So far this year, the United Nations and its agencies – working alongside heads of states – has held three conferences campaigning against the centuries-old bestial act of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) that still occurs in many countries.
The most recent was last week’s launch of an enthusiastic effort – the first ever Girl Summit, hosted by England’s Prime Minister David Cameron, on behalf of the entire UK, and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). The event’s themes were to increase awareness that millions of girls across the globe are being affected by FGM/C; to ‘up the ante’ in the extinguishing this atrocity, and also eradicating its follow-up action – child marriage.
At the event, UNICEF released the latest reports showing that the prevalence of FGM/C has slightly decreased over the past three decades. Despite that, UNICEF says progress still needs to be expedited even more because, if the current decline rate remains the same roughly 30 million girls are at risk of undergoing this practice between now and 2024. Not only that, but the impact of population growth means that up to 63 million more girls could be cut by 2050 and the amount of child marriages would still remain at today’s levels.
Figures also show that more than 130 million girls have already experienced some form of female genital mutilation and almost one-half of that number lives in Egypt or Ethiopia. Most girls who have been cut live in one of the 29 African, and/or the Middle East, Muslim countries where the practice is most prevalent. For example, Djibouti country ranks third as having the world's third highest rate of FGM/C because the practice is almost universal. Nine out of 10 girls are being cut without any clear signs of decline. The same goes for other countries such as Chad, Gambia, Mali, Senegal, Sudan and Yemen.
Since FGM/C is a prerequisite for marriage, child marriage is ultimately the next step after her mutilation. Figures show that about 14 million girls are forced to marry before they are ready and more than 700 million women alive today were married as children.
Executive Director of UNICEF, Anthony Lake, pinpointed facts that the numbers alone are a clear signal that efforts must be accelerated and also that while the situation is global, solutions must be locally driven by communities.
“Let’s not forget that these numbers represent real lives. FGM/C and child marriage are detriments to the girls themselves because they profoundly and permanently harm. These acts deny them the chance to reach their full potential,” said Lake.
In communities where women are largely dependent on men, patriarchy comes into play as it fosters the idea that girls are of lower worth. The removal of all (incision) or a part (infibulations) of a girl’s genitalia then stitching it almost closed – leaving just a pea-sized hole for urination and menstruation – is one way of forcefully controlling females.
A girl’s in-tact hymen increases her value when she is offered to a prospective husband (always four to five times her age) during child-marriage barter. And since financial need is one of the major determinants for FGM/C, the girl’s virginity is a reason for her parents to receive a larger sum of money. This is only a continuation of a series of demeaning norms that perpetuates gender-based systematic exclusion in all (economic, political, social, legal, educational, etc.) realms. “Girls are not property; they have the right to determine their destiny. When they do so, everyone benefits,” added Lake.
Just last month at a high-level panel held in Geneva, hosted by the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Navi Pillay, spoke of the depth of FGM/C’s harm. She implored world leaders to intensify efforts in urgently addressing the issue and called for identifying good practices as well as the creation of new ones to combat the issue. “This is a profound irreversible and life-long physical damage. It is a harmful and degrading practice which is not based on any valid premise. It is also one form of gender-based discrimination and must be eradicated if girls and their communities are to thrive.”
The WHO, after a survey, has also declared the practice a violent act against girls; one which causes her serious lifetime various problems such as several bleeding, infections, infertility cysts later on in adulthood, as well as complications in childbirth. The organization has since passed a resolution (WHA61.16) on the elimination of FGM/C, emphasizing the need for concerted action.
“Women need to be freed of the terrible pain and trauma that FGM creates so that they are able to develop their talents and use their skills,” Pillay said.
And in February, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, along with the UN Population Fund [UNFPA], held an event titled International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation: Preserve the Best in Culture and Leave Harm Behind. The event was another fervent attempt at working toward ending FGM/C and working toward guaranteeing dignity, health and well-being of all girls.
Ban Ki-moon highlighted the fact that there is no developmental, religious or health reason need for mutilating any girl, which is why agencies are not only working with partners to achieve prevention but to help those who have been affected. “The UN is engaged in valuable, culturally-sensitive activities that aim to stop female genital mutilation without scolding or shame,” he said. Executive Director of UNFPA, Babatunde Osotimehin, was also present at the event. He spoke out against FGM/C saying that persistent inequalities are unacceptable and that girls’ lives and futures are still being threatened by these human-rights violations.
The same weak argument was used in defense of other past acts such as slavery, ‘honor killings’, and other inhumane practices that were masked by a notion of tradition, Osotimehin recalled. “Although these proclamations could be made, they should be refuted. Just because a harmful practice has long existed does not justify its continuation.” FGM/C is often motivated by beliefs about what proper sexual behavior is considered as, plus creating a linkage between premarital virginity and marital fidelity. However, this act of torture is said to lessen a girl's libido and help her resist sexual acts. Also, when the vaginal opening has been narrowed, the fear of the pain to re-open is expected to further discourage any "illicit" thoughts and desires she might have had.
