Getting to know Female Genitalia Mutilation and Cutting
22h25, Monday, February 06th, 2012. A baby girl just took her first deep breath into this world. She will probably grow up to a healthy life and a prominent career. She will share many smiles, love and be loved. As we think of her, our mind is flooded with opportunities and probabilities. She is presumed to be safe, protected by her family in order to reach up to her maximum potential. Sadly, in some cases, presumptions are not to be met.
All societies have common rules of behavior, may them be related to gender, age, social status and so on. A shared grounding facilitates the community to live together and further, it gives its citizens a sense of belonging. Though, some of those norms of conduct might be harmful on the people that society is trying to protect or beneficiate in the first place (i.e.: son preference, dowry, child marriage). Such traditional practices, in spite of the detriment on human life, go beyond generations and even, in some cases, grow stronger in today’s world.
Understanding the problem
For decades, the international community has been fighting one of these traditional practices putting at risk the life (or its quality) of that baby girl born only a few minutes ago. Female Genitalia Mutilation (FGM) is the partial or total removal of female genitalia. Although the World Health Organization (WHO) has established four types of FGM, cutting or any other injury caused for non-medical reasons are also considered as such.
FGM is commonly performed by a traditional practitioner who may use unhygienic instruments (such as sharp pieces of glass) and without anesthesia. The WHO has also recovered data where health care facilities are involved as well as qualified health personal (18% of all FGM). An approximate of 140 million girls and women are currently living with the consequences of FGM (WHO website).
According to the “Joint WHO/UNICEF/UNFPA Statement (on FGM)”, 1997, there are up to five different reasons for this practice to continue (see table on the side).
Most girls between the ages of 4 to 12 undergo FGM; although in some cultures, it may be practice on newborns or as late as before marriage.
FGM has been linked to increased complications in childbirth and maternal deaths. Other health implications include cysts and abscesses, tetanus, severe pain, hemorrhage, infection, infertility, urinary incontinence, and psychological and sexual problems.
The origins of FGM rest unclear. This phenomenon reproduces around the globe. Commonly practiced in Africa (in 28 countries), Asia and the Middle East, it has spread around immigrants in the Americas and Europe. Some historians argue that it started in Egypt and the Nile Valley (Pietro Bembo). However, it has not been entirely proved. When it comes to FGM, specialists suggest that the practice is easily copied among neighboring communities, making difficult to track down its origins.
The Population Reference Bureau (PRB) published a report (2010) that holds that 10 of the 27 African countries under study have no specific national law against FGM in any form. According to the Desert Flower Foundation, countries, such as Liberia, Mali and Mauretania, where the incidence is higher (50%, 91% and 71% respectively) do not have any regulation on FGM. However, legal implementation has not discouraged its practice. The 2005 Egypt Demographic and Health Survey (EDHS)’s results show that 96% of ever-married women (between the ages of 15-49) had been circumcised. Out of this 96%, the survey exhibits, 58% women perceive FGM as rational and 82% of them agreed on the continuation of this practice. (See, 2009, The Population Council report: “Toward FGM-Free Villages in Egypt”.)
Estimations state that 66000 women with FGM were living in England and Wales in 2001. As this statics were sought to grow, further legislation and education programs have taken place (to prevent future children to undergo this practice). (See, 2009, London Safeguarding Children Board report: “London FGM Resource Pack”)
Up to this point, it is clear that FGM affects women, girls and non-born children worldwide. The United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA) has stated that FGM endangers the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), especially concerning the following goals:
- Eradicating poverty.- poverty is not only defined as income resources; it also includes: lack of opportunity and depravation of fundamental rights by the violation of a person’s integrity, both physical and psychological.
- Achieving universal primary education.- education might be compromised by the consequences of FGM (lack of attention and concentration) determining a large number of drop outs due to poor performance.
- Achieving gender equality.- this one is the core concern on the international community and women groups. Discrimination in any way should be banned from social interaction. Further, women represent the 50% of the population. (According to the CIA Factbook, (est. 2012), there is a 1.01 male/female correlation of the total population, at birth the ratio is 1.07 male/female.)
- Leaving them out of the equation for development would be (as it is) a gigantic mistake. The consequences that FGM have on them diminish their self beings as individuals and as a collective power.
- Reducing child mortality.- evidence shows that neonatal death occurs during childbirth as a consequence of FGM. Also, a number of female infants, children, and adolescents do not survive the practice.
- Improving maternal health.- FGM makes childbirth excruciatingly painful and also extremely dangerous (among others, it prolongs labour, obstructs the birth canal, and often causes perianal tears).
- Combating HIV/AIDS.- there is a higher vulnerability to HIV/AIDS among girls who have undergone the procedure because of bleeding and the use of shared and non sterilised instruments.
As for human rights violations, FGM attempts against the right to life, health, integrity, sexuality, decision (free will), non-discrimination, and gender equality, to name the most obvious. The United Nations (UN) Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (A/RES/48/104; 1993; Art. 4) picked up what was earlier stated by the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (VDPA): “[Nations] should not invoke any custom, tradition, or religious consideration to avoid their obligation to eliminate violence against women, and that they must exhibit due diligence in investigating and imposing penalties for violence and establishing effective protective measures.”
I have had several talks with women around the globe about this subject. I have shown them the stories I have come up with, the data and the estimations. They all agree on the fact that this practice is terrible, inhuman and should be stopped. None of the women I have talked with have undergone any type of FGM and they all remain skeptical about its end. Among the stories told on the news, foundations and NGO’s, most women decided to stop FGM with them by not forcing their children to go through the same experience; some of them have started a revolution on immigration policies when asking for asylum in a third country either to escape from FGM or to prevent it from their children. Nonetheless, there are several women who had to deal with the consequences (both physical and psychological) of the procedure and yet considered (and even subjected) it for their daughters.
In my opinion, the work still to be done in this ground is large and ad-hoc. The organizations involved on the eradication of this practice have to tailor-suit their prevention programs to the local’s culture. The aim: to break the community’s mind-set about FGM. The transformation will most likely occur after that. As an example, take the women in the village of Pata, Senegal where teenage mothers from 69 communities in Kolda announced their decision to stop cutting and do not allow their children to endure this tradition. This is a very promising path considering that in this country, 88% of women are subjected to this practice in rural areas. (In urban areas, the percentage drops to 20%, according to the UNICEF).
By Katherine R Vasquez Tarazona