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FGM: The practice which is denying women their sexual autonomy

*Trigger warning: mentions female genital mutilation

In 2021, UNICEF estimated that at least 200 million women and girls have undergone Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), which is an astounding figure that reveals a lot about the status and treatment of women across the world. This intrusive procedure has been prevalent for many years, however it is not spoken about openly in the communities within which it operates. In the UK, FGM is performed in secret or abroad since it was criminalized in 1985. Due to the stigma of FGM, women who have undergone the procedure may be hesitant to discuss the process and its impact. To find out more about the personal impact of FGM on women, I interviewed Helen (a pseudonym), an older woman who was born and raised in Eritrea. Helen went through a form of FGM in her infancy and her family were supportive of the procedure. As she grew, she came to realise that what had happened to her was not only unnecessary, but it was done because of the sexist belief that in order for women to be ‘clean’, they must be mutilated.

What is Female Genital Mutilation?

FGM is a surgical procedure in which a female’s external genitalia (the clitoris and labia) is cut and removed. There is no certifiable medical reason that explains the need for FGM, and yet it is still widely practiced in at least 31 countries. It is primarily practiced in West and East Africa, parts of Asia, and the Middle East. Countries that have the highest (estimated) cases of FGM include Somalia (98% of women have undergone FGM), Guinea (97%) and Djibouti (93%). FGM is also practiced in the Western world, primarily amongst migrant communities, despite it being illegal in most countries. In the UK, between April 2019 and March 2020, there were at least 11,895 cases of FGM reported to the NHS.

Also known as female circumcision, FGM tends to be carried out on young girls between infancy and adolescence. Not only are there no medical benefits to FGM, there are also a number of serious side effects, including vaginal infections, complications during childbirth, urinary issues, and severe bleeding, to name a few. What's more, the mental impacts of FGM are endless. FGM can trigger anxiety, depression, embarrassment, and many women can suffer from PTSD due to the traumatic memory of having such a painful procedure performed at a young age. Significantly, a woman who has undergone an FGM procedure is most likely not able to enjoy sex, which is one reason why FGM is undertaken in some cultures.

Helen discovered what FGM actually was during her early teenage years, in school. After overhearing a conversation about FGM in class, she realised that this was widely performed in her community but never spoken about. Regarding the stigma attached to FGM, Helen said, "They (the community) don’t like speaking about it, they just do it. So many young girls will have had it done to them but they wouldn’t remember it, or they wouldn’t even know about it and no one would speak to them about it so they might not even understand what happened to them."

Helen opened up to me about why she thinks FGM is harmful: "They are taking something, stealing something from your body. They removed it from me and I didn’t have any control over it. Because of this, it made be numb and I had problems giving birth. When I learned about it, I was very upset. I didn’t understand why it happened and I felt like I had been robbed. It was not fair and I would stop anyone trying to do this to a young girl. There is no reason for it, it is just for men to feel good or feel happy that the woman’s body is under control."

Why is FGM performed?

In various cultures across the world, FGM is a socially acceptable practice. The reasons given for its prevalence are heavily based on sexist and misogynistic beliefs. Some believe that FGM ensures a woman's purity and virginity, which in turn makes her ‘marriage material’. The Qur’an and the Bible do not mention FGM at all, and yet FGM is often associated with religious piety. Girls who are circumcised are considered ‘clean’ and girls who aren’t are perceived as ‘unclean’ in these communities. FGM is also enforced because it is thought to enhance male sexual pleasure, although there is no evidence that this is true.

Female sexual pleasure has been and still is stigmatised in many cultures. In the Western world, females can be looked down on for enjoying sex, however this stigma tends to be much stronger in some cultures in the Global South. Sexual pleasure is considered to be exclusively for men, and therefore FGM, which removes important female sexual genitalia, is enforced to ensure the absence of women's sexual enjoyment.

All of these reasons, in some way, stem from patriarchal social norms. Patriarchy exists across the world and it refers to a hierarchy which places men in positions of power in all aspects of society. The entire world operates under a patriarchal system but it manifests itself in different ways. In countries where FGM is rife, patriarchy is exemplified in marital and sexual relations. A particular emphasis is placed on a woman’s virginity and her fertility. FGM does not improve fertility nor does it represent virginity, however these misconceptions are widely believed.

Helen emphasised how all of these myths that justify FGM are baseless: "There is no benefit to it, there is no advantage. They do it because they want women to feel numb, they don’t want women to have sexual desires because they think that women would be having sex a lot. It does not make you more clean, this is a lie, it just brings you problems. Like, some women can die from the procedure, either when it is being done or later when they are giving birth."

Interestingly, it is the older women in the family who often enforce FGM on younger relatives due to their own internalised misogyny. Since FGM is considered a rite of passage for young girls to become women in certain cultures, it may not be questioned or challenged, and is instead deemed a traditional and customary practice. Having said that, there are still many women and organisations that have led the fight to completely eliminate FGM.

Image | Credit: Buzzfeed

What is being done to eliminate FGM?

On the 6th February, the world celebratesInternational Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM. Statistics on the prevalence of FGM reveal that it has reduced significantly. In fact, FGM is illegal in the majority of countries across the world.

Nonetheless, FGM is still widely practiced, but there are people who are trying to fight it. In schools and hospitals, professionals and FGM survivors educate students and patients on the associated risks of FGM. They also debunk myths surrounding FGM and hygiene.

The United Nations aim for FGM to be eliminated by 2030 and have taken many steps in the right direction. In Uganda, the UN established a programme where FGM survivors become advocates for eliminating the practice. They are situated in local and rural communities and use media and community dialogue to change people's perceptions on FGM.

Both the UN and UNICEF united this year to create the ‘Accelerating Investment to End Female Genital Mutilation’ programme. Due to the pandemic, gender-based violence increased dramatically and with this FGM cases also rose. This new scheme encourages governments and donors to invest more in the campaign to end FGM across the world. The UN and UNICEF have been working together since 2008, and since then have successfully prevented 361,808 girls from undergoing FGM.

Like many organisations, Helen agrees that education and open conversation are ways to fight FGM: ‘The people who do this have had no education, they think that cutting a woman is important but they do not understand that it is dangerous. Like when people say it is because of religion, this shows they have no idea what they are doing. To stop this problem, they must teach children in schools. They teach children in Eritrea and luckily they have reduced it (FGM) in Eritrea a lot. The government has made it illegal and there are very harsh punishments for people who still do it. But in many other countries, people are just left to do what they want'.

In many communities, the practice is still prevalent, and simply criminalising FGM is clearly not enough to protect these young girls. For significant change to happen, conversations need to be more open and frequent. Traditional customs don't allow room for open and honest conversations about FGM, thus leaving young girls and women to suffer in silence. Re-education is also vital in stopping older women from inflicting this procedure on their younger relatives. Men also have a massive part to play in challenging these traditions and protecting the girls in their community.

In order for the UN to achieving their goal of eliminating FGM by 2030, significant changes need to be made, fast. Awareness of FGM in the Western world is limited, and this could be the support needed to force governments and communities to listen and change their ways. FGM is still legal in 26 countries so we simply cannot keep quiet about this issue anymore.

Image | Credit: World Health Organisation

Abrehet is our Arts & Culture Editor and a third year student studying BA Theatre & Arabic at the University of Leeds. She is pursuing a career in theatre directing and screenwriting, and is interested in foreign languages and cultures and filmmaking. Her Instagram handle is @abi_semra.

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