Monday, February 13, 2012

Female Genital Mutilation must stop

Last Monday (February 6) was International Day against Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C). The United Nations marks the day to raise awareness about this traditional practice that severely violates the human rights of women and girls.

Female genital mutilation includes procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. The procedure has no health benefits for girls and women.

It was an excellent opportunity to learn more about the subject. My curiosity, and I must say fear and horror at the practice (especially after seeing pictures), took me on an Internet journey for a few days, after discussing it with a friend and reading in the British press that around 66,000 women and girls in England and Wales alone are subjected to this illegal practice -- 24,000 being under the age of 15 and at high risk.

Speaking in the Commons, Home Secretary Theresa May said the British government is doing everything it can to warn young women about the dangers of the practice. “We need to redouble our efforts to make sure we educate young girls about the prospects of being taken abroad or having this done to them, but also ensure that we educate others not to do this terrible act,” May said.

Also known as female circumcision or simply as “cutting,” FGM/C involves removing all or part of the clitoris, the surrounding labia (the outer part of the vagina) and sometimes the sewing up of the vagina, leaving only a small opening for urine and menstrual blood.

There are no medical benefits to this tradition. It is carried out for cultural reasons, often because it demonstrates a girl's virginity on her wedding night.

It seems the practice predates Christianity and Islam. There is mention made of Egyptian mummies that display characteristics of FGM/C. The historian Herodotus claims that in the fifth century BC the Phoenicians, Hittites and Ethiopians practiced circumcision. It is also reported circumcision rites were practiced in tropical zones of Africa, in the Philippines, by certain tribes in the Upper Amazon, and in Australia by women of the Arunta tribe. It also occurred among the early Romans and Arabs.

As recent as the 1950s, clitoridectomy was practiced in Western Europe and the United States to treat “ailments” in women as diverse as hysteria, epilepsy, mental disorders, masturbation, nymphomania, melancholia and lesbianism.

Many different peoples and societies have followed the FGM/C practice. It cuts across ages, continents, religions and is performed by Muslims, Christians, Ethiopian Jews and Copts among others.

Prevalence in FGM/C in women and daughters (via WHO/UNICEF 2005)
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates between 100 and 140 million girls and women worldwide have been subjected to one of three types of female genital mutilation. Estimates based on the most recent prevalence data indicate that 91.5 million girls and women above the age of nine in Africa are currently living with the consequences of female genital mutilation. There are an estimated three million girls in Africa at risk of undergoing female genital mutilation every year.

In the 28 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East where FGM/C is performed, some 130 million women and girls have been affected, according to a UN interagency statement. It calls on all states, international and national organizations, civil society and communities to uphold the rights of girls and women as well as develop, strengthen and support specific and concrete actions directed towards ending FGM/C.

FGM/C causes severe pain and trauma. It can result in prolonged bleeding, infection, infertility and death. The practice is still widespread in spite of a global commitment following the 2002 UN Special Session on Children to end FGM/C by 2010, the statement says.

WHO says cases of FGM/C have been reported in Asian countries such as India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka, and it is suspected that it is performed among some indigenous groups in Central and South America. 

Opposition to FGM/C, and efforts to combat it, has increased since the late 1980s. The UN Secretary General's in-depth study on violence against women reported that, as of April 2006, 15 African states where FGM/C is prevalent have made it an offence under criminal law.

FGM/C is common in parts of Africa, Asia and in some Arab countries. It is practiced among communities in: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, and Uganda.

FGM/C is also practiced among certain ethnic groups in a number of Asian countries (India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan); among some groups in the Arabian Peninsula; Iraq; Palestine and among certain immigrant communities in Europe, Australia, Canada and the US.

WHO has identified four types of FGM/C:

Type 1: Excision of the prepuce, with or without excision of part or the entire clitoris.

Type 2: Excision of the clitoris with partial or total excision of the labia minora.

Type 3: Excision of part or all of the external genitalia and stitching/narrowing of the vaginal opening (infibulation) -- sometimes referred to as pharaonic circumcision.

Type 4: Others, such as pricking, piercing or incising, stretching, burning of the clitoris, scraping of tissue surrounding the vaginal orifice, cutting of the vagina, introduction of corrosive substances or herbs into the vagina to cause bleeding or to tighten the opening.

The removal of, or damage to, healthy, normal genital tissue interferes with the natural functioning of the body and causes several immediate and long-term health consequences. For example, babies born to women who have undergone female genital mutilation suffer a higher rate of neonatal death; end in stillbirth or spontaneous abortion; and in a further 25%, the newborn has a low birth weight or serious infection, both of which are associated with an increased risk of perinatal death.

A road sign in Ghana
Communities that practice FGM/C report a variety of social and religious reasons for continuing with it. Seen from a human rights perspective, the practice reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women. WHO says FGM/C is nearly always carried out on minors and is therefore a violation of the rights of the child. It also violates the rights to health, security and physical integrity of the person, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death.

Data obtained by WHO over the last decade have shown little change in the frequency of FGM/C. But as a result of an emphasis on the negative health implications, there has been a dramatic increase in the proportion of FGM/C operations carried out by trained health-care personnel.

The same billboard in Uganda
In Egypt, 94% of women arrange for their daughters to undergo this “medicalized” form of FGM/C, 76% in Yemen, 65% in Mauritania, 48% in Côte d’Ivoire, and 46% in Kenya. This approach may reduce some of the immediate consequences of the procedure -- such as pain and bleeding – but, WHO and UNICEF point out, it also tends to obscure its human rights aspect and could hinder the development of long-term solutions for ending the practice.

Traditional circumcisers, who often play other central roles in communities, such as attending childbirths, mostly carry out the practice. However, WHO says health care providers perform more than 18% of all FGM/C, and this trend is increasing. It published a global strategy in 2010 “to stop health care providers from performing female genital mutilation" in collaboration with other key UN agencies and international organizations.

I touched on the topic with friends one evening last week and we wondered how this trend could be eradicated. Would it need another generation or two? Is the magic word “education” of the future generation? Is FGM/C a practice too deep-rooted to overcome? Maybe only time will tell…