Female Genital Mutilation, or FGM, is a widespread practice affecting 125-140 million young girls around the world, every year. It is an issue that has been overlooked and dismissed as “cultural”, including by the writer Germaine Greer.
In recent years it has gained increasing amounts of attention, due to the work of countless FGM survivors and activists to raise awareness of the issue. We recently interviewed Rachel from the organisation ‘Purposefully Scarred’ about female genital mutilation.
Please be aware that there is a trigger warning for child abuse, child exploitation, and gender-based violence in this post.
Your organisation highlights many important issues which affect women around the world, one of which is female genital mutilation. Could you please explain what the practice is and the global scale of the problem?
UNICEF and the WHO estimate that 125-140 million girls and women worldwide are living with the consequences of female genital mutilation, or FGM. In other words, as many as 140 million girls and women have survived a procedure in which their genital organs were forcibly altered in some way such by cutting or sewing, etc; FGM is typically performed in early childhood. That number does not account for girls who died shortly after mutilation due to complications, such as excessive blood loss or infection.
FGM has played a role in various cultures throughout history. In some places, it is known as female circumcision. While it is most common in African families today, it has been – and continues to be – practised around the world.
Generally speaking, it is considered a rite of passage into womanhood and a way to protect a woman’s virginity or ‘maintain her honour’. Some cultures believe a woman’s chances of finding a husband will be significantly greater if she has undergone FGM. A few ancient cultures used FGM as a way to distinguish class. The FGM National Clinical Group mentions it as a Victorian era treatment for insanity.
FGM has no medical benefits. In fact, just the opposite is true. Past the initial psychological and physical trauma of the procedure (girls are awake and restrained at the time), women face a wide variety of complications, including infections, abscesses, cysts, infertility, serious complications during child birth, pain during sex, and serious, long-term psychological distress.
How do you specifically work on raising awareness of, and tackling this issue?
At this point, raising awareness is done through posts on our website. FGM is a human rights issue that cannot be ignored, especially when our posts come from all over the globe.
What have been the general attitudes and responses to the work that you do?
In general, it has been extremely positive. People are grateful for the resources and survivor stories that we share. In the case of FGM, many in Western countries still have never heard of it or, if they have, they have no idea of the scale of the problem. It is often difficult to fathom that it happens here at home and not just in developing countries. People are grateful to receive and share new information.
The off-line work is more difficult for people to understand. Some people have a difficult time understanding why I would choose to sit up all night in a hospital with an assault victim I have never met. But even then, it’s an opportunity to talk to people about the realities of abuse and why advocates are so instrumental in the healing process.
Do you find that there is a culture of not speaking out about such a widespread practice?
I would say yes. It’s a very taboo topic in many societies, as are many issues related to women’s sexuality. FGM is directly linked to a girl’s ‘honour’ and worth. Ultimately, it can be the deciding factor in who she will marry and how economically stable her life will be. It can be a very dangerous thing to speak out against tradition, especially as a woman in a patriarchal and/or honour-shame society. For example, I recently read an interview with a young woman in India who has dedicated her life to caring for child brides. She’s received death threats for speaking out against tradition.
Nadya Khalife from Human Rights Watch described the tolerance of FGM: “It is about controlling women’s sexuality and keeping them under control…It is not something that families discuss. It is just something that is done, and forgotten about.” Generations of women have experienced FGM; it’s a natural part of their worldview, which makes it that much more complicated and dangerous to decry the practice.
However, in recent years, as awareness has grown, people – survivors especially – have begun speaking out. Waris Dirie has used her platform to address the issue; as a survivor herself, she calls the practice “pure violence” against girls and women. Women have begun to challenge the practice in their own communities because they believe it is a tradition that has to stop. The documentary A Handful of Ash is one example of women bravely taking action to protect future generations of girls. There are communities and countries that are seeing a significant decrease in the number of girls forced to undergo FGM because of projects like that documentary.
What challenges have you encountered while raising awareness of this important issue?
I can’t say I have personally encountered any serious challenges to date, except perhaps disinterest. It’s easy for people to be disgusted when they hear about FGM but it is another for people to take action towards ending it.
Stepping into a community where FGM is a normal practice, I can see how there would be many challenges. No injustice is going to be abolished overnight, especially with something like FGM which is so deeply rooted in tradition. And since it’s a taboo topic – and very personal – it’s difficult for women to share their stories. Attempts to end this practice have to be made with thoughtful sensitivity to the culture and the people affected by FGM – the survivors and the proponents.
There are some who say that female genital mutilation is a cultural issue more than a feminist issue, what are your thoughts on this?
I come from a background where ‘feminist’ is a dirty word so here’s my definition of feminism for clarity’s sake: the active belief that women are fully human and deserve to be treated as fully human. With that in mind, FGM is absolutely a feminist issue.
Germaine Greer called attempts to outlaw FGM “an attack on cultural identity” and described it as “one man’s beautification is another man’s mutilation.” She treats FGM as a purely cultural issue. I could possibly agree with her if FGM was a choice each girl made for herself but it is not. Greer simplifies it by equating the forceful mutilation of a child’s genitalia to a teenager in the United States who chooses “self-decoration” through genital piercings. To mutilate is to deprive someone of something that is natural to their body or identity. FGM is not a choice. If it is, then I and other activists have yet to hear that survivor story. FGM is dehumanising in that it removes a girl’s personal autonomy. It ignores her right to her own body. It is a form of gender-based oppression.
The article on Greer’s response is from 1999, when roughly 115 million women were survivors of FGM. In less than two decades, that number has more than tripled. Greer’s conclusion that the continued practice of FGM benefits society has proven inaccurate. I see no cultural improvements because of FGM. Instead, there are more women in the world who face physical and psychological repercussions of being mutilated. There are more girls dying from infection. There are more mothers losing their lives or their children in childbirth.
Culture is a beautiful thing and ought to be celebrated. It ultimately represents the uniqueness and the beauty of people. That being said, no culture is perfect and every culture has practices or traditions that are detrimental. FGM is detrimental. Sati, or widow burning, is just another example of how tradition has cost women their humanity. The MPs conclusion – that culture is “not a legitimate excuse for violating women’s rights” – was spot on.
FGM is a feminist issue because it is a practice that treats girls and women as less than fully human. It defines their honour and worth by how their bodies look and function.
Do you feel that attitudes towards female genital mutilation are beginning to change around the world?
Absolutely. I think films like A Handful of Ash show that people are being moved to action and that attitudes are changing. Women are breaking cultural barriers and men are listening. With outlets like Twitter, it is easier than ever before to raise awareness and get people talking about issues like FGM.
One of the young African contributors to the Girl Declaration mentioned FGM: “I hate FGM. It has caused many deaths. I even witnessed a girl in our area undergoing FGM, and she really bled…and died, so this is quite detrimental to our girls.” Young girls are voicing their opinions, ideas, and hopes. They’re saying, “I’m not invisible. I matter”. That is huge. Giving people a voice is how change happens.
What is your hope for the next 10 years about this widespread practice?
I hope that ten years from now, we’ve reversed the trend; that there are drastically fewer cases of FGM. Many organisations are already fighting to end child and maternal mortality…FGM goes hand-in-hand with that. I would like to see medical care and sexual health education made more readily available to communities where FGM is prevalent.
I’d love to leave my children in a world where FGM has become a thing of the past.
‘Purposefully Scarred’ is an organisation who work to raise awareness of female genital mutilation. They discuss the issue, and share survivors’ stories here