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Female Genital Mutilation: What is it and why is it performed?

CW: Discussion of violence and sexism

Writer: Rosha

Watch Case Files Episode 6: Female Genital Mutilation HERE

What is Female Genital Mutilation?

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a form of violence against women and refers to all practices that involve altering, removing, or permanently damaging the female genital organs for non-medical purposes. Millions of girls and women are affected worldwide especially in areas such as Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, where it is most commonly performed. Only one-third of adolescent girls between the ages of 15 and 19 who have undergone FGM, have had the procedure performed by medical personnel. Considered a violation of human rights, this practice also has no positive health outcomes. The effects of FGM can be severe and may include but are not limited to: excessive/ prolonged bleeding (hemorrhaging), genital tissue swelling/inflammation, infections (ex. tetanus), infertility, increased risk of HIV transmission, anxiety, depression, and even death.

Most Prominent Methods of FGM

  • Clitoridectomy: This type of FGM involves cutting the clitoris or its hood and is commonly performed in East and North African countries to control female sexuality and promote chastity. This is done in the misogynistic hope of making young women more desirable for marriage.

  • Excision: This involves removing parts or all of the clitoris, vulva minora, and sometimes the vulva majora.

  • Infibulation: This more severe method involves narrowing the vaginal opening through a seal created by stitching the labia majora together, which can lead to the removal of most or all of the labia minora and the clitoris. This can result in difficulties with menstrual flow and increase the risk of infections in the reproductive and urinary systems.

  • Other methods of FGM also cauterize, scrap, incise, or prick the genital area.

Why is it performed?

Unfortunately, many communities worldwide do not see the harm in FGM and regard it as a part of a girl's upbringing and is considered a rite of passage into adulthood in many cultures. One major factor driving the practice of FGM is social convention. In many communities, women who have not undergone FGM are seen as unclean and a health risk to others and may be barred from accessing food and water. The practice is also closely linked to cultural standards of beauty and modesty, with the belief that female genitals are dirty or masculine and must be altered or removed to be deemed attractive. Despite being widely regarded as a cultural tradition, FGM has no basis in any known religion and is not prescribed by any religious texts. The practice is perpetuated by local chiefs, community leaders, circumcisers, practitioners, and medical personnel who are all equally responsible for the continued practice of FGM in their region. Once they are cognizant of the dangers and trauma that FGM brings, they can play a pivotal role in the condemnation and elimination of this practice. Through re-education, the actors involved in normalizing FGM and the communities that condone it can adopt new views that preserve women and girl’s livelihood over these harmful rites of passage. The motivations behind FGM are complex and multi-faceted, driven by a mixture of cultural and social beliefs, community conventions, and the desire for social acceptance. At the end of the day, FGM functions within the patriarchal system that serves to suppress women.

A Human Rights Issue

In the past, FGM was mostly performed by traditional practitioners, but recently, there has been a rise in the involvement of healthcare providers (medicalization) who carry out the procedure under the premise that it is safer. Research suggests that over three million young girls, ranging from infancy to adolescence, are vulnerable to this practice annually, with approximately 85% of these cases being clitoridectomies. Currently, FGM is widely acknowledged as a significant human rights concern, with the majority of countries considering it a violation of women's rights and a severe form of gender-based discrimination. The World Health Organization has declared that FGM is a violation of a person's basic human rights, including their right to health, safety, physical integrity, freedom from torture and cruel treatment, and even the right to life in cases where the procedure results in death. It is especially devastating for young girls who are subjected to the procedure, as it constitutes a violation of their rights as children. This practice serves to deepen the unequal treatment between men and women, impacting the survivors and victims for the rest of their lives.

Current Progress

Over the past 25 years, there has been a decrease in FGM operations, making girls one-third less likely to undergo the procedure compared to the previous generation. In 2008, the World Health Assembly made a significant move by passing a resolution to eliminate FGM, urging all parties involved in the fields of justice, women’s affairs, education, finance, and health to take action. In 2012, the United Nations went even further by adopting a resolution that prohibits FGM worldwide and calls for all necessary preventive measures to be taken. These measures include enacting and enforcing laws to protect women and girls from this form of violence and to put an end to impunity. Coordinated and systematic actions are also required to reduce FGM, taking the form of increased community participation and the prioritization of human rights, gender equality, and sexual education. It is essential for individuals to be made aware of the harm and trauma caused by FGM, and to play an active role in ending this pernicious and dangerous practice.

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