Female circumcision is too kind a phrase. It’s female genital mutilation (FGM) and it is as gruesome as it sounds. The “procedure,” usually performed with crude tools in unsanitary conditions, involves cutting, injuring, and/or removing some or all of the external female genitalia. Done for cultural or religious reasons, it provides no medical benefit. In fact, it poses serious health risks, including:
- urinary and pelvic problems
- sexual dysfunction
- difficult childbirth
- twice the risk of dying during childbirth
- delivering stillborn babies
- deep psychological trauma
FGM is usually done before a girl’s 15th birthday, justified as a means to ensure virginity and prevent sexual enjoyment and promiscuity. Globally, about 140 million females currently live with the consequences of this barbaric practice. FGM is a prime example, though certainly not the only example, of an enormous gender imbalance and gross violation of human rights.
Sexual autonomy and freedom for women is under attack all around the world. In Delhi, the so-called “rape capital” of India, the violent gang rape and death of a 23-year-old woman brought the problem to the forefront. Mass protests and candlelight vigils have done little to spur meaningful action from lawmakers.
Society itself must question gender bias and devaluation of females. Whatever the source or justification, violence toward females must no longer be tolerated.
Gender equality begins with questioning why oppressive traditions persist. Rape…female infanticide…bride burning…dowry deaths…honor killings…female genital mutilation…where these brutal “traditions” are allowed to continue, females cannot hope for more than second-class status.
Even in countries where FGM is illegal, enforcement is hard to come by in remote areas where traditions run deep. So deep, that women are the ones who usually perform FGM, as well as pressure others to do it.
Progress is slow, but change is coming. Villages in the West African state of Guinea-Bissau are making public declarations to abide by the principles of human rights, including ending FGM. It has taken three years of education and discussion of human rights to get the villagers to fully understand and accept the consequences of FGM. Here, the locals are trained to share their knowledge and spread the word to nearby villages.
Since 1991, 6,000 African villages have ended FGM and child marriage, but there’s still a very long way to go.
Children’s charities get down to the community level to teach people about the true consequences of FGM, help to promote gender equality, and work with health practitioners to provide improved medical and psychological support to victims of FGM.
It is often said that “it takes a village.” When it comes to human rights, and specifically children’s rights, it takes a global village, and children’s charities are at the forefront of the movement.
It’s a long and arduous task extending basic human rights to every corner of the globe but charities and government agencies are gradually helping to eliminate practices like forced marriage which really have no place in the world of 2012. One of the most sensitive areas that women’s charities and pressure groups are having to tackle is female genital mutilation (FGM).
This appalling practice is still being carried out on the sub-continent and even in ethnic enclaves in Western Europe. It is usually carried out in the name of so-called religious or social tradition but when anyone in authority in particular religions is questioned on the subject, nobody actually seems to be able to quote chapter and verse about its origins.
Viewed from a human rights perspective, FGM reflects the historic inequality between the sexes and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women. The mutilation is nearly always carried out on minors and is therefore a violation of children’s rights. The practice also violates the rights to health, security and physical integrity of the person involved, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death.
Another dangerous misconception about female circumcision is that it bestows various health benefits. This, of course, is total nonsense. It is, in fact, known to be harmful to the female body in many different ways. First, it is clearly painful and traumatic. The World Health Organisation summarises other effects as follows: “The removal of or damage to healthy, normal genital tissue interferes with the natural functioning of the body and causes several immediate and long-term health consequences. For example, babies born to women who have undergone female genital mutilation suffer a higher rate of neonatal death compared with babies born to women who have not undergone the procedure end in stillbirth or spontaneous abortion, and in a further 25% the new born has a low birth weight or serious infection, both of which are associated with an increased risk of perinatal death.”
Although the United Nations General Assembly has adopted a resolution banning FGM, some 140 million women and girls alive today are known to be victims and although the practice has been outlawed in most countries, it is still legal in certain nations like Sierra Leone. Even in many countries where it is now officially outlawed, enforcement is proving difficult especially in remote, outlying areas.
Eliminating Female Genital Mutilation at home and abroad
It has been known for some time that Female Genital Mutilation ( FGM ) has been practiced in over two dozen countries with over 100 million living victims, mainly in Africa and the Middle – East but there is now plenty of evidence to suggest that immigration has spread the abuse to European countries including the UK where it is, of course, illegal.
Defenders of the practice insist that FGM is steeped in cultural and religious tradition in those countries where it is prevalent and is no different from male circumcision. Removal of female external genitalia is historically designed to reduce a woman’s libido and promote fidelity in marriage. Opponents point to the risks to health and the oppression of women’s rights.
It is estimated that some 2,000 British girls undergo FGM each year and London’s Metropolitan Police now have a dedicated FGM unit dealing with the practice. However, although it has been illegal since 1985, there has not been a single prosecution.
It seems that here in the UK, the emphasis is more on prevention than detection with significant educational efforts aimed at vulnerable girls and their parents. The same emphasis is now evident in overseas countries where children’s charities like Plan International are ramming home the message about the physical and longer term mental health risks.
Plan has adopted a 3 step process which appears to already be succeeding in countries like Mali, Kenya and Pakistan:
- The first step is that local health professionals educate communities about the obvious dangers to health as the result of infection and haemorrhaging etc.
- Secondly, a local champion against FGM is selected and developed so that each community remains on message when the Plan representative is not around. It is also vital that community leaders, teachers and law enforcement agencies provide their support.
- Finally, it is important to work with parents’ groups and children’s groups to raise awareness of what to do and who to go to if any child is threatened with FGM.
This three-pronged approach, adopted community by community, has resulted in whole areas being declared female genital mutilation free. Mali, where more than two-thirds of girls were previously subject to FGM, has made particularly strong strides just working from one village to the next.
Plan would like to see these methods adopted amongst those immigrant communities in the UK where some 24,000 girls are estimated to remain at risk.
Guest Post By The Orchid Project – Female Genital Mutilation – Open Letter To Health Care Professionals
There is a link below to an open letter, signed by the Chief Medical Officer, the Director of Nursing and the Royal Colleges and sent to all health care professionals, following recent media coverage about FGC. It makes interesting reading – we have been saying for some time that the guidelines around FGC need to be more widely publicised.
Please disseminate widely to your own networks of health professionals including nurses, midwives, GPs, social workers – anyone you can think of.
To be honest, none of it is “rocket science” – what the letter does is bring attention to the fact that the issue is happening in the UK and that health workers have a duty to ask questions and particularly act to safeguard those at risk:
It is important that professionals do not let the fear of being branded “racist” or discriminatory weaken the protection required by vulnerable girls or women.
We think it’s important also that health care workers understand that FGC happens in diverse geographical areas – don’t forget that 91% of Egyptian women go through FGM but also girls in regions like Indonesia, Malaysia, Kurdistan, parts of India and Pakistan – this is not just a sub-saharan African issue.
In many developing countries, medical workers may be the ones carrying out FGM – the global figure is that 18% of all cases are done “medically” – let’s not make the UK one of these countries.