6 February 2017 – While the exact number is unknown, at least 200 million girls and women in 30 countries throughout Africa, the Middle East and Asia have been subjected to female genital mutilation, or FGM, according to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
The World Health Organization (WHO) calls FGM a procedure that intentionally alters or causes injury to female genital organs for non-medical reasons. In lay terms, babies, girls and women are cut and their genitalia severed. WHO underscores that it not only provides no health benefits, but may lead to a life-time of obstacles. Furthermore, the majority of females who have been subjected to the practice are between infancy and age 15.
A 2016 report of the UN Secretary-General shows the single largest factor influencing the continuation of female genital mutilation to be the desire for social acceptance and avoidance of social stigma. The social norms, customs and values that condone FGM are multi-faceted, vary across countries and even between communities, and can change over time. This presents a powerful and complex challenge for all those engaged in the effort to end FGM.
The importance of education to address negative social norms has been demonstrated in Egypt, where the reduction in the risk of girls undergoing FGM has been linked both to the educational attainment of their mothers, as well as of other women in their communities.
The existence of the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) concentrates some of the most intractable problems we face in trying to change the future for the world’s girls. The cutting and sewing of a young child’s private parts so that she is substantially damaged for the rest of her life, has no sensation during sex except probably pain, and may well face further damage when she gives birth, is to many an obvious and horrifying violation of that child’s rights. Female genital mutilation is recognized internationally as a violation of human rights of girls and women. Female genital mutilation is associated with misconceived cultural ideals of femininity and modesty, which include the notion that girls are beautiful after removal of body parts that are considered unclean, unfeminine or male. It is often seen as a necessary part of raising a girl – a way to prepare her for adulthood and increase her chances of marriage.
According to WHO, female genital mutilation has no health benefits, and it harms girls and women in many ways. It involves removing and damaging healthy, normal female genital tissue – interfering with their natural body functions. It is a kind of control that lasts a lifetime. It makes a mockery of the idea of any part being truly private and underlines the institutionalized way in which decisions over her own body have been taken from that girl – one of some 200 million currently. Worse, it is quite likely that those children will not finish school, have limited formal employment prospects and may well be married to a much older man and become pregnant within a short space of reaching puberty. FGM consists of all procedures that alter or injure female genitalia for non-medical reasons.
WHO also notes that the procedure has both short- and long-term consequences that range from severe bleeding and painful urination, to menstrual and psychological problems, cysts and infections. Sexual issues frequently ensue, childbirth complications arise and the risk of new born deaths increase. Subsequently, further surgeries are needed. Female genital mutilation also violates women’s rights to health, security and physical integrity, along with the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
The UN notes that the practice reflects a deeply-rooted inequality between the sexes, constituting an extreme form of discrimination against women and girls.
The high rates of obstetric problems and maternal death among the same communities that practice FGM and early marriage are no coincidence. The high rates of gender inequality, low educational attainment for girls, poor health, and cyclical grinding poverty in those same communities are no coincidence either. They are all linked, and they practically ensure that those girls have domestic responsibilities and academic deficiencies that condemn them to a future with very short horizons. It is more likely that a girl will be subjected to FGM if her mother has little or no education. With those limitations come multiple and repeating missed opportunities: personal wellbeing, social growth, economic diversity and community resilience.
This is not a problem that can be legislated away. Nor is it necessarily understood to be a problem by the communities themselves, who traditionally see it as conferring value on the child; an often secret ritual that is, as far as it is known, normal, cleansing, and correct. The strength of the cultural practices and norms that put a higher status on girls that have been subjected to FGM makes it especially challenging to stop FGM in communities where girls have little perceived value anyway. The solutions demand many aspects of what is normal and valuable to be changed all together. Media play an important role in broadening the range of known information, as do individual advocates, and men and boys who are increasingly being included in previously restricted conversations.
The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) says “collective abandonment” – or when a whole community chooses to no longer engage in female genital mutilation – is an effective way to end the practice. It ensures that no single girl or family will be disadvantaged by the decision.
UNFPA says the decision to collectively abandon FGM requires a process in which communities are educated about the practice and that health and human rights aspects are prominently feature. Local and grassroots organizations should play an important role in the process.