Female Genital Mutilation – An Overview

Female Genital Mutilation affects approximately 200 million girls and women worldwide 

This is not a pleasant topic. It is neither light nor settling. However, we must remember that awareness is a respite, as opposed to a burden. It’s one of the truest benefits we reap from living in an era highly addicted to social media. It’s easier now than ever to access information about what people experience in foreign corners of the world. As members of a movement that concerns all women, we need to constantly build upon our intellectual landscape. We have to make ourselves aware of all issues that face women today – everywhere. In that spirit, hopefully the following research enlightens you, as readers.

What is FGM?

According to the World Health Organization, FGM “comprises 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.” These are medically unnecessary, frequently botched operations that involve any of the following:

  • Type I: Partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or the prepuce.
  • Type II: Partial or total removal of the clitoris and labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora.
  • Type III: Narrowing of the vaginal orifice by cutting and bringing together the labia minora and/or the labia majora to create a type of seal, with or without excision of the clitoris. In most instances, cutters stitch together the cut edges of the labia (i.e. infibulation).
  • Type IV: All other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, for example: pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterization.

How often does it happen?

According to the United Nations, an estimated 200 million girls/women in the world today have been cut, roughly 22 percent of which are girls 14 years old and younger. Somalia (98 percent of women aged 15-49), Guinea (97 percent), and Djibouti (93 percent) experience the highest rates of FGM. Percentages in Gambia and Mauritania are high as well, reaching 56 percent and 54 percent, respectively. However, Americans typically associate FGM as strictly African, which is not the case. Approximately half of Indonesian girls have been cut.

How does it differ from Male Circumcision (MC) in the United States?

MC remains a controversial, yet prevalent practice in the United States. However, the Mayo Clinic affirms that circumcision negatively affects neither fertility nor sexual pleasure. Though these surgeries are elective and arguably unnecessary, licensed surgeons perform MC in sterile environments with patient consent and anesthesia. This is clearly preferable to any form of FGM, aptly referred to as “mutilation”. Typically, these unhygienic, traumatic procedures leave recipients highly prone to an assortment of health problems. These issues include cysts, infections, infertility, high instances of infant mortality, and lack of ability to experience sexual pleasure.

Why do people cut?

Like MC, various cultural bi-products have yielded a diverse potpourri of reasons people use to justify FGM. At its root, the widespread pervasiveness of FGM symptomizes a deeply embedded gender inequality, which infects countless people. It indicates a widespread belief that the worth of a woman’s autonomy, pain, and sexual pleasure pales in comparison to those of her male counterparts. Though awareness is spreading of the detrimental threats it poses to recipients, people still practice FGM due to the perceived social benefits in certain communities, or in the name of continuing a tradition.

The United Nations Population Fund organizes the predominant reasons cited for practicing FGM into five categories:

  • Psycho-sexuality – People perform FGM as a means of harnessing control over a woman’s sex life. Certain communities believe clitoral removal/mutilation effectively keeps a woman’s virginity intact and ensures fidelity to her husband. A belief that such acts increase male pleasure during intercourse also runs rampant, outlining the prioritization of the male sexual experience over the female’s. People are willing to compromise a person’s health, fertility, and sexual autonomy because of a culturally significant double standard. This is also a reiteration of the archaic, antiquated notion that women should take only one sexual partner in life. Typically her husband, in order to retain honor, respect, and eligibility for marriage.
  • Sociology/Culture – In many cultures, members view FGM symbolically, as a girl’s initiation into womanhood. Passed down through generations, a wealth of untrue myths perpetuate these practices. Stories about monetary misfortune, infertility, perpetual singularity, or short lifespans befalling uncut women. This reason is perhaps, to me, most understandable. Though it does not justify FGM, human beings are creatures of habit that tend to gravitate towards familiarity, in which we often find comfort. One could argue the same of MC in the United States. There is little conclusive research to support any solid health benefits. Nonetheless, it became a tradition. In all objectivity, we could probably do without it. However, the fact remains that the effects of FGM in Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia are worlds more detrimental than those of MC.
  • Hygiene and Aesthetic – Some populations perceive the external female genitalia as undesirable or dirty, so they are removed for cosmetic reasons. Ring a bell? Not only are these reasons often cited in favor of MC, but billions of US dollars go to labiaplasties, hymenoplasties, and other elective procedures said to make a woman’s vagina more ostensibly attractive. However, once again, we must acknowledge that such procedures are carried out with patient consent, performed by board certified plastic surgeons, in sterile, painless environments, and in accordance with sophisticated medical techniques.
  • Religion – While neither Christianity nor Islam (the two most prevalent religions in the world today) openly endorse FGM, fringe groups frequently interpret their scriptures to justify FGM.
  • Socio-economic Practice – Many groups regard FGM as a requirement for marriage, mostly  wherein women depend on men to support them. This gives men the upper hand in deciding what comprises an eligible woman. Peers also consider uncut women ineligible for inheritance, which compromises their financial securities.

What can we do about it?

The good news is that there are many wonderful organizations with funding to both prevent FGM’s progression and send help to survivors. Here are a few:

  • Desert Flower Foundation – Founded by Un ambassador and FGM survivor, Waris Dirie, this organization funds clinics that offer medical, surgical, and psychological support to FGM survivors.
  • UNFPA/UNICEF – With the help of The Kenya Women Parliamentarian Association, has spearheaded several educational campaigns to help inform people of this blatant violation of human rights. These efforts have contributed to many communities banning the practice all together.
  • V Day – A global effort to end violence against women, V Day organized a campaign (One Billion Rising), which supports Kenyan safe houses where women are given resources, education, and support.
  • Equality Now – Provides legal services for FGM survivors.

About The Author

Anneliese Aberg Scalzo is a senior World Literature major at Fairleigh Dickinson University, hoping to pursue a career as a human rights attorney. She is immensely passionate about issues involving disadvantaged populations around the world and hopes to utilize her affinity for words to spread awareness. In her downtime, Anneliese enjoys practicing her Swedish language skills, adding to her home library, running, volunteering , and relaxing with her dogs.