Female Genital Mutilation in parts of Africa
By Rasika Sundaram
TW: This post contains mentions of particular forms of female genital mutilation
A UK aid supported UNICEF-UNFPA Joint Programme conducted focus groups with community representatives in Burkina Faso on the practice of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting. They asked the programme to include teaching about FGM/C in pre-schools. In some communities in Burkina Faso, FGM/C is carried out when during a child's primary school years. If children are aware that it is harmful they can report cases and seek help to prevent the practice. Picture: Jessica Lea/DFID.
What is female genital mutilation?
According to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), female genital mutilation (FGM) refers to the practice of partially or completely removing a female’s genitalia for non-medical motives, causing pain and harm to the individual (What is Female Genital Mutilation, 2019). This procedure is classified into four types, all of which cause injury to women by pricking, piercing, slitting, scraping, or sealing different parts of the female genitals including the clitoral glans, labia minora, labia majora, and vulva.
Research proves that FGM provides no benefits of physical wellbeing to the survivor; in fact, it increases health risks amongst women. Short-term risks include terrible aches, extended bleeding, infection, genital swelling, fever, and death and long-term problems include urinary, vaginal, menstrual complications, infertility, HIV transmission, reduced pleasure and increased pain during sex, postpartum haemorrhage, stillbirth, early neonatal death, etc. The experience of FGM and the physical reactions to it can cause various psychological problems including shock, distrust, depression, anxiety, etc. (Female Genital Mutilation, 2020; What is Female Genital Mutilation, 2019). Due to these risks, the practice of FGM is considered a violation of human rights (What is Female Genital Mutilation, 2019).
History and present scenario of female genital mutilation in certain African communities:
The first case of female genital mutilation was recorded in Nile Valley, Egypt and the tradition dispersed through slave trade routes either from West Africa to South Africa or from the Middle East to Africa. Accounts indicate that the tradition reached ancient Rome where FGM was practiced on slave women to prevent sexual intercourse and impregnation (Llamas, 2017; (Odukogbe, Afolabi, Bello, & Adeyanju, 2017). FGM continues to be prevalent in certain African countries and is practiced by major religious groups including Christians, Muslims, and those who engage in traditonal worship, due to well-establisehd sociocultural influences(Odukogbe, Afolabi, Bello, & Adeyanju, 2017).
In 2020, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFP) reported 29 countries in Africa that continue to practice FGM namely Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Cote d'Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda and Zambia. This custom is observed amongst certain communities within these regions; however, the actual number of cases are highly underreported (Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) Frequently Asked Questions, 2020; Odukogbe, Afolabi, Bello, & Adeyanju, 2017).
A common form of FGM that is practiced is infibulation, alluding to the removal of external genitalia and sealing the vulva to control a woman’s sexual activity and ensure she remains virtuous (Infibulation, 202; Odukogbe, Afolabi, Bello, & Adeyanju, 2017; Mcfadden, 1994). In these communities, patriarchal constructs and mysoginistc ideaologies are inherent and sexuality is a gender specific social paradigm that is only relevant to men. Women are prohibited from experiencing sexual pleasure, including masturbation and homosexualism, prior to their nuptials and are expected to uphold moral righteousness through marriage. To safeguard their virtue, women are forced to suffer FGM through infibulaton, consequently turning the wheel of female oppression (Mcfadden, 1994). Other forms of FGM are also practiced to reduce sexual pleasure and increase female modesty and principles.
FGM is also practiced for reasons that are unrelated to sex. It is viewed as a cultural identity that signifies the rebirth of a girl or her transtion into adulthood. The practice endorses class discrimination as it is believed to depict a woman’s loyalty towards affluent ploygamous men in society and increases her chances of receiving marriage proposals (Llamas, 2017; Odukogbe, Afolabi, Bello, & Adeyanju, 2017). Since it is viewed as an unappealing organ, the removal of the clitoris is encouraged stating that FGM has corporeal advantages that improve women’s hygiene and increases chances of conception and delivery as the clitoris is bad for the fetus to come in contact with. (Llamas, 2017). However, there are no studies that support these theories. FGM allows women the right to inherit wealth or property and is also a source of income for those who provide the service to families, a major reason why the custom fails to be entirely eradicated. (Odukogbe, Afolabi, Bello, & Adeyanju, 2017).
FGM is performed on women from all age groups including newborns, girls in their infancy or before puberty, and women before their delivery. The time at which a woman is subjected to the ordeal depends on the region and reasons for practice. In comparatively modern socities, FGM is achieved in a hospital setting, wheras in traditional communities, the custom is carried out by an old woman or male barber who is skilled with the use of sharp equipment. These individuals are regarded as “service providers” in society and they resort to unsanitary methods such as using the same circumcision tool for many girls and women. Females are usually not provided with anasthesia in traditional settings and are sometimes binded from their hips to ankles until scar tissues are formed after the procedure. The event is treated as a ceremony or festival and the service provider is showered with gifts and feasts (Odukogbe, Afolabi, Bello, & Adeyanju, 2017). According to a male circumciser from “The Hosken Report” by Fran P. Hosken, providing FGM as a service was a family profession that had given him two houses and various schools for his children. He did not consider it harmful to women and observed it as a tradition that is also encouraged by religious texts (Personal Stories by Victims and Circumcisers, n.d.).
