Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Female genital mutilation in the developing world

In thinking what to discuss for my first blog post, I came across the issue of what is most commonly referred to as female genital mutilation (FGM). It is a topic that has always been of great interest to me due to the very serious consequences it has for tens of millions of young girls and women around the world. This term encompasses “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.” (World Health Organization) Female genital mutilation is practiced either in hospitals under general anesthesia or by use of crude methods with or without anesthesia, typically on infants and young girls.

FGM is prevalent in traditional societies, such as those existing in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. There are numerous cultural and social reasons for why FGM is practiced, such as the belief that it promotes sexual modesty and cleanliness in women. FGM is widely recognized as a serious violation of the human rights of young girls and women and one of the most serious problems existing in the developing world. FGM has detrimental effects on the psychological and physical wellbeing of women. According to the World Health Organization, it “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.”

According to the WHO, immediate consequences include severe pain, bacterial infection, and open sores in the genital region. Long-term consequences include bladder and urinary tract infections, infertility, and possibly further surgeries. FGM does not bring any health benefits to women. It has been estimated that 100 to 140 million girls and women worldwide have undergone this procedure.

This issue is obviously of significance to feminists and women’s rights advocates around the world, particularly in those countries most affected by this barbaric custom. The question may then arise as to what we in the developed countries can do about this. Groups like Amnesty International and the WHO have worked to end this practice. The World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the WHO, has passed a resolution calling for the elimination of FGM. The WHO has outlined a multi-pronged program consisting of advocacy, research, and guidance for health professionals in assisting women who have undergone this procedure.

It is chilling to think that even in our modern age, such barbaric treatment of women and young girls is widely tolerated in certain parts of the world. Such a practice reflects, I think, a conception of women as something less than full human beings, to the extent that even their most fundamental rights can be freely violated, with or without their consent.


AMS said...


I appreciate your choice to remind us of FGM, and the horrific consequences of such practices.

For me, the topic inspired two different questions:

First is the question of culture. Where cultural practice allows, and even encourages, such mutilation, what must concerned people do to discontinue these practices? Is education enough? I would imagine that breaking a culture of its ritual practices is a very challenging task.

Child brides provide a similar example. Young women who engage in intercourse too early in their reproductive years experience very serious medical issues. I did not understand the severity of these issues until recently. Yet, the same issue exists here. How do you break the news that actions associated with marriage--and all of the blessings involved--physically and mentally scar these young women.

Are the men in these situations simply exercising power under the guise of a "ritual?" Or do people honestly believe that these actions benefit the women?

Second is the issue of circumcision. Did one culture just luck-out when it's genital altering procedure turned out to (arguably) provide health benefits? The concept of FGM disgusts me, but I don't harbor the same feelings toward circumcision. Maybe I should?

Girl Talk said...

I'd like to respond to this post and to the last paragraph of the comment by AMS. FGM is absolutely horrifying, and I shudder when I think about it. I also shudder when I think about circumcision. I find the two, though arguably different in certain ways, chillingly similar.

There was recently a movement in San Francisco to criminalize circumcision, spearheaded by SF resident Lloyd Schofield. Schofield and more than 12,000 others attempted to include a ban in the then upcoming city ballot that would make it illegal to "circumcise, excise, cut or mutilate the whole or any part of the foreskin, testicles or penis of another person who has not attained the age of 18 years." There was huge backlash from the Jewish and Muslim community, who viewed the ban as a direct assault on their religious practices. The associate general counsel for legal advocacy at the American Jewish Committee stated, "We want to erase the message that anyone else can try to take away a central ritual, practiced for centuries without harm, to make sure no one tries to replicate this [ban]."

The human civil rights program director at the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation stated, "There are religious sensitivities that are involved and the decision to circumcise ought best be left to the parents of the child, and not a political referendum."

I feel like both of these statements could be said by those in a culture that practices FGM. Clearly there is an element of ritual and religious belief involved both FGM and circumcision, in varying degrees across religions and cultures of course. I think AMS had it right when she said that cultures that practice circumcision "lucked out" because there are debatable health benefits to the practice, which I personally believe are outdated. Regardless of potential health benefits in either case, however, I time and again come to the conclusion that it should be an individual's choice - not his/her parents', culture's, or community's. Both circumcision and FGM, by definition, are genital mutilation, and one should be free to make the decision for themselves.