Looking for Life, Destroying Life: Female genital mutilation

Content warning: This article includes graphic descriptions of violence against women. 

Your mom tells you to go into a room. You walk inside and there are many girls, and an elderly woman is sitting on the floor. She asks you to take off your pants. You comply. The girls and your mother pin you down while you sit on a bucket. What comes next is indescribably painful.

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a cultural practice. It involves a “traditional circumciser” taking a shard of rust-covered metal or a piece of sharp glass to cut a girl’s clitoral area. Often practiced on girls at birth or any age before 15, the procedure is widely accepted in the Middle East, Asia and parts of Africa.

There are four distinct forms of FGM. Type one is a clitoridectomy, which involves the partial or complete removal of the clitoris. Type two involves the removal of the clitoris and labia, which protects the female sex organs. Type three is infibulation or narrowing the vaginal opening. Type four includes all other non-medical trauma to female genitalia.

FGM brings an interesting question to the forefront — do we ignore harmful, health-related practices out of respect for others’ cultures and traditions? FGM blurs the line. This procedure, in America, would be classified as a human rights violation, and children do not have the autonomy to protect themselves. However, there are currently about 200 million girls worldwide who have been cut.

This tradition carries a long history of oppression. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are numerous reasons why this practice persists. In many communities, FGM is unquestioned and performed out of fear. Girls who do not undergo the process are deemed as social outcasts and “unmarriageable.” In fact, after the clitoris is cut, the vaginal opening is narrowed and sometimes sewn completely shut. In practicing cultures, extramarital sex is considered sinful, so FGM hinders girls’ sexual desires. Additionally, some communities perceive the female clitoris and labia as “unclean” and believe that religious texts mandate FGM.

Not only does FGM raise serious, ethical concerns; I also want to emphasize the biological, physiological and emotional consequences of surgically removing the female clitoris. First of all, there are absolutely no health benefits to this process. It is by no definition the equivalent of male circumcision, which has been scientifically proven to reduce the transmission of HIV. It is excruciatingly painful and often done without anesthesia and sterile equipment.

Some immediate consequences of FGM include hemorrhaging, secondary infections such as tetanus, urinary issues and shock. This practice has life-long ramifications. Victims have urinary issues, scar tissue, painful sexual problems, childbirth complications and post-traumatic stress disorder. FGM can even cause fistula, which occurs when the urethra is damaged, causing incontinence.

The WHO has been working to eliminate FGM for decades. While its prevalence has decreased, the practice still continues. In my next column, I will discuss the strengths and drawbacks of intervention strategies. But for now, know that FGM is a form of violence and its continuation is a threat to women’s rights worldwide.