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Female genital mutilation (FGM) is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. February 6th is International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation. Ending FGM by 2030 is one of the UN Global Goals.
It is what my grandmother called the three feminine sorrows.
She said the day of circumcision, the wedding night and the births of a baby are the triple feminine sorrows.
Feminine Pains (poem, 1998)
-Dahabo Ali Muse, Somali.
Because a woman is cut open on all these three occasions. We are here talking about female circumcision, variously known as female genital mutilation (Rose Odlfield Hayes), khafḍ (Arabic), asbolokoli (Mali) and so on. The terminology underwent changes with time. Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is defined by the WHO as “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons”.
While the exact number is not known a whopping 100 million to 140 million women and girls living today are believed to have been subjected to FGM. This is a practice of diaspora communities round the world though it is concentrated in 29 African countries, certain ethnic groups in Asia (India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka), the Middle East (Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Iraq, Palestine and Israel), South America (Columbia, Ecuador and Peru).
Girls may be subjected to FGM when they are a few days old, or during childhood, at the time of puberty, before wedding, during first pregnancy or after the birth of first child. The usual range is between 0 and 15 years. Yes, subjected to this practice at that tender an age, and that, too, in a gruesome manner, with their bodies held down by others.
Traditionally the procedure is carried out by older women in the family who may not have any medical training. Sometimes, (male) barbers, members of secret societies, herbalists or a female relative performs it. Although illegal in many countries, it is sometimes performed by medical professionals these days, too. They use special knives, scissors, scalpels, pieces of glass, razor blades, even fingernails – all non-sterile cutting devices – and generally no antiseptic or anesthetics are used. In case of infibulations, the legs of the girl are bound together to immobilize them for 10-14 days, so that the scar tissue is formed.
This brings us to the different types of mutilation – four main types as identified by the World health Organization:
- Clitoridectomy – removing part of, or the entire clitoris.
- Excision – removing part or all of the clitoris and the inner labia (lips that surround the vagina), with or without removal of the labia majora (larger outer lips).
- Infibulation – narrowing of the vaginal opening by creating a seal, formed by cutting and repositioning the labia. Only a narrow opening is left for passage of urine and menstrual blood.
- All other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, for example: pricking, piercing, incising, scraping or cauterization.
For sexual intercourse and child birth, the reverse process is undertaken by surgically widening the opening.
Needless to say, such a procedure can cause various short-term and long-term repercussions, all of which are harmful and there is no benefit. ‘I screamed so hard I lost my voice for days’, says a FGM victim. Immediate effects include severe pain, shock, bleeding, wound infections (like tetanus and gangrene), inability to urinate damage to vulval tissues and nearby organs. It has also been known to cause death. In the long run this practice can leave the girl with chronic vaginal infections, abnormal periods, urine infections, possible kidney failure, damage to reproductive system, infertility, cysts, scar tissue, complications in pregnancy, neonatal mortality, pain during sex, psychological damage and the need to open the vagina through surgery for sexual intercourse and child birth. In addition, the girl is exposed to increased risk of HIV transfer since the same instruments may be used on multiple girls.
If this is the case, then what is the reason behind so many communities practicing female genital mutilation? In fact, many communities have celebrations marking this event in a girl’s life. It is perceived as a control over women’s sexuality. To preserve the female honour by ensuring that they are virgins at the time of marriage, infibulation is undertaken since it is assumed to reduce a woman’s libido and hence chances of pre-marital sex. Clitoris and labia are considered to be “male parts” and their removal is thought to enhance the femininity, docility and obedience of a girl, thus making her suitable for her future gendered role. Thus, circumcision is regarded as a sort of passage rite into womanhood and an essential part of cultural identity of certain communities. It is also believed that female genitalia are unhygienic and girls are not allowed to touch food or water till they are removed. Where this is practiced by Muslims, religion is frequently cited as a reason, although FGM predates Islam and is not practiced by the majority of Muslims. Moreover, FGM also occurs among Christians, Jews and animists. In fact, no religion promotes or condones FGM and a number of religious authorities deny that their religion allows it.
It is here that human right groups like the UN intervene to endeavour to bring an end to this torturous practice. FGM is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women, reflecting deep-rooted gender inequality and violating a person’s right to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death. Organizations that make efforts to contain this practice pool in the help of local community leaders to educate the community members about lack of religious sanction and the ill-effects caused by this inhumane practice. They opine that cultural practices evolve over time.
The response has been encouraging. In most countries, the prevalence of FGM has decreased, and an increasing number of women and men in practising communities support ending its practice. The UN population fund and Unicef, the UN children’s fund, say 8,000 communities in Africa have agreed to abandon the traditional practice. Around 22 South African countries have banned FGM, the latest one being Nigeria. It is illegal in majority of Western countries.
If we come to India, FGM is an open secret, meaning to say that it is not outlawed. Many of us are unaware of this practice existing in India. Bohra women – a small Muslim community in India have started a campaign demanding an end to the ritual. The Dawoodi Bohra community, which is a sub sect of Muslims, follows this procedure. However, Tasleem started a change.org campaign in December 2011 against FGM among the Dawoodi Bohra in India. Anyone who is against FGM can show his or her support for this campaign against FGM by visiting the Facebook link given below and make a small contribution for a cause which causes trials and tribulations for millions of women round the globe: