Earlier this week, the United Nations General Assembly’s human rights committee called for a global ban on female genital mutilation (FGM). The committee acknowledged that the practice of FGM is “a serious threat to the psychological, sexual and reproductive health of women and girls” and urged the U.N.’s 193 member states to enact legislation immediately to protect women and girls “from this form of violence.” According to Amnesty International, FGM is common in 28 countries in Africa as well as Yemen, Iraq, Malaysia, Indonesia and in some places in South America and effects an estimated 140 million girls and women worldwide. Although this announcement does not carry any legal weight, it is a huge victory and the first step to protecting women and girls all over the world.
FGM is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “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.” There are several types of FGM, but the most common is clitoridectomy, the partial or total removal of the clitoris. The procedure is typically performed on girls as young as a few days old up through puberty. FGM most often takes place outside of a hospital without anesthesia or sterilization and is usually carried out by older female family members or a designated “circumciser” (usually an older woman from the community). After undergoing FGM, the girls are separated from their families for a period of days while they recover – or, in many cases, if they recover. FGM can cause, according to WHO, severe pain, shock, hemorrhaging, cysts, recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections, difficulty menstruating, infertility, loss of sexual pleasure, and an increased risk of childbirth complications.
Arguments against the banning of FGM typically cite cultural imperialism; however, it is a bit more complicated. That it is a cultural tradition and some girls make the choice to undergo FGM are often used as justifications for its continuation. The pressure to undergo FGM stems from social conventions. Some describe the process as a religious practice, but it predates both Islam and Christianity, and Islamic scholars point out that there is no support for this being linked to Islam, and that there are multiple fatwas against FGM. What FGM is indisputably is an attempt to control female sexuality based on the belief that women who cannot feel sexual pleasure will not stray from their husbands. In these cultures, girls and women who do not undergo FGM are considered unclean and unfit for marriage. They are often not allowed to handle food and may even be ostracized, along with her family, from the community. It does not seem like girls have much of a choice at all.
There seems to be no clear solution to the problem of FGM. If the practice is banned, will girls and women who do not undergo FGM be shunned from their communities? Will they take drastic measures to perform the procedure in secret? The fact of the matter is, thousands of women and girls are being forced to endure a dangerous, violent procedure that alters their lives permanently. As Waris Dirie, a Somali model, actress, human rights activist, and survivor of FGM, writes in her novel Desert Flower, “I feel that God made my body perfect the way I was born. Then man robbed me, took away my power, and left me a cripple. My womanhood was stolen. If God had wanted those body parts missing, why did he create them? I just pray that one day no woman will have to experience this pain. It will become a thing of the past. ” It is a complex situation, to be sure, but the U.N.’s condemnation of FGM is a step in the right direction.