“In the 21st century, no female should suffer or die due to FGM/C,” said Osotimehin as he enthusiastically conveyed the message that all ‘traditions’ which demean, dehumanize and cause injure are human-rights violations that must be actively opposed until they are ended. “Addressing women’s and girls’ health and well-being is our unfinished business,” he closed.
However, in these modern times of freedom of expression, human rights and democracy, the reasoning behind this bestial act is both inconsequential and exiguous. FGM/C is performed for non-medical reasons and causes permanent physical harm to the female as well as other mental and psychological effects. Therefore, reasoning as to why it is still being carried out on millions of pre-teen girls around the world boggles the minds of many. Never foster the idea that religion alone is to be blamed for this because of the radicals that carry this on without any thoughts regarding repercussions and consequences that goes alongside bestial behavior. FGM/C actually pre-dates religion (Christianity, Jewish, Islam) and crosses religious barriers, still religion has been, and still is being mostly, used to promote the practice.
Historical records show that around 25 BCE, Egyptian government ruled every female excised and every male circumcised. That was all well and good back then, perhaps, as many different cultured had originally set their own norms for different reasons. However, though one may say a protective cut is a cut, cuts to both genders are not exactly the same. Were it so, the same word would have been used for both genders?
Excising is the aggressive butchering of a girl’s innocent private parts with claims that it prevents promiscuity, preserves virginity, achievement of better marriage prospects and supposedly enhances male sexuality – along with other far-fetched reasons. Carried out by traditional circumcisers or barbers, FGM/C is done without anesthetics using non-sterile instruments (such as broken glass or razor blades) for cutting, and accessible items (such as thorns and thread) are used for sewing after the procedure. It is carried out for no reason of health-preservation but, causes many health risks to girls.
Circumcising the boy, though, is an act of honor, not shame. His cutting is performed ceremonially by a religious figure, with a special instrument. He is lauded for having been born male and endowed with great righteousness as in his life passage. His cut puts emphasis on the continuation of family generations and fertility and was not necessarily done for health reasons at first.
In more modern times, circumcision on infant males is performed as a hindrance of the spread of infectious diseases. And as time moved on adult men did it as a personal preference. There is still no disease-related reason for a girl’s cutting, and adult women still have not reached the stage of cutting their genitalia based upon preference.
That’s an oxymoronic contrast, so let’s try to figure it out. If females are the ones to carry a child in their wombs until birth, and the only way the child can get into the womb is via the act of intercourse, then no matter how the male organ is praised (circumcise), if his seed cannot travel through the sewn-tight (infibulate) passage of a female, then how on earth could a man be able to “see the continuation of family generations and fertility?”
In the book Disease and Fertility, Dr. Joseph A. McFalls released information from a research carried out on fecundity. His book states that any surgical interference in or near the female genital tract carries risk of unfavorable reproductive ramification. Any searing of the cervix can permanently damage the glands that secrete mucus favorable to sperm survival this lowering conceptive ability. McFalls also states that FGM/C is one of the leading causes of coital pain and coital inability, pelvic infection leading to sterility and difficulties in childbirth which then leads to maternal and perinatal mortality. There is also a mix of cultural and social factors within families and communities which puts Muslim parents, especially fathers, under social pressure. Although some might not want their daughter to suffer such trauma, they still support FGM/C while convincing themselves that they are protecting her future marriage prospects, as opposed to hurting her.
Many never question whether the ritual has any basis in the Qur’an scriptures, or whether it is documented in early Islamic practice. Instead, they carry out a sycophantic behavior, follow traditions, use irrational thought, and subject their newborn girls to this act. By conforming to what others do, it becomes strong motivation to perpetuate the practice. Since this is seen as part of a girl’s upbringing, girls are treated badly in some communities if their parents have not allowed them to endure the procedure. Many Muslim communities state that in order to be good Muslims, parents must have their daughters cut, so that she too, can be a good Muslim. Uncut girls are viewed as dirty.
Although the Qur’an does not refer to female circumcision, other religious books make it clear that “circumcising the body will not make a person clean” [Bible, Deuteronomy 10:16], and that “a truly pure and clean person is one who is clean in the heart because circumcision of the heart is due to diligence and discipline and not by a written code” [Bible, Romans 2:29]. So shouldn’t the girl be offered the choice of self-discipline? And if out of fear, she practices self-discipline, shouldn’t it, as opposed to forced mutilation, leave her with both an unmarred body and unscarred soul?