I was talking to my boyfriend a few weeks ago and the subject of circumcision came up (he had a Jewish upbringing). Here’s part of the conversation:
Boyfriend: …I mean it’s not as if girls have to get any of their bits cut off for religion.
Me: Err…yeah they do. Have you not heard of female genital mutilation?
Boyfriend: What? You’re making that up!
I was surprised that he’d never heard of the practice, especially because of the amount of attention female genital mutilation (or FGM) has been getting in the media.
Then, after I was asked to write this article, I asked my best friend for her views on FGM, to which she gave me a blank look. I didn’t realise that people are still really uninformed about this brutal tradition, and it’s definitely something that everyone should be more aware of.
By definition, FGM includes procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical purposes. It’s often carried out on girls between birth and the age of 15, but older girls can also be mutilated. This practise has no health benefits for girls or women, and can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating. In later life, it can lead to cysts, infections, infertility, complications in childbirth and increased risk of infant deaths, along with possible psychological problems.
It’s estimated that more than 125 million girls and women alive today have been cut in the 29 countries where FGM is concentrated. The procedure often includes cutting or total removal of the girl’s clitoris and/or labia.
FGM is illegal in the UK. It’s also illegal to arrange for a child to be taken abroad for the procedure, but many young girls are still at risk. Their families are people they love and are supposed to trust, but by doing this they put themselves in danger of severe health problems and emotional trauma. In the UK, girls are often taken away for FGM over the summer holidays, with the notion that they will have healed before returning to school.
FGM is carried out for cultural, religious and social reasons within families and communities. It’s especially prevalent in Africa and the Middle East, often carried out by heads of the family or respected members of the community.
It’s considered a necessary part of raising a girl properly, and as a way to prepare her for adulthood and marriage, so that she can serve her husband properly. FGM is often motivated by the belief that it’s beneficial for the girl or woman, and many communities believe it will reduce a woman’s libido and discourage sexual activity before marriage. If a girl’s vagina has been sewn up, as is common in some traditions of FGM, the woman’s new husband will often tear it open on the wedding night. This symbolises the taking of her virginity.
More women are beginning to speak out about their first-hand experience of this procedure, which has raised a lot of awareness across Europe, and many are now taking action to try to prevent this from happening to other girls and women. However, more can always be done. It is a violation of the human rights of every girl and woman out there, and the more people that know about this terrible practise, the more we can help stop it.
Words: Suzanne Wilson
Image: Yi-Hwa Lin