Female Genital Mutilation
by Gayle Gonsalves

FEMALE genital mutilation (FGM), an ancient and barbaric practice, is still prevalent in many countries, mainly within the African Diaspora. More than 130 million girls and women have undergone this practice that is often seen as a rite of passage from childhood into adulthood.

The World Health Organisation estimates that two million girls still face the risk of being subjected to FGM every year. The procedure is often carried out by a traditional circumciser, in surroundings that are not sterile. The girl is forcibly restrained.

FGM is known to have serious potential health consequences to women and girls, both at the psychological and physical level. The immediate physical consequences are bleeding, post-operative shock, damage to other organs (urethra, bladder, vaginal walls), infection (including tetanus), and risk of inflammation. The long-term effects include chronic infections to the bladder, vagina, and pain during menstruation, pain during sexual intercourse, higher risk of HIV infection and infertility.

FGM applies to all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs, whether for cultural or other non-therapeutic reasons.

In the past, this practice was shrouded in secrecy and silence, and those who dared to challenge it, were accused of cultural interference or betrayal. FGM is known to have existed for several thousands of years in more than 28 countries in Africa in the Sub-Saharan and northeastern region and parts of the Middle East, although it has been reported to a lesser extent in small Muslim groups in Asia and in some indigenous groups in South America. The exact origin of the practice remains a mystery. However, research indicates that in the 5th Century BC, Egyptians used it as a ritual prior to marriage. Early Romans and Arabs did it for cosmetic reasons or sometimes as an indication of slavery and subordination. It is believed the practice spread south in Africa through trade and the spread of Islam.

FGM is a based on a cultural belief that it tames a woman by inhibiting her ability to enjoy her sexuality and this will make her a more pliable, willing partner for a male. In societies where there is strong social pressure, women are forced to succumb to the practice or be ostracised. FGM is seen as necessary to preserve girls’ suitability for marriage and to protect the honour of the family, clan or tribe. In developing societies, a woman’s options are limited and her suitability for marriage measures her worth.

Fauziya Kassindja, in her book, Do They Hear You When You Cry? wrote a compelling story that chronicled her flight from her home in Togo, Africa to USA to seek asylum based on her desire not to be a victim of FGM. Her troubles started after her father’s death (a man who opposed FGM and polygamy). Her uncle became her guardian. He swiftly married her to an older man who had two wives and she was to undergo the surgery. Her sisters (who were all married and did not undergo this procedure) smuggled her out of the country.

Fauziya’s triumphant and powerful story ended in victory. She was the first female to win political asylum in the USA based on FGM. Her fight led to changes in the laws in the USA and many countries around the world. Her courage in the face of the opposition and biases brought to the international forum a taboo that many wanted to remain shrouded in mystery.

It is without doubt that traditions change in society, but some of the gender-related issues take a longer time to evolve because of the economic realities that suppress the female. FGM is a violation of the basic human rights of women and girls, including the right to life, the right to be protected from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the right to physical integrity and the right to health.

Activists blame the failure for this continued barbaric practice on the male domination, not only at the parliamentary level, but also at all levels of political power. The inability of the political establishment to take on gender-related issues impedes the female evolution.

It may be a utopia, but governments are to be impartial bodies that seek to create better standards of living for its people. A government must be willing to tackle cultural issues as well as economic problems. A government must recognise that certain cultural practices are wrong and be willing to take a stand in order to allow change. In this gender-related issue with its strong social complexity, the government must make a stand to abolish this act and not remain indifferent to the cries of its female populace.

In the countries that are practising FGM, the males are decision-makers in society and they guide the destiny of the female. And many of them perceive FGM ‘tames’ a woman and for this reason, have no real desire to change the practice. Thus, it is important that men see women not as possessions but as partners and only when this change of opinion has taken place, will practices like FGM be stopped.

As women, we recognise the power structure has been shaped by the male and reflects their biases. Women are not adequately represented in politics and our issues always remain on the back burner. For this reason, the cultural practices like FGM that should be stopped take a lot longer to be condemned.

Whenever we come across old cultural practices that impede the female progress, like FGM, it is important that as women we recognise we have a right to make changes to our cultural practices because changes are slower or may never come if we are dependent on the male.   <<< Page X                                                                        Page X>>>                       

Aug 02, 2002
[Editor's Note: all credits to the writer of this piece, which appeared and was published in the Guyana Chronicle.]
© 2001