Female Genital Mutilation, Not So Bad?

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In the article titled, “Female Genital Mutilation, Not So Bad?” that was featured in the August 25th edition of the Canada National Post, Professor of Anthropology Janice Bodder questions the West’s condemnation of the practice of FGM and says, “She would like to see more science in the arguments against FGM.” The risk involved with FGM is indisputable. The question that Bodder should have raised is how to effectively address an issue with such deep cultural roots and grave sensitivity, rather than whether the practice of FGM is not so terrible after all.
Female Genital Cutting or Female Genital Mutilation (FGC/FGM) refers to all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for cultural or other non-medical reasons. There are various negative impacts on women’s health resulting from circumcision. Immediate complications include acute pain, shock, hemorrhaging, urine retention, damage to the urethra and adjacent tissue, and a series of bacterial infections. Complications involving any of these factors can be fatal. Long-term complications include difficulty in passing urine and menstrual blood, recurring urinary tract infections, incontinence, pelvic inflammation, and sexual dysfunction. The inability to pass menstrual blood (because the remaining opening is often too small) can lead to infection of other organs and also infertility. Fistula (a hole between the vagina and the bladder or rectum) is also a common result of the operation. The resulting damage to tissue is also a possible route of infection by HIV.
Obstetric complications are the most frequent health problems resulting from female circumcision, caused by the scars that form in the clitoral zone after excision. These scars open during childbirth, leading to hemorrhaging that is often difficult to stop. Circumcised women often have to be re-opened, or de-infibulated, on delivery of their child. Female circumcision has also been associated with long-term maternal morbidity.

FGC/FGM is practiced in parts of Africa, Asia and some Arab States. It is often believed that the practice has some sort of religious basis; however, the practice of FGC/FGM has no religious or medical ties.

It is the deeply embedded cultural practices that encourage women to be circumcised. FGC/FGM is often used to control women’s sexuality. The practice is thought to ensure virginity before and fidelity after marriage and/or to increase male sexual pleasure. Girls who are not circumcised are labeled as promiscuous and, therefore, unworthy of marriage. In some communities, the external female genitalia are considered dirty and ugly and are removed ostensibly to promote hygiene and aesthetic appeal.1
Bodder is correct in pointing out that the women themselves help to propagate and endorse the practice of FGC/FGM. However what choice do they have, when their daughters will be considered unfit to marry, unless they undergo the procedure? Concern with the practice of FGM has little to do with blaming women who want to uphold traditional practices or being “a British imperialist,” and far more to do with improving the health and treatment of women and girls worldwide.
Most of the governments in countries with a high prevalence of FGC/FGM, have issued proclamations condemning the practice, because scientifically the complications and risks have been proven to be far too great. In many countries, FCG/FGM is against the law. UN agencies, including the World Health Organization, have called for abolition of the practice. Many religious leaders have also called for an end to FGC/FGM, including the head of the Office of the Supreme Sharia Courts of the Afar region of Ethiopia in August.
The United Nations Population Fund estimates that 130 million women have experienced FGM/FGC, and an additional 2 million are at risk each year. Despite efforts to end it, FGC/FGM continues to be widely practiced.
Even in places where laws have been created to prevent the practice, it continues. People must believe in the law, in order for it to be followed or enforced. Otherwise, fear of community rejection is a much larger risk than breaking the law.
Just because a practice has been in place for a long time does not mean that we should continue to endorse it and let young women and girls suffer the painful consequences. It simply means we must adapt our approach in tackling these very sensitive and culturally embedded issues.
The importance of the media in mobilizing public opinion against this practice cannot be overstated. In Sudan, where 90% of women and girls have undergone the procedure of FGC/FGM, a team of Sudanese writers and actors created a radio serial drama to address the issue, in partnership with Population Media Center. During the 2 ½ year period that the serial drama (Ashreat al Amal) aired in Sudan, the proportion of Sudanese men and women opposing female circumcision more than doubled, from 28.6% to 65.4% of the population.

Katie Elmore

Development and Communications Manager

Population Media Center

1 UNFPA, “FAQs on Female Genital Mutilation.” http://www.unfpa.org/gender/practices2.htm#1

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