Female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as female genital cutting and female circumcision, is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.”
Female circumcision is against the law in South Africa.
Types of female circumcision
It include removal of all or part of the clitoris and clitoral hood;
all or part of the clitoris and inner labia;
and in its most severe form (infibulation) all or part of the inner and outer labia and the closure of the vagina.
In this last procedure, which the WHO calls Type III FGM, a small hole is left for the passage of urine and menstrual blood, and the vagina is opened up for intercourse and childbirth.
Is there any benefit to having a female circumcision?
FGM has no health benefits, and it harms girls and women in many ways.
It involves removing and damaging healthy and normal female genital tissue, and interferes with the natural functions of girls’ and women’s bodies.
Immediate complications can include severe pain, shock, haemorrhage (bleeding), tetanus or sepsis (bacterial infection), urine retention, open sores in the genital region and injury to nearby genital tissue.
Long-term consequences can include:
- Recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections
- Painful sex
- Tearing of stitched up vaginal opening during intercourse
- Bleeding and risk of infection
- An increased risk of childbirth complications and newborn death
- The need for later surgeries.
For example, the FGM procedure that seals or narrows a vaginal opening (type 3 above) needs to be cut open later to allow for sexual intercourse and childbirth. Sometimes it is stitched again several times, including after childbirth, hence the woman goes through repeated opening and closing procedures, further increasing and repeated both immediate and long-term risks.
Violence against women
FGM is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. It reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women. It is nearly always carried out on minors and is a violation of the rights of children. The practice also violates a person’s rights to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death.
More than 125 million girls and women alive today have been cut in the 29 countries in Africa and Middle East where FGM is concentrated.
What are the Cultural, Religious and Social causes of FGM:
- There is social pressure to conform to what others do.
- It is often considered a necessary part of raising a girl properly.
- FGM is in many communities believed to reduce a woman’s libido and therefore believed to help her resist “illicit” sexual acts.
- It is a cultural belief that girls are “clean” and “beautiful” after removal of body parts that are considered “male” or “unclean”.
- Though no religious scripts prescribe the practice, practitioners often believe the practice has religious support.
- In most societies, FGM is considered a cultural tradition, which is often used as an argument for its continuation.
Research shows that, if practicing communities themselves decide to abandon FGM, the practice can be eliminated very rapidly.
An alternative to female genital mutilation that prevents girls suffering
Cutting girls is illegal in Kenya. Until very recently, 98% of girls in the Loita Hills, Kenia, were circumcised. Sarah Tenoi campaigns to end female genital cutting and is determined that her daughters will not be circumcised at 13, as happened to her. Here is what they are doing in their community:
Female circumcision it is a community decision, so we engage with everyone at all levels in the community – from circumcisers, to young boys, to parents and girls. We know that if we can change everybody’s mind then we will end this practice. Our message is that we are encouraging people to change one part of Maasai culture, but not give up all of what makes us proud to be Maasai. As one woman we educated told us: “You come to us in a proper way, in our own language. You are one of us and you would not trick us.” Our position means we can talk to people about change and that they listen.
Circumcision in Maasai culture marks the transition from girlhood to womanhood, so in order to encourage people to move away from female genital cutting we have developed an alternative rite of passage, in which the girl experiences all the elements of the ceremony but is not cut. She has her head shaved and is given the bracelet that signifies her graduation, but instead of being cut she has milk poured on her thighs. When she reappears, she wears the traditional headdress which symbolises that a girl is now recognised as a woman.
This symbolic ceremony is popular because we developed it in partnership with members of the community. It is not perceived as a threat to our culture. Fathers are now requesting the circumcisers who we have trained in this alternative rite because they are considered “better”. Because we are giving our community something to replace female genital cutting, this change can be permanent.
I am one of the first women in my community to hold a leadership position. I know that what we are doing is helping to challenge the idea of women as able only to be wives and mothers. Together with the men who support us, we are going to end this practice here, in a way that every Maasai man and woman can accept. And we are making steady progress.
I speak to lots of mothers and circumcisers and we now think that 20% of girls are receiving the alternative rite. As part of the project, some of the men who used to be warriors teach the new warriors about the dangers of female genital cutting for girls, and encourage them to say publicly that they would marry uncut girls. This is important because one of the main reasons parents have their girls circumcised is to make sure they can find a husband.
If we can carry on performing and educating, we can get our community to declare the abandonment of female genital cutting within three years. If we can end it here in my community, we will have the means to end it everywhere.
If you have more questions about female genital mutilation, you may chat to a facilitator on LIVE CHAT. The service is free and you may stay anonymous. We are online Sundays: 18h00-20h00 / Mondays – Thursdays from 19h00-21h00.