More than 125 million women and girls worldwide are thought to be currently living with the effects of female genital mutilation (FGM). FGM, sometimes also referred to as female circumcision or female genital cutting, is a procedure carried out on young girls, sometimes only infants, which intentionally changes or causes injury to the female genital organs for non-medical purposes.
The procedure is seen as a rite of passage in many countries, and is most prevalent in the western, eastern and north-eastern parts of Africa, as well as in some countries in the Middle East and Asia. Practitioners are often motivated by the wish to preserve a girl’s purity and decrease her libido, and a girl who has not undergone the operation can be considered sexually out of control and unmarriageable (Eltahawy, 2015). As a woman, simply reading through the descriptions of the various types of FGM is enough to make me squirm in pain. The process can involve either complete or partial removal of the clitoris and narrowing the vaginal opening by sewing it up or creating a covering seal, and is usually performed without the use of anaesthetics and in unclean conditions.
FGM has zero benefits in terms of health for girls and women, but instead carries with it a plethora of risks. These include severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later the formation of cysts, infections and infertility. The risk of complications during childbirth and newborn deaths are increased, while pleasure derived from sex is also decreased. The risks are reduced when the procedure is performed in a medical setting, a trend towards which is rising – over 18% of FGM is now performed by health care providers. However, this represents a problematic development as it serves to legitimise such a harmful practice (Eltahawy, 2015).
It is important to clarify that FGM is not linked to any one particular religion. In Egypt, for example, it is practiced by both Muslims and Christians, where many believe it to be a religious duty, despite the fact that is it mentioned neither in the Qur’an nor the Bible (Eltahawy, 2015); in fact, the Islamic Shari’a Council, the Muslim Council of Britain and the Muslim College have all denounced the practice within the Muslim community. Rather, female genital mutilation can be attributed to a combination of cultural, religious and social factors.
So what is being done to prevent it from happening here in the UK? It has been prohibited since 1985, and in 2003 it was made illegal also to aid or participate in arranging for FGM to take place on a person inside or outside Britain. However, this has as yet not led to a single conviction. A report by Trust for London and the Home Office published this summer estimated that there are 137,000 girls and women living with FGM in England and Wales, while recent figures from the NSPCC stating that 70 women a month seek treatment for the crime suggest the practice is still rife. Insufficient evidence appears to lie behind the lack of successful prosecutions, giving an indication of how closely guarded the practice may be within some communities.
As a result, the Government strengthened legislation in March of this year in an effort to support the criminal justice response. The new measures that came into force in October mean that failing to protect a girl from risk of FGM constitutes an offence, and that failing to report a known case is illegal; regulated health and social care professionals and teachers will be obligated to report known cases in under 18s to the police.
The government is also funding a £3 million Department of Health and NHS England national FGM programme and working in collaboration with the NSPCC to facilitate a 24 hour helpline directed at health practitioners as well as victims.
Nevertheless, I believe that much of the onus falls on education – a sentiment echoed by the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon. As we have seen, legislation is not enough to eliminate FGM, but must be accompanied by educational campaigns in schools and elsewhere, as well as working with imams to make them aware of the extent of the problem. It is imperative that we emphasise the practice as a fundamental violation of human rights. Although already internationally recognised as such, this point needs to be reiterated at the local, national and global level with real conviction. Skirting around the issue due to fear of causing offence is, in my view, morally wrong. This sentiment is explained brilliantly by Mona Eltahawy, award-winning journalist and commentator on Arab and Muslim issues, in the following passage taken from her (highly recommended) book ‘Headscarves and Hymens’ (Eltahawy, 2015:28):
“Culture evolves, but it will remain static if outsiders consistently silence criticism in a misguided attempt to save us from ourselves. Cultures evolve through dissent and robust criticism from their members. When Westerners remain silent out of ‘respect’ for foreign cultures, they show support only for the most conservative elements of those cultures. Cultural relativism is as much my enemy as the oppression I fight within my culture and faith”.
So, if opposing FGM and implementing harsher measures to stop it constitutes an attack on culture, then so be it. In my view cultural sensitivity is simply not justified when doing so is likely to perpetuate the suffering of millions of girls who undergo severe pain and serious risks to their health, with consequences that can follow them for the rest of their lives.
About the Author
Ellinor Ottosson recently graduated from LSE where she studied social policy, having previously studied psychology at the university of Lund in Sweden. She is passionate about social issues and the impact they have on the individual. She enjoys travelling and learning languages and is hoping to find a career within events in the public sector.
Cover image ‘Changing parents’ views on Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C)‘ by DFID – UK Department for International Development