When I was a child, part of our Saturday evening entertainment was the quiz show Family Fortunes. Anyone else remember Les Dennis with his bright hair and smile, turning to the camera with the line, “we asked a hundred people to name…”?
I don’t remember there ever being a word association around cutting. But if Les Dennis had asked 100 people, I bet Mr Babbage would have given the top answers as: cutting hair, grass, fingernails, flowers.
And probably not: female genitalia.
I’m sorry. From 80s tea-time telly to a woman’s nether regions: I appreciate that was a steep subject shift.
If you’re still with me, shall we get stuck in?
Cutting is also known as female genital mutilation, or FGM.
(Thank goodness for acronyms: helpful for my word count).
Now, FGM is not the equivalent of male circumcision. Circumcision is done for cultural and religious reasons, but also has proven health benefits in some cases – and certainly does not impact on a man’s sexual health/enjoyment later in life.
Neither are we talking about episiotomy (a temporary cut performed by midwives or obstetricians during difficult births). While episiotomies are (granted) disagreeable, they aim to relieve rather than create discomfort, by avoiding painful natural tearing.
No, FGM is about taking a knife (or, whatever handy, apparently: a razor blade, a shard o’ glass) to the sexual genitalia of girls, cutting away certain bits or stitching over others.
I appreciate my chop-a-bit-sew-a-bit definition leaves a lot to be desired in terms of accuracy, so here are the official four types of FGM:
Well, that’s simple enough – if you’re a obstetrician.
For the benefit of those are not, here’s a short video to walk you through it (hurrah for YouTube tutorials, eh?)
Picture it now ok?
This lovely tradition, ladies and gentleman, is performed on an estimated two to three million girls worldwide every year (6000-8000 every day) before or at the age of puberty.
6000 girls every day: that’s one every fifteen seconds, done generally without anesthesia or antibiotics and usually with unsterilized tools.
And those are conservative estimates.
For many countries, data is lacking. In others, people are now underreporting, given recent moves to legislate against FGM:
(…) The self-reported circumcision status of women aged 15–49 was verbally surveyed in 1995 in northern Ghana. The same women were interviewed again in 2000 after the enactment of a law that criminalized FGM and Ghana-wide public campaigns against the practice. This study discovered that 13% of women who reported in 1995 that they had undergone FGM denied it in the 2000 interview, with youngest age group girls denying at rates as high as 50%.
Indeed, campaigning in recent years has had some success: twenty African countries have now prohibited FGM.
But in many cases these laws remain symbolic. Egypt banned FGM six years ago, yet 94% of girls still undergo the procedure, and only this year a doctor was convicted of manslaughter after the death of one 13-year-old “patient”.
Other countries have yet to even legislate. How is it, for example, that FGM is still legal in Liberia, a country presided by a US-educated, Nobel Peace Prize winner (and woman….)?
But not enough, as the map below shows (top prize to Somalia, just 2% away from universal mutilation of all of its young women. Good job Somalia!)
FGM is not just confined to the places shown above: with first- and second-generation migration, the practice has been imported in pockets of diaspora communities in countries such as the US, Australia, France or the UK (an estimated 66,000 girls and women living in the UK have undergone FGM).
With such a geographic concentration, FGM is commonly misconstrued as religious practice. This is not true. Cutting predates the major religions: neither the Koran nor the Bible offer any theological justification for FGM, and, for example, FGM is not prevalent in Muslim countries such as Pakistan or Saudi Arabia.
However, the blurred line between culture, tradition and religion, and the link between cutting and certain religious values (e.g. chastity) has led to a clear if erroneous religious association.
Well, then: why cut?
Here are the main reasons, as dispassionately as I am able to set them out:
- Rite of passage for young girls, symbolising their maturity/availability as a wife;
- “Cleanliness“: to eliminate natural secretions and odours;
- Femininity: to tidy away what are seen as ugly/masculine physical attributes;
- Promiscuity: a way to reduce a woman’s sexual pleasure and therefore inhibit any desire to seek partners outside of/prior to marriage;
- Male pleasure: type 3 of FGM (infibulation) makes the vagina “tighter” and therefore more pleasurable for the man during sexual intercourse.
*takes controlled breath*
FGM might, just might, be a chouïa less outrageous if it were some awful-but-actually-harmless-tradition; but it isn’t.
Because this is what happens when you are held down, legs spread and mutilated:
- shock or, whoops, death from haemorrhages
- risk of infection, or, whoops, death from dirty tools: including septicemia, tetanus, HIV or hepatitis;
- longer-term urinary or pelvic infections from retained urine or menstrual blood
- infertility (from infections)
- kidney impairment/failure
- severe pain during sexual intercourse (especially in the case of infibulation)
- childbirth complications (eg fistula) or neonatal death (one to two babies per 100 deliveries die as a result of FGM).
And that’s without the psychological trauma of the operation itself, the pain of intercourse or childbirth in later years, or the simple denial of any kind of sexual pleasure.
Therein, of course, lies the problem. FGM is maintained on the back of centuries of values about women’s virginity, submission, and dependence. FGM continues because women must be docile and “pure” to be marriageable material, and in communities where marriage and motherhood are not choices but an economic or cultural necessity, girls – and their parents – will fulfill whatever prerequisites are necessary for them to become wives and mothers.
Even if that means cutting away their genitalia and enduring a lifetime of the consequences.
So how do we go about changing things?
It is the usual combination of tackling the practice itself and the reasons for it: educating people about the dangers, supporting legislation (and prosecutions), empowering women and young girls economically, working with boys and men to help them view women and sexual health issues differently, collectively challenging harmful practices, encouraging local or religious leaders to take a firm stance against cutting.
FGM may be irreversible: but tradition is not. Time to cut loose.