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Female genital mutilation includes “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” (WHO). The World Health Organization states that 140,000,000 girls and women worldwide are currently living with the consequences of female genital mutilation. The procedure can be carried out on babies as young as two weeks old and on woman in their twenties. The age at which girls are cut can vary widely from country to country, and even within countries.
Most often, female genital mutilation happens before girls reach puberty (Women’s Health). In Africa, there is an estimated 101,000,000 girls 10 years old and above that have undergone female genital mutilation. The procedure is generally performed without anesthesia by an older woman who acts as the local midwife and it is often conducted in the girl’s home. However, there are a few villages that have all the girls lay next to each other and the circumciser cuts all of them in a row.
The World Health Organization recognizes four types of female genital mutilation. Type 1 and Type 2 are closely related. Type I is the removal of the clitoral hood, which is rarely, if ever, performed alone. Type 2 is called a clitoridectomy. This procedure is the partial or total removal of the clitoris and inner labia, with or without the removal of the outer labia. In a 1998 report from the World Health Organization, they wrote "the clitoris is held between the thumb and index finger, pulled out and amputated with one stroke of a sharp object”.
The sharp object can be a knife, pair of scissors, cut glass, sharpened rocks or fingernails. Medical personnel are usually not involved. However, in Egypt, Sudan and Kenya, these procedures are carried out by health professionals (Pruthi). Type 3 is called infibulation. This is the process of removing all external genitalia and the fusing of the wound, leaving a small hole for passage of urine and menstrual blood. A pinhole is created by inserting something (usually a twig or rock salt) into the wound before it closes. The wound may be sewed with surgical thread, and in some cases agave or acacia thorns are used to hold the sides together. Then, the girl’s legs are tied together from hips down to her ankles and left to heal for 2-6 weeks.
The infibulated woman’s vulva is opened for sexual intercourse by her husband’s penis or a knife. This creates a tear which they gradually rip more and more until the opening is sufficient enough to admit the penis. In some women, “the scar tissue is so hardened and overgrown with keloidal formations that it can only be cut with very sharp surgical scissors” (Lightfoot-Klein). If the woman gets pregnant, they will cut her open with a knife in time to give birth. After they give birth, many women ask to have the infibulation restored.
Type IV is unclassified and it includes “pricking, piercing or incising of the clitoris and/or labia; stretching of the clitoris and/or labia; cauterization of the clitoris and surrounding tissue; scraping of tissue surrounding the vaginal opening or cutting of the vagina; introduction of corrosive substances or herbs into the vagina to cause bleeding or for the purposes of tightening or narrowing it; and any other procedure that falls under the definition of female genital mutilation above” (Reyners).
The origins of the practice are relatively unknown. "There's no way of knowing the origins of FGM (female genital mutilation), it appears in many different cultures, from Australian aboriginal tribes to different African societies," states medical historian David Gollaher, president and CEO of the California Healthcare Institute. There is a reference to it on the sarcophagus of Sit-hedjhotep, dating back to the Egypt’s Middle Kingdom. The inscription says “But if a man wants to know how to live, he should recite (a magical spell) every day, after his flesh has been rubbed with the b3d (an unknown substance) of an uncircumcised girl and the flakes of skin of an uncircumcised bald man” (Knight, pp317). The English explorer William Browne reported in 1799 that infibulation was carried out on the slaves, coming from Egypt, to prevent pregnancy. Traders simply paid a higher price for women who were infibulated. Slave patterns across Africa account for the patterns of female genital mutilation found there. Egypt and Africa are not the only continents that have a history of female genital mutilation.
Gynecologists in 19th century Europe and the United States would remove the clitoris for various reasons, including treating masturbation, because they believed that masturbation caused physical and mental disorders (Rodriguez, p323) Isacc Baker Brown was an English gynecologist who believed that the “unnatural irritation of the clitoris caused epilepsy, hysteria and mania”. A paper that was written in 1985 and published in the Obstetrical and Gynecological Survey says that “the last clitoridectomy was performed in the United States in the 1960s to treat hysteria, erotomania and lesbianism” (Cutner, p135) The practice of female genital mutilation is most common in the western, eastern, and north-eastern region of Africa, in some countries in Asia and the Middle East (WHO). There are currently 27 countries in sub-Saharan and Northeast Africa, and immigrant communities, which still perform female genital mutilation. Countries such as Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan are predominantly Type 3. The list of health complications that arise from female genital mutilation is very extensive.
