly globalised world and in a world where we should all be fighting injustice, this is a global issue.
4. FGM is always carried out by non-medically trained relatives/community members
FALSE: In most cases this is the case. Paid/unpaid “cutters” do the job with rusty nails, scissors, pieces of glass and razor blades. However, FGM is also performed by professional health care providers in certain countries (believe it or not…). This is often due to the belief that it is “safer” (UNICEF, 2013). In Indonesia, FGM is carried out in hospitals – although it is claimed that the female genital cutting which is carried out is not “mutilation” in the way we commonly give reference to (but in any case it is classified as FGM according to WHO guidelines).
5. Criminalising FGM in countries such as the UK and USA has outlawed and stemmed the practice entirely
FALSE: Living in a country where FGM is illegal does not mean you are “safe”. Not only does FGM occur illegally behind closed doors, parents also take their daughters abroad to get them cut instead – known as “holiday cutting“. A young girl may be “going to holiday” when in reality, she will leave the UK uncut and come back as an unfortunate silent victim of FGM at the hands of her family and community members in her parents’ home country.
FGM – the facts
1. There are four types of FGM
Type 1: Clitoridectomy: the partial or total removal of the clitoris […] and, in very rare cases, only the prepuce […].
Type 2: Excision: […] the partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora […], with or without excision of the labia majora […].
Type 3: Infibulation: […] the narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a 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 clitoris (clitoridectomy).
Type 4: […] all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area.
Source: WHO (2016)
Once a girl has been cut, for obvious reasons the procedure is irreversible – although she can be “unstitched”. “Unstitching” (deinfibulation) may occur to benefit the victim’s health, allow her to have sex or to help with childbirth (WHO, 2016). Girls are usually cut between the ages of infancy and 15 years old but FGM can also include adult women (ibid.).
2. Sex, urinating and childbirth can be incredibly painful and complicated for women who have been cut
There is also the risk of infection, cysts, death from blood loss, infertility and a higher risk of infant mortality concerning the death of newborn babies born from mothers who have been cut (WHO, 2016). For women who have undergone forms of FGM categorised as type three, periods and urinating are obviously particularly unpleasant and painful. Women also suffer from emotional and psychological issues such as depression and PTSD.
3. FGM is not a “medical procedure” but simply a means to control women biologically, emotionally, physically, socially and sexually
In communities where FGM is “the norm” or “prized”, “uncut” women are seen as “dirty” and potentially “promiscuous“. Cut women cannot expect sexual gratification from their husbands but are indeed expected to “perform their wifely duties” despite the pain involved in sexual intercourse and later in childbirth. Her body become solely his. There can be no soulful, spiritual, loving, emotional “oneness” between such two spouses – simply enslavement. However, within communities opinions on FGM differ and make no mistake – not all young (single) men are in favour of it.
4. FGM is a clear, gross violation of human rights
FGM violates women and girls’ right to life and physical integrity including freedom from violence (including torture) and the right to health, in direct contradiction to human rights legislation including:The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), The International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and The International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
5. The fight against FGM is working as the number of cases is decreasing but we need to keep on fighting!
Criminal legislation has already been introduced in a number of countries and further to this, new legislation in the UK for example aims at controlling parents and specifically stopping them from taking their children abroad if there is significant concern that the purpose is for “holiday cutting“. Doing so is a criminal offence – not just performing FGM itself within the UK for example. Whilst the UK for a long time has been slow on the issue of FGM within the UK and regarding criminal convictions, France for example has already made several convictions. States are taking action and the focus has shifted onto not merely where FGM is being practiced but where its victims are being brought from and how and where cutters are being aided.
Campaigning – Join the fight against FGM
FGM has to stop and the fight must go on. So how can we get involved in eliminating this practice and helping its tragic victims?
There are already (as expected!) lots of bodies, people and organisations involved in this area. The Guardian has been running their End FGM Guardian Global Media Campaign for several years now. They were successful in their work supporting Fahma Mohamed – a young British Muslim who created a petition directed to UK Education Secretary Michael Gove asking him to raise awareness of FGM in schools. She successfully highlighted the issue on a global level. Her campaign was met with approval by UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon and her work sparked change. This all started with her collaboration with the UK NGO Integrate Bristol. Small steps lead to big things. Raising awareness and petitioning does work!
Here’s a few places to start:
- Sign the petition calling for the UK to ratify the Istanbul Convention and protect women from violence such as FGM
- Sign the petition asking for the New York State Assembly to make vacation cutting illegal
- Write to your local MP/senator/public bodies about the cause – ask them to get involved with educating students, teachers and communities about the FGM and “holiday cutting” (depending on where you live)
- Check out the following NGOs/networks involved in the fight against FGM – find out more information about FGM and what you can do to help: Equality Now, Sanctuary for Families, Safe Hands for Girls, Daughters of Eve, 28 Too Many, Orchid Project, Forward UK, Rosa, Desert Flower, Women’s Support Project, END FGM Network, The Grandmother Project
- Blog, Tweet, get vocal about FGM!
- If you are a teacher or you work closely with children – learn about FGM and speak to relevant staff and authorities if you are concerned about a child being at risk of FGM. Read and pass on the following info for UK based teachers
- There is a free UK 24-hour NSPCC FGM helpline for those that need advice or to make referrals if you’re worried about a child being at risk. You can call 0800 028 3550 or email email@example.com. Contact the police or crime stopping services/agencies in your area if you in trouble or if you have to report abuse
- If you’ve been a victim of FGM or worry you may be at risk – seek help and support from specialised organisations in your local area. Those in the UK can contact The Dahlia Project on 020 7281 8920 or 020 7281 7694 which helps victims of FGM. Services are free
- A list of specialist FGM clinics in the UK is available here
FGM must stop. Such torture cannot carry on. Attitudes, beliefs and practices must change. Raise your voice and speak out in the fight to #EndFGM!
Sources and credits:
A list of sources and further information is available to download here
Amnesty International (feature image – edited), Dominik Gwarek, Jaime Cooper, Jeffrey Clairmont