By Christie FitzPatrick
**Warning: This article contains graphic descriptions and may cause triggers for sexual and physical abuse**
“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. The practice 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.” — World Health Organization
After broaching the topic of female genital mutilation (FGM) to a few friends recently, I was met with some fairly blank looks. This made me realise that I had an opportunity, and in some ways a duty, to help get the word out about the increasing prevalence of this custom, and discuss why it matters and its salience. And since I am lucky enough to live in a country where I’m able to openly speak out against the oppression of women without the threat of gang rape or suffocating shame, I’m going to do just that.
Female genital cutting is a deep-rooted cultural tradition that is most common in Eastern Africa (8). It is the partial or total removal of a young girl’s genitals for non-medical reasons (2), with the intention of curbing her promiscuity and preserving her virginity. There are three types of cutting, the most extreme form (type 3) involves a practitioner, usually an elderly woman, cutting off the entire clitoris and labia, using a piece of sharp metal, glass, scalpel or razor blade. With no anesthesia, she will then proceed to stitch together the remaining pieces of flesh, leaving a hole around 3 millimeters wide through which the girls are supposed to be able to pass urine and menstrual blood. The girls’ legs are then bound together for 4-6 weeks allowing the remaining tissue to ‘fuse’ together, so that the girl is left with nothing but a tiny hole, thus making sexual intercourse impossible without surgical intervention.
This radical procedure ensures a girl’s virginity is maintained until her wedding night, when an elderly woman or the girl’s husband, often up to four times her age, will cut open the wound with a sharp knife or blade, allowing penetration. Intercourse can often still be extremely difficult, and sometimes tools such as cow horns are used to open the girls up further. They are usually sewn back up to ensure that only the husband has access to her. When it comes to childbirth, they are cut open in the same way; however this often leads to fatal hemorrhaging and can starve the unborn child of oxygen if she is not opened up in time. The cutting leads to many serious medical complications, many young girls die of blood loss soon after the procedure. A common problem is that women are unable to pass menstrual blood, suffering severe internal blockage and often becoming infertile, and many will suffer from constant urinary tract infections (2). The trauma of having to be opened up each time their husbands demand sex or they need to give birth is something I cannot hope to comprehend.
In interviews, girls often describe the pain as unbearable, claiming that it was worse than childbirth, and an alarming number of women interviewed claimed that they ‘wished they would die’ during the procedure(7). It is by no means over quickly, and the hacking away of extremely sensitive flesh is a sensation that they will likely never forget. Sexual intercourse is extremely painful each time a woman is opened up and for many weeks afterwards.
This happens to girls as young as newborns as well as adults, but is most commonly practiced on girls between infancy and 15 years old (6). It is currently practiced in 28 African nations, with up to 3 million girls each year at risk of being cut. However, in the UK alone there are currently 24,000 girls under the age of 15 at risk of female genital cutting, despite it being made illegal in 1985(3). 66,000 girls have already been cut in the UK(1), however there has not been a single arrest relating to these incidents. Now, families are practicing it in the UK amid rumors of our “soft touch” on FGM, often flying in elderly cutters who service many girls on the same day at ‘cutting parties’ (11) to save costs. They will charge extra for a clean blade.
What is the purpose of the cutting? There is no religious or theological justification for FGM in the Koran nor in any other religious text(1). In Eastern African communities where this is an old-age tradition, men are only interested in marrying virgins, often young enough to be their grandchildren. I cannot help but be slightly horrified that the emphasis in this practice is on turning young girls into suitable wives, rather than independent, adult women.
It is equally as disturbing to think about the consequences for women later on in their lives. They become, then, virtually sexless. The female clitoris is anatomically analogous to the male penis and therefore is a central part of female sexuality, removing it has a huge effect. The same operation in males would involve cutting the penis to a very short length, leaving a tiny hole for urination – perhaps the most emasculating procedure a man in 2014 could imagine. Sexual arousal or desire, though scientifically possible for FGM victims through alternative stimulation, is extremely rare as sexual intercourse after being “opened up” is such a traumatic experience. Millions of women are forced to be victims of cutting in order to improve their marriage prospects, augment male sexuality and dominance, numb their own sexual desires and ultimately sacrifice their sexual independence. They do not become women; they become wives, their bodies exist solely to serve the sexual needs of a man.