There are no health benefits and it rooted in gender inequality, ideas about purity, and is an attempt to control a woman’s sexuality. Immediate complications can include sever pain, shock, bleeding, tetanus or sepsis, urine retention, open sores in the genital region and injury to nearby genital tissue. African Women.Org state that the long term consequences from the procedure are: Repeated urinary infection because of the narrowing of the urinary outlet which prevents the complete emptying of urine from the bladder. Extremely painful menstruation due to the buildup of urine and blood in the uterus leading to inflammation of the bladder and internal sexual organs. Formation of scars and keloid on the vulva wound. The growth of dermoid cysts which may result in abscesses. Formation of fistula – the rupture of the vagina and/or uterus.
Severe pain during intercourse which may consist of physical discomfort and psychological traumatization. Difficult child birth which in case of long and obstructed labour may lead to foetal death and brain damage of the infant. In the case of infibulation acute and chronic pelvic infection leading to infertility and/or tubal pregnancy. Accumulation of blood and blood clots in the uterus and/or vagina. Physical short term and long term complications are not the only result from female genital mutilation. Mental anguish can result from this brutal procedure. When Waris Dirie was about five years old, she was left in a makeshift shelter under a tree for several days to recover from her “operation”. She was told that God wanted her to do this and she wondered why God hated her so much. When she was thirteen, her father wanted her to marry a man in his 60s.
Waris ran across the dessert to Mogadishu where she lived with relatives until she made it London and lived with her aunt. Whilst in London, a photographer spotted her and she became a supermodel, appearing in Chanel campaigns and was in the James Bond film The Living Daylights (Saner). Waris’s popularity and status helped to give her a voice and she went public in 1997 in a magazine interview, to tell the world about what happened to her and her aspiration to stop female genital mutilation. Waris means Desert Flower, a flower that can endure even the roughest of climates. She started a foundation named Desert Flower that seeks to end the crime of female genital mutilation by raising public awareness, creating networks, organizing events and educational programs. Her foundation Desert Flower also supports victims of female genital mutilation. Last month, in Berlin, she opened the first of what will be several medical centers to offer help to women who have suffered from female genital mutilation. Waris Dirie isn’t the only one that is opposed to female genital mutilation. Others, such as the World Health Organization, have been working to educate woman on their rights to their own bodies. Many laws have been enacted to protect these women, but few abide by these laws.
Eighteen countries—Benin, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, and Togo—have enacted laws criminalizing female genital mutilation. The penalties range from a minimum of three months to a maximum of life in prison. Several countries also impose monetary fines. The Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act of 1985 made female genital mutilation unlawful in England and in Wales. However, there is evidence that people used a loophole to take young girls abroad temporarily to carry out the procedure. In the United States, Cornell University Law School teaches that “Except as provided in subsection, whoever knowingly circumcises, excises, or infibulates the whole or any part of the labia majora or labia minora or clitoris of another person who has not attained the age of 18 years shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 5 years, or both”. There are those out there that are for female genital mutilation. Many people from communities that practice it say that it is rooted in local culture and that the tradition has been passed from one generation to another.
Culture and the preservation of cultural identity serve as the underlying impetus for continuing the practice. Many women will be social pariahs if they don’t go through the ritual. They cannot attend any public outing or funeral. If they children, they too will be outcast. Some of those who support female genital mutilation also justify it on grounds of hygiene and aesthetics, with notions that female genitalia are dirty and that a girl who has not undergone the procedure is unclean. The women that oppose the end of female genital mutilation compare it breast enlargements or rhinoplasty. They ask “why is okay for these women to change and shape their bodies to look the way that they want them to?” The answer, simply, is that these procedures are a women’s choice. They are eighteen years old and chose to have these procedures done to them. Female genital mutilation is child abuse and a violation of the basic human rights of women. The more we know about this procedure, the more we can do to put an end to it.
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