What Is Female Genital Mutilation? How Do We Stop It?

Female genital mutilation is another example of gendered violence against women. Here is everything you need to know about the terminology and concept.

Female genital mutilation is another example of gendered violence against women. Here is everything you need to know about the terminology and concept.

Violence against women has been an alarming concern for centuries now. Violation of women’s human rights takes place in various forms, with wide-ranging and long-lasting impacts on women and society.

Among many, one such form of violation of rights that takes place as a cultural practice is Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) In the past decades, 200 million girls in 30 countries have experienced this gross violation of the right to bodily integrity and health.

What is female genital mutilation?

Female Genital Mutilation refers to a nonmedical, cultural practice considered a rite of passage to womanhood. To clarify the terminology: ‘female genital mutilation’ is the phrase currently used by UN agencies, including the WHO. This is to identify the ritual cutting of the female genitals. It is a major health risk as viewed by United Nations conventions and declarations and by the WHO.

“Circumcision is seen as a beautification or a cleansing process,” said Zainaba, from Mauritania, in a learning exchange with Peace Corps volunteer Elizabeth Oram. Parallels can be drawn with the ritual of foot-binding practised in China.

Debate of terminology

The terminology of this practice has always been controversial. Various terms like ‘Female Genital Mutilation,’ ‘Female Genital Cutting,’ ‘Female Circumcision,’ ‘Female Excision’ and others have been used. Terminology has varied among communities and countries.

In the past, the term used for this gross practice was Female Circumcision, like Male Circumcision. This is a misleading comparison on two grounds.

  • Firstly, comparison because male circumcision involves removing only part of the foreskin of the penis without impairing sexual function. On the other hand, female circumcision involves partial or complete removal of the clitoris, with lifelong side effects and significant sexual impairment.
  • Secondly, male circumcision affirms manhood with superior social status. However, female circumcision restrains a woman’s sexual desire and signifies her restrained role in society.

Female genital mutilation

This is the phrase currently used by UN agencies, including the WHO. The WHO has divided female genital mutilation into four broad categories – ‘Clitoridectomy,’ ‘Excision,’ ‘Infibulation’ and ‘Piercing or Pricking.’

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This is the most commonly used term. However, it has been said that women who might find this term offensive and shocking have never found this practice as mutilation.

Female Genital Cutting

This term is used by various organizations working to eradicate the practice for those women who do not consider themselves mutilated and thus find FGM offensive.

FGM – A Cultural Practice

The practice of cutting the female genitalia is not an isolated practice, but a result of various reasons. And the four most common and predominant reasons, as pointed out in  ‘Female Genital Mutilation: Guide to Laws and Policies,’ are Culture and Tradition, Religion, Women’s Sexuality and Social Pressure.

FGM is considered as an act of socialization into cultural practices of the family, community and past generations. Women are supposed to uphold cultural integrity and values, to be like other women in the community.

Keeping honour

Keeping the family/clan’s honour on the shoulders of women’s virginity, communities consider the practice necessary to restrain their sexuality.

This is done to make her sexually appealing and loyal to the man. At the same time, it allows men to practice infidelity.  These compelling reasons make possible the continuity of the practice.

It is still highly prevalent

The case study of Sierra Leone and Côte d’Ivoire brings forth reasons for the pervasive nature of the practice of female genital mutilation. UNICEF report pointed out the degree of discrepancy between the low support for FGM/C and the high prevalence of its practice.

This results due to the silent nature of both: women experiencing and practising mutilation, as they do not prefer to talk about the deeply rooted ritual. Moreover, the study of the practice in Sierra Leone highlighted the practice as a vote-winner for the government.

Thus, despite the country signing CEDAW in 1988, no laws outlawing female circumcision have been passed by the government. Additionally, women (midwives) are the ones mostly practising this as their profession. Any measure to restrict the practice is considered as an attack on their livelihood and culture.

This poses a great challenge towards reducing/ eradicating the practice. Most importantly, secret societies play a significant role. The ritual is so culturally embedded and deeply rooted that women consider it as the only way to womanhood.

They are often unaware of the health and human rights implications of the practice. This ‘taken for granted’ nature is a result of efforts put in by secret societies.

It needs to be talked about more to eradicate it

This practice is a global concern owing to its immediate and long-term impact on the physical, sexual, reproductive and psychological health of women. The question about the possibility of shifting cultural practice can be answered in the affirmative.

Victims speaking out loudly and clearly against the practice can greatly influence continuity. Creating awareness about the violation of the ‘right to life, security, liberty, bodily integrity, health and well-being’ can be a tool in the hands of organizations, society, governments and international actors.

National and international policies and legislation condemning the centuries-old traditional practice can be effective, too.

In my concluding observations, I would like to say that I agree with Zainab. The practitioners of Female Genital Mutilation have great power and responsibility in eliminating and mitigating the effects of inhumane and insensitive traditions.

Image source: pixelfushion3d pexels, free and edited on CanvaPro

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