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Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)

Human Rights Violation, Danger to Girls, Communicates Women's Inferiority


The knife cut down the guardian of the village today.
Now he is dead and gone.
Before the village was dirty,
but now without the guardian it is clean.
So look at us, we are only women and the men have come to
beat the tam-tam.
They have phalli like the elephants. They have come when we are bleeding.
Now back to the village where a thick Phallus is waiting.
Now we can make love because our sex is clean.

These lyrics, sung by Kenyan girls after enduring the process of female genital mutilation (FGM), (at times mildly referred to as female circumcision (FC)), represent the extent to which FGM — a practice that has incited fiery debate worldwide — is culturally entrenched within the minds of citizens of many African, Middle Eastern, and immigrant communities (in which immigrants can reinforce their cultural roots in a foreign environment) worldwide.

The term ‘FGM’ gained popularity in the 1970’s (to distinguish it from male circumcision in degrees of brutality) describes one of three processes, (clitoridectomy, excision, or infibulation) all of which involve the partial to full removal or a female’s clitoris and/or labia. The practice of cutting women usually exists within a wider notion of women’s inferiority and prescribed roles in society. Such attitudes, at least in much of Africa, are largely born out of customary law, a “blend of African customs, imported colonial notions, and related concepts from Christianity, Islam,” and traditional beliefs.

Customary law sometimes exists with a country’s formal judiciary system, but often proves predominate in the attitudes of citizens. Religious or cultural attitudes built on the notion of women’s lack of importance and power serve as the main link between FGM and other discriminatory practices, such as spousal abuse; ‘rape as a tool;’ and the limiting of women’s political freedom, reproductive autonomy, 5 and access to education / economic development.

The global community first refrained from interfering with FGM out of respect for sovereignty that put “cultural practices beyond the jurisdiction of the World Health Organization (WHO).” However in 1989, the Regional Committee of the WHO for Africa passed a resolution urging participating governments “to adopt appropriate policies and strategies in order to eradicate female circumcision.” See: “Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Africa, The Middle East & Far East,” 1998, Religious Tolerance.

Although the concept of FGM as a human rights violation is now commonplace to the international community, the continued prevalence of this dangerous and potentially life-threatening practice makes public outrage and discussion no less relevant to the realization of a socially conscious global community. FGM is reportedly still performed on three million females annually. It is estimated that 130 million girls alive today have been affected by genital cutting. For this please see, Innocenti Research Centre, “Changing a Harmful Social Convention: Female Genital Mutilation,” 2005, UNICEF.

The United Nations has posed just such a challenge to the world by specifying 8 goals meant to drastically improve living standards of the world’s people by 2015. Eradicating FGM would largely contribute to the enhancement of gender equality, goal 5.

But what happens in the West with immigrant communities still practicing FGM? Great Britain stands for an interesting case. In a recent article in The Times, entitled “Parents Fly In African Village Elders to Circumcise Their Young Daughters” the Nicola Woolcock explains that in Britain, female circumcision- or female genital mutilation- has been illegal since 1985, and yet 75,000 African immigrants have had the procedure carried out on them. The practice, in which either parts of a young girl’s clitoris or labia are removed, their vaginas are sewn up, or their flesh shrunk with corrosives, is common in twenty eight African countries and some Asian and Middle Eastern communities. It is usually performed on girls between the ages of 4 and 13, and the stated purpose is to control women’s sexuality, enhance fertility, honor religious demands and traditions, and ensure hygiene.

The British police have just recently become aware of it, but the practice has been commonplace among the African community for years. Each year thousands of young girls have been taken abroad to be circumcised, and in 2003 taking a child to another country to have the procedure performed also became illegal. The trend now is if the parents cannot afford the trip or do not have passports, the community members are joining together to pay for the circumciser to fly to Britain. The Metropolitan Police have set up a special unit to investigate the problem. They have had 20 successful interventions, in which they warned the families it was illegal. The families did not know that it was now illegal to take their child abroad.

The procedure is dangerous to the girls. It is not performed under sterile conditions, and there is no anesthetic provided. Infections cysts, and complications during childbirth are common to the victims. They are twice as likely to die in childbirth, and three times as likely to give birth to a stillborn child. Despite all this, women who do not have the procedure are seen as unclean, ostracized, and cannot find husbands.

The police are negotiating with BAA to show a rolling 30-second video at airports reminding people of the penalties. They estimate that 7,000 young girls in Britain are still at risk for the procedure.

Ana Lita, Ph.D., is Director of the IHEU-Appignani Center for Bioethics, an affiliate of the International Humanist and Ethical Union.

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