Disclaimer: This article includes explicit visual images and links to documentaries and videos - the contents of which are violent and further explicit. Though the female genitalia is discussed in some detail with diagrams and could be quite upsetting, I suggest that if you have opened this link you might as well get through the content of this narrative because being informed and generating awareness is always a first step towards rooting out social evils from society.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting - FGM/C
Female genital mutilation or FGM "refers to all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to female genital organs for cultural or other medical reasons" (WHO, UNFPA). In simple terms, it involves the cutting off and removal of external female genitalia (ref. diagram above).
Types of FGM/C
There are four identified types of FGM/C:
Type 1: Involves the partial or complete removal of the clitoris. This process is known as clitoridectomy.
Type 2: Involves the partial or complete removal of the clitoris, with or without the removal of the labia majora. This process is identified as excision.
Type 3: This involves the creation of a covering for the vaginal opening by cutting and re-positioning the labia majora and/or labia minora sometimes through stitching. This process is identified as infibulation. Type 3 Genital mutilation or cutting may or may not involve the removal of the clitoris. Type 3 FGM/C sometimes involves the tying together of the legs for a period of 10-15 days in order to let the attached tissue grow.
Individuals who undergo type 3 FGM/C also undergo a process of de-infibulation, often after marriage, where the vaginal covering is removed and the vagina unsealed to allow intercourse and childbirth.
Type 4: Includes all other forms of procedures that include pricking, piercing, incising, scraping, cauterizing (which involves burning the area).
The Frequency of FGM/C
An estimated 200 million girls alive today are believed to have undergone female genital mutilation/cutting. Though the regular age group that undergo FGM/C is between 0-15 years of age, women may undergo the same during various stages of their lives.
Consequences of FGM/C
The clitoris has more than 8,000 nerve endings. A traditional circumciser removes the clitoris most often without anaesthesia and sometimes by applying local anaesthesia. Stating the obvious, the process of FGM/C is extremely painful during and post procedure. The procedure can cause urinary and other infections, swelling, excessive bleeding and even death.
Besides urinary, vaginal and menstrual problems, women who undergo Type 3 FGM/C may have to undergo surgery again to allow for intercourse and childbirth. An unsterilized instrument like a blade or knife might further lead to HIV transmission. The psychological aftermaths of FGM/C lasts a lifetime and might involve low self-esteem, anxiety post-traumatic stress disorder among various other health disorders..
Socio-cultural Factors and FGM/C
Society, tradition, and culture are words that are often thrown in to deny women bodily autonomy, agency and enforce restrictive practices. The same applies to practices of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting. It is interesting to note that it is often women who perform FGM/C, and mothers and grandmothers who themselves have undergone FGM/C and who understand the nuances of the same are the ones that have the procedure performed on their daughters and grand-daughters. This is basically because of the consideration of the procedure as a norm to which one has to conform. It is considered an expected rite of passage, and not conforming to the same can result in one being socially cast out. For example, girls who reach the marriageable age and who have not had FGM/C performed might be denied a groom within the community.
Furthermore, FGM/C brings with it ideas regarding sexual behaviours expected of females. It restricts sexual pleasure for females and is considered as a tool to encourage and ensure virginity before marriage.
Egypt, Sudan, Kenya, Nigeria, and Guinea have the highest percentages of FGM/C performed. FGM/C practicing communities and families may perform the same (sometimes in discretion) in any part of the world. Organisations like WHO, UNFPA, UNICEF have been working to protect girl children and women from FGM/C since 1997. Working closely with families, religious leaders, and grassroots agencies will be a more definitive step towards achieving a long-term prevention of FGM/C and protection of girl children. Besides educating women and girls, fathers, brothers, and husbands have a crucial role in recognizing and ending FGM/C from within their communities.
Besides awareness and advocacy, it is important to include issues like FGM/C in our daily conversations and extend support to those who have undergone them. Maintaining one's bodily integrity is a basic human right. No child must suffer the consequences of potentially harmful and restrictive traditional practices.
The UNFPA and WHO websites offer a more comprehensive analysis of FGM/C.
The movie Dessert Flower offers a basic guide to FGM. The movie does not contain much explicit content and will be quite useful for those who cannot stomach the grotesque reality.
A 47-minute documentary commissioned by the International Federation of Gynaecology and Obstetricians and narrated by Meryl Streep titled 'The Cutting Tradition' offers a detailed insight into FGM/C. (Warning: Content highly explicit in nature)