When performed on children, FGM constitutes child abuse. They are not old enough to decide or understand the consequences of having their bodies so radically altered. Many first hand accounts describe a need for up to eight adults having to physically restrain young girls so that the practitioner can continue the procedure. First person victim’s descriptions are truly harrowing and the process described seems dangerously close to torture.
I find myself asking what would happen if I, a white British twenty year old blonde-haired blue-eyed woman, was taken to my grandmother’s house in rural England, tied down and forced to have my clitoris and labia cut off with a dirty blade, and was left in agony in a bloodied bed with my legs tied together for four weeks. Would it lead to public outrage and lead to the prosecution of the people who did it to me? I would hope so. If a British parent was reported cutting the fingers off of her children as punishment for bad behavior, people would be mortified. If a woman forcefully cut the penis or testicles off a man without his consent in order to curb his promiscuity, men nationwide would be horrorstruck. How would I explain to a British man that it is essentially impossible for me to experience sexual desire? That I could not have sex with him without having to have a huge operation to completely alter my body first?
Many people in Britain are walking on cultural eggshells, scared to criticize non-British cultural practices for fear of being labeled culturally insensitive. The graphic, intensely personal nature of the issue creates a taboo that is hard to infiltrate. It can also be very challenging for victims of FGM who disagree with it to come forward and turn against the cultural traditions of their families, for fear of bringing shame on themselves and their family in their community. The reluctance to testify, and the lack of government interest (until very recently), has resulted in a lack of statistics, and therefore a lack of response.
France, however, is taking a much more robust stance. They perform routine checks on vulnerable girls under six, and in an incredible move to help restore the sexual liberation of women who have been subject to cutting, the French state are paying for victims of FGM to have a surgical procedure during which their clitoris and labia are reconstructed. Much of the sensitive tissue linked to the clitoris remains inside the body, and a small part of it can be brought back out, thus creating a sensitive, working clitoris. Labia can be recreated and intercourse can be made not just possible but also enjoyable. Albeit later in their lives, women can begin to learn about their sexuality and become sexually independent.
Since the crackdown in France, there have been 40 FGM trials, and 100 parents have been convicted as well as 2 practitioners (4). Numbers of mutilations have decreased, as the threat of prosecution has become a large deterrent. However, many families are now moving to Britain in the knowledge that there is very little preventative action being taken here.
Whilst I firmly believe that we should be tolerant of other cultural practices, we do share this planet after all, I also think that it is equally as important to recognize and take action when practices become a threat to the safety of a child and the livelihood of women. FGM is child abuse, it is a violation of women’s rights and it is illegal (9). Particularly in our society where men promote and enjoy sexual confidence in females, we need to take a stand.
Several of these procedures have been recorded in communities in Glasgow, Bristol and London, it is very widespread and the numbers are increasing. Millions of women across the world in their thirties and forties have never and will likely never experience sexual desire or enjoy sexual intercourse. Sex involves two people of equal status. It is an experience to be shared and enjoyed; it is not supposed to be based on the pleasure of a man at the expense of a woman’s extreme suffering – this, to me, constitutes rape.
As a woman in a country where we have the ability to vote, to work, to voice our own opinions without punishment, and the ability to be independent women and not just wives, I believe that it is our duty to speak up about these issues on behalf of the women whose communities do not allow them such privileges, who cannot speak out for fear of harm or ostracism. Every woman deserves to explore and develop her own sexuality, and every child deserves to grow up in control of their own body.
Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read this article, below are some resources where you can learn more about FGM and the steps that are being taken to prevent it.
- HM Government: Multi-Agency Practice Guidelines Female Genital Mutilation
- Political interview with Jane Ellison: ‘FGM is child abuse but because of cultural sensitivity we’ve failed to protect vulnerable young girls’
- Definitions and Terms for Female Genital Mutilation
- Hidden world of female genital mutilation in the UK
- BBC: Female Genital Mutilation In The UK – a hidden world July 2012
- Gambian women fleeing female genital mutilation threat
- FGM reconstructive surgery made me ‘complete’
- We Are Equals: Female genital mutilation
- NHS: Female Genital Mutilation
- BBC: Female mutilation is ‘birth risk’
- Female genital mutilation ‘rising in soft-touch Scotland