"Many myths have characterized the justification of female genital mutilation. In this expository article, Barbara walks us through history guiding us to see the consequences of these myths entrenched in improbable reasons and challenges us to rise to the call to end female genital mutilation. " - Editor's note
Guest Writer: Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende
The term Female genital mutilation (FGM) encompasses all procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons and with no health benefits to women and girls. This harmful practice is concentrated in 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East and with less frequency in other countries around the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that there are over 25 million women and girls who have undergone FGM. This practice is legally prohibited in many countries, and it has been designated a violation of the human rights of girls and women. The health consequences of FGM include bleeding to death, frequent urinary tract infections, loss of sexual pleasure, infertility, complications during childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths. The overall quality of life for women and girls is often compromised due to FGM.
Sexual oppression and control of women’s sexuality and bodies is at the heart of patriarchy’s ancient existence. The renowned anti-FGM activist and survivor, Nawal El Saadawi stated: "Behind circumcision lies the belief that, by removing parts of girls' external genital organs, sexual desire is minimized. This permits a female who has reached the dangerous age of puberty and adolescence to protect her virginity, and therefore her honor, with greater ease. Female circumcision is meant to preserve the chastity of young girls by reducing their desire for sexual intercourse." (http://www.religioustolerance.org/fem_cirm.htm). An examination of the history of the misogynistic practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) illustrates this fundamental point.
While religion has been used to justify FGM, there are documents illustrating that it predates Christianity and Islam and the earliest documents indicate that it may have originated in the Meroite era in what is now the Sudan and migrated contiguously north to south and east to west. It is said also that the practice was to ensure paternity among various tribes and to ensure that while the nomadic herdsmen travelled in search of pastures to graze their livestock, women would not have sexual desire and therefore have sex with men from other tribes. There are documents showing that Greek and Egyptian physicians were cutting women’s clitorises so that they would not grow to the size of penises as early as 25BCE. This practice was also done in Egypt to kill the sexual desire of slaves and thus prevent pregnancy as documented by William Browne in 1799.
Gynaecologists in 19th-century Europe and the United States removed the clitoris to treat insanity and masturbation. British doctor Robert Thomas suggested clitoridectomy as a cure for nymphomania in 1813. The first reported clitoridectomy in the West, described in The Lancet - a renowned medical journal- in 1825, was performed in 1822 in Berlin by Karl Ferdinand von Graefe, on a 15-year-old girl who was said to be masturbating excessively. Isaac Baker Brown, an English gynaecologist, president of the Medical Society of London, believed that “masturbation, or “unnatural irritation” of the clitoris, caused peripheral excitement of the pubic nerve, which led to hysteria, spinal irritation, fits, idiocy, mania and death.” He therefore "set to work to remove the clitoris whenever he had the opportunity of doing so," according to his obituary in the Medical Times and Gazette in 1873.
According to a 1985 paper in the Obstetrical & Gynecological Survey, clitoridectomy was performed in the US into the 1960s to treat hysteria, erotomania and lesbianism. These historical accounts provide insight into the quest to control female sexuality for various fabricated reasons from paternity issues to curing madness in women through genital mutilation. They also provide insight into a global problem that is often portrayed as being an African or Muslim problem.
FGM is practiced in the name of culture in many parts of Africa. Sierra Leone and Liberia have secret societies in which FGM is deeply entrenched. It is critical to challenge harmful cultural practices in a comprehensive, sensitive and empathetic manner and to provide adequate education about the harm that FGM causes to women and girls and therefore to communities. This education has to be inclusive of every member of the community, men, women, traditional leaders and elders, cutters, boys and girls. Political will and involvement of top leadership is critical in ensuring that anti-FGM policies are enacted and that adequate funding is made available for the implementation and monitoring of policies.
An example of this is in Burkina Faso where the law prohibiting FGM was enacted in 1999. This policy has several aspects, all of which work together to bring an end to FGM which is practiced by 80% of the various cultural groups in the country. The law had strong Government backing at its enactment and civil society organizations collaborate with law enforcement officials, nurses, traditional and religious leaders, schools and community groups to educate citizens about the dangers of FGM to women and girls. The law criminalizes FGM by imposing a jail sentence and a hefty fine for FGM practitioners, and those who fail to report those who perform the procedure.
While there has been progress in the effort to eradicate FGM globally, there are many setbacks and challenges that civil society, policy makers, the education and public health sectors have to confront if the progress made so far is to be maintained and added to. There is a backlash against efforts towards gender parity and the equal rights of women and girls globally and this often manifests in the lack of political will in enforcing FGM laws and at worst in the reversal of FGM laws. In 2012, there was a parliamentary call to reverse the 2008 ban on FGM in Egypt –in the name of Islam (http://rt.com/news/egypt-revive-mutilation-alarm-372/). This sparked local and global outrage which put an end to the heated debates around the issue. However the recent landmark ruling in Egypt where 91% of women are estimated to have undergone FGM, a doctor who performed FGM on a 13 year old girl who died has been prosecuted. Egypt outlawed FGM in 2008 but the practice is still prevalent with physicians performing it on a routine basis. (http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/mar/14/egyptian-doctor-first-prosecution-fgm-female-genital-mutilation).
Activists, advocates and pro women’s rights defenders must remain ever vigilant and counter any attempts to water down the severity of FGM and to unequivocally call it out as a gross girls and women’s rights violation that it is. There must be a recognition that real and lasting change comes from within communities affected by FGM and to identify and capacitate leaders within these communities to start the process of education and change. Outsiders may offer support and help in raising awareness of the problem. There must be a zero tolerance approach to FGM but an empathetic and non-judgmental approach to cutters and those who are pro FGM in order to prevent the practice from going underground and to enable education of these groups. FGM is often intertwined with issues of identity as a woman and is part of rites of passage ceremonies. Therefore, there is a need to work with communities to find life enhancing alternative ways to initiate girls into womanhood. Activists and health workers can network and share ideas on what has worked in those communities where FGM has been reduced or eliminated.
On this International Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM, I will be thinking creatively and envisioning a future world where the bodily integrity of girls is respected and celebrated and where they are free to blossom into fully alive, fully sexual women with all the potential and abundance that being fully embodied brings. This is every girl and woman’s nature-given birthright. Let us all work to honor it.
About Our Guest Writer
Barbara Mhangami –Ruwende, from Zimbabwe, is a scholar and practitioner in public health with a focus on minority women’s sexual and reproductive health residing in The United States. She is the founder of the Africa Research Foundation to Prevent Violence Against Women (ARFPVAW). She holds degrees from University of Glasgow, Scotland, Walden University and attended the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She is a writer published in the short story anthology Where to Now by AmaBooks Publishers, Zimbabwe; on Storytime online literary journal; on Her Zimbabwe feminist website; in the anthology of short stories, Still by Negative Press, London; in the Journal of African Writing, 2014, and in the annual short story Anthology, African Roar, 2013. Her poetry has been published in the anthology Muse for Women, 2013 and African Drum by Diaspora Publishers, 2013. She is a Hedgebrook (Women Authoring Change) Alumna currently working on her first novel.
Images credit: Loonwatch, Developmenteducation, UEFGM and Mtholyoke,