"Mama tied a blindfold over my eyes. The next thing I felt my flesh was being cut away. I heard the blade sawing back and forth through my skin. The pain between my legs was so intense I wished I would die."
These haunting words by Waris Dirie, UNFPA Goodwill Ambassador and spokesperson on FGM are the stuff nightmares are made up of. This isn't an attack by a villain, it isn't a rape, it isn't pedophilia. It is the amputation of some of the most sensitive parts of a girl's body by her loved ones. Along with physical pain comes the indignity and helplessness and profound psychological trauma of being betrayed so brutally by those who should be taking care of her.
Female Genital Mutilation or FGM refers to procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons, often through misguided religious views, or tradition. FGM is most common in Africa and the Middle East, but happens increasingly in developed countries as people migrate their and bring their traditions along.
There is no known medical or other advantage to FGM.
FGM is mainly of four types. To quote the World Health Organization:
- Clitoridectomy: partial or total removal of the clitoris (a small, sensitive and erectile part of the female genitals) and, in very rare cases, only the prepuce (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoris).
- Excision: partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora (the labia are "the lips" that surround the vagina).
- Infibulation: narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the inner, or outer, labia, with or without removal of the clitoris.
- Other: all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area.
The World Health Organization estimates that around 140 million women have undergone FGM. 92 million girls above ten years have undergone FGM and more are at risk in Africa alone. This is no small number, and inflicting such agony on children is no small abuse of their rights and safety.
This happened to me. I may have forgotten the pain, but I will never forgive my parents. I have a young daughter. To keep her safe, I never visit my parents now.
The anonymous comment of a visitor on an article about female genital mutilation. Female Genital Mutilation, also euphemistically referred to a Female Circumcision or Female Genital Cutting was presumed absent in India. However, that is not true. It is still practiced among the Bohra Shia Community in India, who believe it to be a part of their Sharia laws. Many countries have laws criminalizing FGM, but India has no such laws, and the conspiracy of modesty and religious sanction keep Bohra women from speaking up. In theory, an advocate friend suggested that a case could be filed under child abuse, but it doesn't seem to be done and the practice is quite rampant.
Most Bohra communities have one or more women who make a living out of conducting these operations - if they could be called so. In reality, they are crude amputations by untrained (at least in a conventional medical sense) people usually without anesthetic, antibiotic or antiseptic. While the usual age of FGM is between 10 and 14, it is decreasing. Also there is a trend for FGM to be done on babies 4 days after birth by a doctor from that community itself. There are known dangers associated with FGM like infections, disfigurement, uncontrolled bleeding, fistulae, problems urinating, cysts, infertility and death. Women who undergo FGM find it difficult to find sexual pleasure or orgasm. Indeed one of the reasons for FGM is to preserve virginity and morality by making sex undesirable. Needless to say, this is something that needs to stop immediately.
When a Bohra Muslim woman calling herself Tasleem took out a petition on Facebook to stop FGM last November, she dared not make her identity known. Yet, she took the courageous step with an intent to create awareness and it did raise a storm. As expected, most people were not aware at all about FGM. Those who knew, didn't know that it was practiced in India at all. There were outraged and concerned reactions from many in the society. Others thought that it was a traditional factor and could not be changed.
However, doctors spoke up acknowledging the existence of the practice and warning of medical complications. So there are voices speaking up against, though they are few and far between.
Dr. Zaheer Ahmed Sayeed brought up an important religious point “If the Bhora women come out in protest they would be rendered apostate by the concerned Bohra authorities, despite the mutilation does not carry validity and sanction in the Quran and to my knowledge in the Hadees. I suspect a single individual’s plight should be picked up, highlighted with the Human Rights and Women's Commission requested to echo the barbarism and support the cause against this barbaric act”.
So, the challenges are strong, and the need is great. It makes me wonder, why don't the people in the Parliament make a law banning it and include it as an explicit crime under Child Abuse or separately (adult women also can undergo FGM)? Why must protesting women be at risk within their communities, or inaction extend the suffering of the little girls? The Sharia asks for the cutting off of a thiefs hand too, but our laws prevail over it. We DO NOT cut off the hands of thieves regardless of religion. Sati was a practice accepted in religion. It is illegal. So clearly, laws don't necessarily follow religion in matters of human safety. Similarly, banning Female Genital Mutilation will bring very welcome relief for the girls, and parents of girls who wish to see an end to this practice, but fear consequences.
It can be done. To quote WHO on legal efforts to ban FGM:
In 1997, WHO issued a joint statement with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) against the practice of FGM. A new statement, with wider United Nations support, was then issued in February 2008 to support increased advocacy for the abandonment of FGM.
The 2008 statement documents evidence collected over the past decade about the practice. It highlights the increased recognition of the human rights and legal dimensions of the problem and provides data on the frequency and scope of FGM. It also summarizes research about why FGM continues, how to stop it, and its damaging effects on the health of women, girls and newborn babies.
In 2010 WHO published a "Global strategy to stop health care providers from performing female genital mutilation" in collaboration with other key UN agencies and international organizations.
Since 1997, great efforts have been made to counteract FGM, through research, work within communities, and changes in public policy. Progress at both international and local levels includes:
- wider international involvement to stop FGM;
- the development of international monitoring bodies and resolutions that condemn the practice;
- revised legal frameworks and growing political support to end FGM (this includes a law against FGM in 22 African countries, and in several states in two other countries, as well as 12 industrialized countries with migrant populations from FGM practicing countries);
- in most countries, the prevalence of FGM has decreased, and an increasing number of women and men in practising communities support ending its practice.
Research shows that, if practising communities themselves decide to abandon FGM, the practice can be eliminated very rapidly.
I would like to end this article saying that this urgent need must not be ignored. Speak up, demand that FGM be banned.
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