Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) involves the partial or total removal of external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs. In the past, the term ‘female circumcision’ was used, implying that the surgery bore some resemblance to male circumcision. This is a misleading comparison because male circumcision involves removing only part of the foreskin of the penis without impairing sexual function. On the other hand, female genital mutilation is the partial or complete removal of the clitoris, a female sexual organ.
The first type also known as clitoridectomy or sunna, involves removing part or all of the clitoris and/or the prepuce. The second type, also known as excision, involves removing part or all of the clitoris and labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora. The third type is the most severe form, also called infibulation or pharaonic. It entails removing part or all of the external genitalia and narrowing the vaginal orifice by reapproximating the labia minora and/or labia majora. This infibulated scar covers the urethra and most of the introitus, leaving a small hole for urination and menses. The fourth type is the mildest form and includes any form of other harm done to the genitalia by pricking, piercing, cutting, scraping, or burning.
FGM reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes and constitues an extreme form of discrimination against women. The practice is mostly carried out by traditional circumciser, who often play central roles in communities, such as attending childbirths.In many parts of the world, healthcare providers perform FGM due to the belief that the proceduer is safer when medicalised. For most part, it is done with razors, scissors and blades that are rarely sterilised.
After FGM is carried connoctions such as honey, oil etc. are used to stop the bleeding. FGM is usually carried out on young girls between infancy and within 15 years of age. Usually when a young girl is taken for the process of FGM they are never told about it. It comes as an element of surprise and shock to most girls and often the memory becomes a long lasting scar in their memories of their childhood.
In some cultures, it is performed just prior to marriage or after the first pregnancy. The practice has no health benefits for girls and women. It can cause severe bleeding, problems in urinating, cysts in later life, infections, infertility and can cause complications in childbirth. It also increases the risk of newborn deaths.
There are several reasons why FGM is carried out. The practice is carried out mainly because of the belief that it is a pathway to ‘womanhood’. Some religious communities believe that the external female genitalia is ugly and dirty and thus, FGM is practised. Another reason for practising FGM is the belief that it increases male sexual pleasure. Other reasons cited by WHO include an attempt to ensure women do not engage in pre-marital sexual acts and thus preserve their virgnity. Local communities also play a crucial role in ensuring that the practice is carried out and families who refuse to practice FGM are ostracised within their communities and such circumstances are imposed on them that ensures that they practice FGM.
The History of Female Genital Mutilation
The exact origins of FGM are uncertain though there are a few reliable sources from where one can trace its origins. Rosemarie Skaine mentions that there are archival documentations indicating a Greek papyrus that recorded women got circumcised while receiving dowries around approximately 163 BC. In fact, there are several Greek scholars mentioning its prevalence before the advent of Christianity. In some societies, the value of girls is closely tied to this tradition. Once the procedure has been carried out, parents and the larger community and often girls themselves, begin to see schools as an unnecessary part of their lives. Hence, FGM is also connected to girls dropping out of schools, especially parts of Africa.
Research has also shown that FGM traces its roots to ancient Egypt. Evidence has proved that Egyptian female mummies which were unearth, were found to be circumcised and this has been supported by a Greek papyrus in the British museum dated 163 BC. FGM is also linked to slavery. In 1609, dos Santos reported that a group near Mogadishu, Somalia had a custom of practising FGM on female slaves and then sweing them up in an attempt to prevent pregnancy. This increased their ‘value’ in the slave market. Some anthropologists believed that FGM was practised among Equatorial African herders to protect young female herders from being raped, “or an outgrow of human sacrifical practices, or some early attempt to control population.”
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In the United States, FGM is a common practice among immigrant communities. In the late 1960s, American doctors performed FGM to treat erotomania, lesbianism, hysteria, and clitoral enlargement. Some doctors even performed FGM to treat women with depression! The medicalisation of FGM in the United States until the end of the 20th century, further added to the woes of young girls and women in the United States. In 1996, the Female Genital Mutilation Act was passed in the US which stated that performing FGM on anyone under the age of 18 was a felony. However, this Act was repealed by the US constitutional federal district judge Bernard A. Friedman in Michigan. Presently, 39 of the US States have made specific laws prohibiting FGM while the remaining 11 states have no such laws.
In India, FGM is a commonly practised by the Dawoodi Bohra, a sub-sect of Shia community. Other Bohra sects such as Sulemani Bohras and the Alavi Bohras, as well as some Sunni communities in Kerala also practice FGM. The colliquial word that is used for FGM among people who practise FGM in India is “khafz”. As per religious books, FGM is practised to increase a woman’s purity and increase her husband’s affection towards her. In India, organisations such as “Sahiyo” and “We speak Out” have working tirelessly to raise awareness about FGM in India and ensure its prohibition. Since May 2017, the legal decision regarding FGM is pending in the Supreme Court of India.
According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2020, India ranks 112th out of 153 countries in providing equal opportunities to women and men. Unfortunately, India does not have any laws that ban FGM, the primary reason being that Indian lawmakers and the society at large denies its existence. Due to prohibition of FGM in several countries, including Australia and USA, India is soon becoming the new hub for FGM. The ongoinhg practice of FGM violates Articles 14 and Article 15 of the Indian Constituion. India will never be able to ensure equal opportunities for men and women, if practices such as FGM continue to persist.
FGM is a violation of human rights of girls and women. The World Health Organization is opposed to all forms of FGM, and is opposed to healthcare providers providing FGM (medicalisation of FGM). More than 200 million girls and women alive today have been victims to the practice of FGM in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia where FGM is concentrated.
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Over the past years, several grassroots, national and international organisations have joined forces with governments of various countries to ensure that this practise can be stopped. However, several governments despite having strict laws prohibiting FGM have not ensured that it is implemented effectively. Some progress has been made in this particular domain. Earlier this year, Sudan prohibited FGM, but there are several other countries that need to follow Sudan’s footsteps and ban FGM. Though several miles have been walked towards the road that leads towards complete prohibition of FGM, we still have miles to walk on this road.
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