Today is the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). FGM is defined by the United Nations as ‘all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.’
It is estimated that 140 million girls and women worldwide have undergone some form of FGM, which could range from ritual cuts, partial or total removal of the clitoris and labia to narrowing of the vaginal opening. The practice has been documented in 28 countries in Africa, and a few countries in Asia, the Middle East, and Central and South America, with prevalence ranging from 0.8% to 98% of the female population. Surprisingly, the practice has even followed those who have migrated to Australia, Britain and the United States.
It is, unfortunately, an ancient practice. Herodotus wrote about FGM being practiced in Egypt as early as 500 BC, while the Greek geographer Strabo who visited Egypt in about 25 BC reported that one of the Egyptian customs was “to circumcise the males and excise the females”
To say that it is a violation of the rights of women is an understatement. However, the reasons why this practice occurs are very complicated, raising issues of cultural practice and religious conviction. The interplay between these cultural sensitives and the rights of individuals, particularly women, has always created a huge amount of difficulty in discussing these issues. In order to have these conversations, we need to figure out what is at the core of this practice – this is especially important when we consider that most FGM is performed by other victims; other women. What would drive women to perpetuate the same trauma that they faced?
FGM has been mistakenly linked to religion which is problematic. In linking the practice to religion, we perpetuate the sort of justification that cannot be overcome – how do you begin to challenge the very word of a deity? In recent times, FGM has been linked to Islam, with claims that it stems from the faith’s oppression of women. In short, Islamic jurisprudence is made up of the Quran, the holy book, and the Hadith, or prophetic narration. Prophetic narration is seen to be strong when it can be linked to specific narrators; however, many Hadith are incredibly weak and can be easily dismissed. This is the case with the single hadith that says that FGM is allowed in Islam. The Quran itself does not mention FGM at all. Following a summit in 2006, the Grand Mufti’s of Al-Azhar, one of the Islamic world’s greatest source of rulings, deemed FGM to be against Islam and contrary to the Islamic practice of ‘accept no harm and do no harm to another.’ Similarly, Christian and Jewish leaders have condemned the practice, yet it still continues and crosses religious and cultural divides.
This brings us on to the next major motivator; culture. Overwhelmingly, FGM is performed as a result of social pressure to conform. Is it easy to throw out the line ‘culture does not give you the right to abuse women’, but it there are so many cultural reasons for the practice that we must understand in order to overcome the resistance to abandoning FGM. It is a practice carried out to maintain ‘honour’ and a woman’s ‘virtue’ and ‘purity’ until she is married. Sometimes it is carried out to ensure cleanliness and stem superstition. Sadly, in some societies, FGM is encouraged by religious leaders, family members, and friends – essentially the entire society. This creates a number of problems.
Firstly, a society practicing FGM sees female sexuality as taboo. As a result, attempting to understand the prevalence and stem the practice becomes difficult.
The cultural expectation means that there is a social obligation to conform, which means that families are unlikely to move away from the practice for fear of social exclusion, ridicule and the stigma associated with having a daughter that is not suitable for marriage.This could even mean that mothers will arrange for their daughters to undergo FGM, despite the father’s protest, as a ‘favour’ to ensure that the community does not gossip.In some communities, FGM is seen as empowerment, as described by Khadija Gbla in this TEDx talk. It also means that, for some women, it brings a sense of pride, coming of age and a sense of belonging.
This creates a difficult situation, where attempting to eliminate the practice becomes a threat to and attack of the culture. Despite being victims of a painful procedure that results in a slew of complications, many women are unwilling to discuss their experiences because they see it as a way of providing ammunition for an attack on their culture; instead, they defend and perpetuate the practice.Sometimes girls claim that they cut themselves in order to protect their parents.
Going on the attack does not work. Being judgemental of a woman’s choice to support FGM does not work. So what does work?
An interagency statement from a number of United Nations organisations noted the importance of using non-judgemental language when talking about the practice, referring to it as female genital cutting. It is these considerations that will allow us to empower women in these societies to take control of their own identities; of their own bodies. Laying down laws simply does not work if those subject to the laws do not feel that they align with social norms; this is also the case with laws against FGM.
There is a lot to be said of respecting different cultures and cultural practices. We celebrate cultural days in order to empower ethnic communities to be proud of who they are and to show that we are open to learning and experiencing one another’s cultures. As difficult as it is, this gentle, tender approach is necessary when dealing with FGM.
I am not saying we should encourage or even be tolerant of the practice – I am saying that our energy needs to be focused on placing the power in the hands of those who can bring about lasting change. The most effect programs are those that empower female leaders within the community to open up this dialogue and speak from experience.
Sometimes, all it takes is raising awareness about the health risks and lack of religious backing for the practice.Studies also show that post-secondary education and urban residency are associated with the discontinuation of FGM.In fact, holding training sessions with role playing, games and exercises is enough to empower the community at a village level.
That’s right, friends! Empowering women, as we generally should, reduces the prevalence of FGM. Whodda thunk it?
Amazingly, support and training also needs to be given to already trained health experts. Even in the Western world, doctors are unsure about how FGM should be handled, with doctors being unsure about how to ask about or examine patients. It has been reported that 18% of all FGM is carried out by healthcare providers. Evidence is showing us that training midwives, and giving them pride in protecting their community helps.
The good news is that change is happening. The efforts of organisations that are working with communities are showing decreases in the prevalence of FGM. UNFPA and UNICEF are working jointly to do exactly that ,and are undertaking a program to accelerate the abandonment of FGM in 17 countries. Efforts are being directed at improving the legal and policy environment for eliminating FGM, increasing the quality of healthcare and increasing the acceptance of this practice being abandoned. Alternative rites of passage are also being developed and rewarded to ensure that the sense of pride that comes with FGM in some communities is not missed. Those investing in this program are ‘more certain than ever that the practice will be totally abandoned in a generation.’ By empowering the younger generation that is less bound by the shackles of old, we will see this practice disappear.
Conversations are also starting to involve men. It has been said that the practice continues because no one understand the details – if men understood the practice, they would prevent their daughters from going through it.
Instead of bashing the abhorrent culture, we need to stand with the brave pioneers who are choosing the push beyond the social stigma; the young women who refuse to suffer and the young men who defy tradition and marry these women.
For more, feel free to browse through The United Nations International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation information page.
 M. Knight Curing cut or ritual mutilation? Some remarks on the practice of female and male circumcision in Graeco-Roman Egypt Isis, 92 (2001), pp. 317–338.
 http://www.unfpa.org/sites/default/files/pub-pdf/UNFPA_UNICEF_FGM_14_Report_PDA_WEB.pdf ,26.
 http://www.unfpa.org/publications/eliminating-female-genital-mutilation-interagency-statement p12
 http://www.unfpa.org/publications/eliminating-female-genital-mutilation-interagency-statement p13
 http://www.unfpa.org/sites/default/files/pub-pdf/UNFPA_UNICEF_FGM_14_Report_PDA_WEB.pdf p27.
 http://www.unfpa.org/publications/eliminating-female-genital-mutilation-interagency-statement p28
 http://www.unfpa.org/sites/default/files/pub-pdf/UNFPA_UNICEF_FGM_14_Report_PDA_WEB.pdf p27.
 http://www.unfpa.org/sites/default/files/pub-pdf/UNFPA_UNICEF_FGM_14_Report_PDA_WEB.pdf p29
 http://www.unfpa.org/sites/default/files/pub-pdf/UNFPA_UNICEF_FGM_14_Report_PDA_WEB.pdf p25