Out of millions who have endured this affliction, some opt for clitoral reconstruction while others choose to block their memories and move on. In the last few years, many women have come forward and narrated their experiences. A woman from Kenya described being heavily coerced by elders to bear the knife as it was the only way a girl remained pure. She continues to look at the service provider as a monster and was unable to discuss her experience of FGM for a long time as it was considered a taboo (In Search: A Survivor’s Story of Female Genital Mutilation, n.d.). A Sudanese survivor expressed her tale and revealed that physical force was used to capture and pin her down. The procedure gave her excruciating pain with negative side effects including loss of consciousness. Years later, she found out that she was incapable of bearing a child due to infibulation. As a result, she was unable to marry anyone as a woman’s primary role in her husband’s household is to bear children. In Mali, a woman narrated her suffering of having no memory of the event until she realized she was infibulated. She decided not to be cut open before her wedding and pursued operation. Unfortunately, she confronted major social barriers as health care providers refused to operate and insulted her for taking the step. She was eventually forced to be lacerated only before her wedding. Family members of victims have also narrated their misfortune due to FGM. In West Africa, a man lost his sister to the age-old tradition as she was forced to excise her genitilia prior to her wedding. This resulted in excessive bleeding leading to death. Being the village chieftain’s daughter the FGM ceremony subsequently lost its luster in the village; nonetheless, people continued to practice the custom. The family continues to endure the tragedy and the mother remains psychologically disturbed (Personal Stories by Victims and Circumcisers, n.d.).
Governmental and organizational laws and policies addressing female genital mutilation:
International human rights laws address gender-based abuses through the practice of FGM and emphasise increasing women’s safety, gender equality, and standards to health and right to life (Nabaneh & Muula, 2019). Global organizations like UNICEF and UNFP have a zero-tolerance policy for FGM and continue to raise public awareness and education on its risks. These organizations encourage collective opposition of the practice and focus on deterrence of the custom, safeguarding, and treatment services for survivors (What is Female Genital Mutilation, 2019). The World Health Organization (WHO) actively condemns the practice of FGM and advocates for change through research, training, policy making, and implementation of guidelines (Female Genital Mutilation, 2020).
On a regional level, articles from the African Charter, African’s Children Charter, Maputo Protocol, and Agenda 2063 from the African Union acknowledge and criticize any form of discrimination and brutality against women. Countries from the Sub-Saharan African region have established laws that criminalize FGM with punishments that include prison sentences or fines. Nations have also created models to inform and educate communities on the health-related ill-effects of FGM, increase female empowerment, and recreate ceremonies without the act of mutilation to encourage positive sociocultural practices and avoid negative traditions. However, incidents of FGM continue to occur and the practice has not been entirely eradicated due to several factors. Although FGM is illegal, conviction rates for this crime are low. Due to the presence of ineffective governmental, judicial, and human rights bodies that lack accountability and proper law enforcement procedures, FGM reports and referrals go unnoticed. Political will to support these enforcing bodies ceases to exist. Moreover, the reduced involvement of community members in the law making process causes the public to perceive FGM related laws as a challenge to aboriginal rules. It is difficlut for communities to understand these laws as there is no translation in local languages. FGM is a deeply-rooted tradition in certain African societies; hence, achieving positive transformation by eliminating this norm is a gradual process (Nabaneh & Muula, 2019).
DW News. (n.d.). ‘In search’: A survivor’s story of female genital mutilation.https://www.dw.com/en/in-search-a-survivors-story-of-female-genital-mutilation/a-52662904
Infibulation. (2021, March 16). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infibulation
Llamas, J. (2017). Female circumcision: The history, the current prevalence and the approach to a patient. https://med.virginia.edu/family-medicine/wp-content/uploads/sites/285/2017/01/Llamas-Paper.pdf
Mcfadden, P. (1994). African female sexuality and the heterosexual form. Southern Africa Political and Economic Monthly, 7(6), 56-58. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12287633/
Nabaneh, S., & Muula, A.S. (2019). Female genital mutilation/ cutting in Africa: A complex legal and ethical landscape. Gynecology and obstetrics, 145(2), 253-257. https://doi.org/10.1002/ijgo.12792
Odukogbe, A. A., Afolabi, B.B., Bello, O.O., & Adeyanju, A.S. (2017). Female genital mutialtion/ cutting in Africa. Translational Andrology and Urology, 6(2), 138-148. https://dx.doi.org/10.21037%2Ftau.2016.12.01
Saida International. (n.d.). Personal stories by victims and circumcisers.https://saida.de/en/female-genital-mutilation/personal-stories-by-victims-and-circumcisers
UNICEF. (2019, March 4). What is female genital mutilation? 7 questions answered. https://www.unicef.org/stories/what-you-need-know-about-female-genital-mutilation
United Nations Population Fund. (2020). Female genital mutilation (FGM) frequently asked questions.https://www.unfpa.org/pcm/node/9481
World Health Organization. (2020, February 3). Female genital mutilation. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/female-genital-mutilation