I wrote a paper recently about a topic that brings a great deal of emotion with it for women worldwide, and men too. I’m going to share some of what I learned here, but not the paper itself, which is slightly different in intent (the paper dealt with what the UN policies are and whether they are working to eradicate the problem). The topic is female genital cutting.There has been a great deal of debate among various groups internationally about female genital cutting. One of the major debates has been about language: the terms used to describe these practices vary. First was Female Circumcision, which is not really accurate, as it gives the impression that the procedures are similar to male circumcision, which mostly they are not. Then came the highly political Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), which is still widely used by feminist and human rights groups to discuss the subject. Next came Female Genital Surgeries, which is a bit euphemistic, but has the advantage of being more inclusive of cosmetic procedures to enhance genital “attractiveness” as well as gender assignment surgery. Newly popular is Female Genital Cutting (FGC), which is my preferred term, because it is not political and is not insensitive to those who have undergone the procedures, yet does not gloss over what the procedures involve. So, I will refer to the practice as Female Genital Cutting, or FGC.
It is estimates that up to 140 million women and girls alive today have undergone FGC. There are four categories of FGC recognized by the World Health Organization. Type 1 is excision of the prepuce or hood of the clitoris. This is often called Sunna, or tradition, and is most like male circumcision, although in many cases the tip of the clitoris is also removed. Type 2 is excision of the entire clitoris and labia minora, also referred to as clitoridectomy. Type 3 is excision of the entire clitories and labia minora plus the scraping away of the inner surface of the labia majora, followed by the stitching shut of the vaginal opening, except for a small opening to allow the passage or urine and menstrual fluid. This is called Phaoronic circumcision or infibulation. Type 4 is any of the above combined with other invasive tissue damage, including burning, cauterizing, pricking the clitoris, slicing open the vaginal opening further, or introducing foreign objects or substances into the vagina for inducing bleeding or scarring. These procedures are largely performed by traditional circumcisors, who are almost exclusively women, and are performed with a variety of tools, from scissors to razor blades to pieces of glass, and usually without anesthetic and in unsanitary conditions. The sewing shut of hte vaginal opening in infibulation is often done with needles or thorns from acaica bushes. Sometimes a combination of plants and animal dung is rubbed on the genitals to stop the bleeding, and the child’s legs are wrapped tightly to facilitate healing.
Some of the health implications include shock, infection, retention of urine and menstrual fluid, infertility, painful intercourse, blood poisoning, keloid scarring and of course extreme pain. Psychological problems can arise, and FGC has been shown to cause major complications during childbirth, particularly infibulation, and monitoring sexual health and pregnancy is almost impossible. During the 1970s and 80s, WHO and NGO anti-FGC action focussed on the health implications of FGC, and the effect was not eradication of the practice, but medicalization of hte practice, where medical professionals began to offer the service in sterile conditions with anesthesia and other medical supplies.
In addition, FGC is a form of gender-specific violence that violates the human rights of women and girls. FGC is used to control female sexuality – the assumption of course is that female sexuality is dangerous and must be controlled. FGC is also used to control women psychologically, as a physical reminder that women are of inferior social status. Since about the 1990s, the focus of anti-FGC work is focussed on the human rights violations involved.
FGC is mainly practiced in Africa and the Middle East, however the practice is performed throughout southeast Asia and in refugee and immigrant populations in Europe, North America and Australia. Also, aborginal people in Australia and New Zealand have been known to practice some form of FGC. FGC is performed on women of varying ages, depending on the community norms. Mostly, FGC is performed on young girls, either between 4 and 10, or during puberty as a rite of passage into womanhood. In some communities, women are cut before marriage or during the first pregnancy. One recent concern is that younger and younger girls are being cut as families hoping to gain refugee or immigrant status in the west want to perform the procedure before they leave their homeland, because FGC is illegal in western countries and families who express a desire to take their daughters out of the country to have the procedure performed are charged under child protection legislation.
FGC is deeply steeped in tradition among the communities that practice it. Some of the reasons given include: increased fertility, prevention of adultery, preservation of virginity, hygeine, increased male sexual pleasure, acceptance into the community, and that it is a requirement of religion (mainly Islam). There is also a belief that if a man’s penis should touch a woman’s clitoris during sex, the penis will fall off, and that if a baby’s head touches the clitoris during childbirth, the baby will die. (Note the strong undertones relating to the dangerousness of female sexuality.) None of these reasons stand up under scrutiny: fertility has nothing to do with genitals, cut women are still able to have extra-marital sexual relationships, infibulation in particular often has the effect of diminishing male sexual pleasure and can cause impotence because of fear of hurting the woman, and there is no evidence in either the Qu’ran or sunni hadith literature that says FGC is required by Allah. Hygeine as a reason for FGC is not at all feasible, as described above. The most compelling reasons for FGC have to do with custom and tradition within the community.
This, then, is the debate aroud FGC. While the western world sees FGC as a clear halth risk and human rights violation, the communities that practice FGC hold it in high regard. FGC has special importance and meaning for these communities. FGC is often accompanied with a celebration, and uncut girls and women are considered a complete disgrace, unmarriageable, dirty, and worthless. FGC has great meaning for communities where it is practiced, and is in fact institutionalized to the point where it is associated with being female. Eradication of FGC is often construed as eradication of every meaningful aspect of culture that surrounds the proactice. The latest term for anti-FGC work is abandonment, where some customs are retained and perhaps new ones adopted, but the physical integrity of the girls’ genitals are maintained. In areas of Kenya, a particulalry promising development in anti-FGC work has arisen, where communities still celebrate the rite of passage into womanhood, but the actual ceremony when the procedure is performed has been replaced with a “circumcision by words.” The rate of FGC has declined noticeably since this development was introduced.
another problem with anti-FGC discourse is the framing of FGC as a human rights violation. In parts of Africa in particular, the idea of human rights is alien. The libertarian individualism upon which western society is built does not translate, and is instead seen as selfishness. The way of life is more community-oriented, rather than focused on the individual.
One last problem is that the practitioners who perform FGC are often very well-respected and command a high earning for each procedure: sometimes as high as $15 per girl, compared to a typical income of $1-2 per day in some areas. the women who perform FGC lose a great deal of income and social status when they give up cutting.
The best ways to create abandonment is with a thorough integration of education as to health risks of FGC, along with an understanding that the rites and customs involved may still be practiced without the actual cutting procedures and an effort to include the entire community in the decision to end FGC, combined with full government support and legislation against FGC that includes penalties as well as plans to help transition traditional practitioners into new roles.
The good news is that a recent UNICEF report shows signs of anti-FGC work making a difference. The percentage of women who have been cut who have at least one daughter who has also been cut has diminished to less than 50% in some areas, and has diminished in all areas studied except for 3. It looks like with education, increased awareness of health implications, and alternatives being provided for everyone, FGC is on the decline. IT can happen quite quickly in areas where dedicated teams are working in harmony with community groups, but it can also be very slow going and met with lots of resistence. However, overall, FGC is on the decline, and that has to be good news for women everywhere.