The Complex, Global Picture of FGM

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Please be advised that the sensitive content of this article may make it distressing for some.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has led international efforts to tackle the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). They say that it ‘reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women’.

The WHO classifies FGM into four types, such that FGM practices range from excision of the clitoris, labia minor and majora, and narrowing of the vaginal orifice, to surface scraping and cauterization, and anything in between. The definition is also not restricted to acts against children, although the WHO notes that that it ‘is nearly always carried out on minors’.

The WHO’s definition has been a model for recent anti-FGM laws passed around the globe. The UK’s Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 specifically criminalises such practices, as well as taking people overseas to undergo them, or helping an individual to carry out such practices on themselves. In keeping with the WHO definition, the law does not distinguish between girls and adult women, nor does it exempt self-desired cosmetic surgery or genital piercings. Currently, NHS guidelines require the discovery of female genital piercings to be recorded as incidents of FGM.

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The law is similar too in Kenya, where a doctor has filed a petition in the High Court this year to have it declared unconstitutional. In an interview, she claimed that ‘There are many women who have been jailed in the last three years… many women are making the decision later on in life, and they are being harassed and jailed’. She went on to question why ‘women can decide to drink, to smoke, women can join the army, women can do all sorts of things that might bring them harm or injury’ but cannot choose to undergo ‘Female circumcision’.

Despite FGM having been portrayed as something that some African men, empowered by a patriarchal culture, inflict upon unwilling girls, the reality can be very different. The notion that FGM is almost entirely restricted to Africa, for instance, is one borne from misleading statistics, now out of date, on FGM incidence by country. In the past, the only data available was for countries predominantly in Africa, and so FGM was thought to almost exclusively occur there. In February 2016, however, following the availability of data for Indonesia, Unicef published a report showing that the total known incidents of FGM now stood at over 200 million women and girls, a significant increase from the previous figure of 125 million. All of a sudden, over 30% of known incidents of FGM were estimated to have occurred in Indonesia alone, where the country’s head Islamic clerical body declared in 2006 that female circumcision was a religious obligation.

Credit: Amnon s (Amnon Shavit)., Campaign road sign against female genital mutilation, CC BY-SA 3.0; [Wikimedia Commons]
Reports from those campaigning and educating on FGM within such countries, as well as data from studies, also paints a different picture as to who’s carrying out FGM and why. Mothers, having undergone FGM themselves, want their daughters to do likewise. Often in Africa, girls happily undergo such practices as part of coming-of-age ceremonies, carried out by elderly women. For some cultures, the tissue removed is seen as masculine, and the girl finally turned into a woman with its removal. This mirrors that of coincident male coming-of-age customs, where tissue removed from the penis is considered feminine. Inevitably, those who have undergone such practices don’t see themselves as victims, nor the cutting as mutilation.

A large component of the drive to eradicate FGM has been on health grounds. The WHO states that:

FGM can cause excessive bleeding, swelling of genital tissue and problems urinating, and severe infections that can lead to shock and in some cases, death, as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of perinatal deaths

Health benefits, however, like cleanliness and removal of germ-trapping folds of tissue, form some of the motivation for carrying out FGM practices, despite a lack of evidence for them existing. Further complicating these efforts, a significant contributor to the risk of death and harm from FGM is the use of crude, unsterilized instruments, used in unclean environments by those without medical skill, and without post-care such as taking antibiotics. Pressure to end FGM based on these issues though, has led to medicalisation of such practices becoming a significant problem. In Indonesia, while traditional FGM practices mostly consist of scraping or rubbing, medical practitioners are applying knowledge from well-established male circumcisions, making incisions and removing small amounts of tissue as part of package deals to circumcise children of all sexes.

In the other direction of travel, a court case in the US is making news because of women from an Islamic sect arguing that they should be allowed to ritually nick the genitalia of their community’s girls, in place of more traditionally invasive custom. Although, as is often noted, there’s no mention of female circumcision in the Quran, the sect considers it to be an Islamic tradition, just as with male circumcision, which is also not mentioned in the Quran. It’s worth remembering though, that Islamic teachings derive not merely from the Quran, but also the Hadith, or collections of recorded sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad, over which considerable debate continues to take place within Islam as to their individual authenticity and their correct interpretation.

The women of the Islamic sect’s legal team argues that the nicks they propose will be far less invasive than routine male circumcisions that are widely carried out in the US, and should be permitted as an accommodation to their strongly held religious beliefs.

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