“Fanta Camara was 5 years old when she was subjected to genital mutilation. In the course of the cutting, her urethra was severely damaged, as a consequence of which she became incontinent (or unable to control urination or defecation). She had to drop out of school as other students, who could not bear the smell of her incontinence, made fun of her. In the village she spent her time washing her clothes, which were repeatedly soiled by the ceaseless flow of urine. The same community that required her, in accordance with tradition, to undergo the process of genital mutilation, shunned her as a result of the harm it caused her. Her condition, compounded by lack of education, heralded a bleak future.” Equality Now
Worldwide, many children are vulnerable and are not treated according to basic human rights. Girls are the most vulnerable, as society’s gender norms create additional obstacles.
FGM stands for something that in the Western world we are not very familiar with: Female Genital Mutilation, also known as female circumcision or genital cutting. FGM involves the surgical removal of parts of the external sensitive female organs; in its most extreme form, almost two-thirds of the external genitals are removed, followed by stitching up, leaving only a small hole for urination and menstruation.
As a Maasai woman from Tanzania said:
“In my work as a traditional birth attendant I have seen many women and girls suffer and die as a consequence of FGM. Because I have seen this suffering, I feel pity in my heart and that’s what drives me to go far and wide in my community telling them to stop FGM!”
Globally, it is estimated that between 100 and 140 million girls and women have experienced some form of FGM, and that every year about three million girls, most younger than 12, are at risk of undergoing this dangerous procedure.
FGM is common throughout many countries in Africa, and in Indonesia, Malaysia, Yemen, Oman, United Arab Emirates, India, and Pakistan. Somalia has one of the highest rates where 97.9% of females have undergone FGM. It also occurs in some immigrant populations in America, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and some European countries.
Brigham Hospital for Women in Boston estimated that 227,887 girls and women in the United States in the year 2000 were at risk of being subjected to FGM.
Long-Lasting Damage is Not Just Physical
FGM causes many physical and psychological problems. FGM is generally performed in the villages by women (excisors or “cutters”) with un-sterile and crude instruments, such as knives, scissors, pieces of glass or razor blades. It is generally performed with no pain medication or anesthetics, in often unclean environments. All of this leads to bleeding and a risk of infection.
There are long-term serious health consequences of FGM: physical, psychological, and sexual. FGM causes problems with urination and menstruation leading to infections, chronic pain, scarred tissues, infertility and painful complications with childbirth.
The procedure can be very traumatic, and cause psychiatric problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder and sexual identity issues. Imagine the shame that comes with believing your natural body parts are “wrong,” particularly during the turbulent changes of puberty.
“They say it helps us control our emotions.” Azza, Egyptian immigrant to the U.S. DoSomething.org
Multiple Cultural Pressures
FGM is a tradition built around the notion that one must protect girls from their nature, keep them “pure,” and lower their sex drive until they get married. It is sometimes done at a very young age, but other times it is done before or around the start of puberty, as a rite of passage. The UN Population Fund outlines several reasons why girls undergo FGM:
- Sociological - Some see it as a right of passage into womanhood, and as a way to fit in with the rest of society
- Hygienic - Certain cultures believe that female genitalia are dirty and unsightly
- Sexual - FGM is a way to inhibit female sexuality
- Health - There is a belief that it can enhance the rate of child survival and fertility
- Religious - Some think that FGM is a religious requirement although it is most often sociological
- Socio-economic – FGM is sometimes perceived as a necessary requirement for marriage, and the procedure is of economic value. It is a source of income for circumcisers and makes a bride more valuable in cultures where dowry is paid.
Opposing FGM raises controversy because of concerns of “cultural imperalism” where developed countries impose their views on other nations. Sometimes, it seems like one culture steps into another culture, and tells them they are wrong and to stop practicing a tradition they have known for centuries.
But as the World Health Organization says:
“FGM is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. It reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women. The practice violates a person’s rights to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death.”
Comparison to Male Circumcision
FGM also raises conversation over the similarities to male circumcision. Some may say that ending FGM should be matched with ending male circumcision; others might say that FGM is okay because male circumcision is okay.
There is a fundamental difference between the two practices: FGM is used to control girls and inhibit sexual desires while male circumcision does not have this intent or result. While both procedures are often done on minors, who can’t necessarily consent to it, FGM poses far more consequences and health risks than male circumcision. The World Health Organization has even found health benefits to male circumcision, such as a reduction in HIV transmission.
Call to Action
Check out these organizations that are working to stop FGM, and become part of the action!
- Do Something
- Female Genital Cutting Education and Networking Project
- UN Population Fund
- World Health Organization
- Share with your friends Fanta Camara’s story
- Watch and discuss videos
- Talk with your friends about FGM and express what you feel about this extreme violation of human rights that is being done throughout world as well as in America!
- Because girls in some immigrant communities in the U.S. are at risk for FGM, several states including California, Colorado and Rhode Island have amended child protection laws to forbid this procedure. Do some research by visiting the website of your state legislature to see if any action has been taken to stop FGM and if not, ask one of your state delegates or senators for help getting a law passed.
- Girls can take legal action against FGM! Equality Now and their partners in African countries have taken cases to court to protect girls from FGM. Examples are:
- “In Niger, perpetrators responsible for mutilating 73 girls were charged for violating the anti-FGM law of 2003.”
- “In Kenya, our partner Women’s Rights Institution for Peace (WRIP) assisted a mother to secure a permanent protection order from the Eldoret court banning her husband from subjecting their daughter to FGM.”
- “In Tanzania, a number of girls challenged their parents with court action if they subjected them to FGM.”
- Support Tostan and other grassroots organizations in different countries that are pushing for girls’ human rights, the opportunity for girls to go to school and delay harmful traditions including FGM and child marriage.