FGM, or female genital mutilation, is a practice that over 200 million women in the world have undergone, according to a UNICEF report put out in 2016. The different terminologies used for the practice of cutting female genitalia include “female genital cutting”, “female genital mutilation”, and “female circumcision”, and each holds different implications and stigmas. “Female circumcision” was the term that was originally used to describe the practice of clitorectomy, the partial or complete removal of the clitoris, a female sexual organ…or removal of parts of the labia, a practice in addition to which the labia might sometimes be sewn up afterwards, to ensure virginity and chastity in the woman, leaving only a small opening for menstrual blood and urine to pass through. However, “female circumcision” is a misleading term, because it brings seems to elicit male circumcision, a practice in which the top part of the male’s foreskin is snipped, usually for religious or cleanliness purposes, with no long-lasting health risks to the boy. This is not the case with “female circumcision”, which is a much more intrusive and harmful procedure that often leaves girls incapacitated, in pain, and even at risk of death (either from immediate haemorrhaging, or from side effects later in life, or when they birth children). The term “female circumcision”, then, doesn’t seem to account for the much harsher reality of what FGM implies for women.
In response to the shortcomings that the term “female circumcision” constitutes, the term “female genital mutilation” began to be used by the WHO, the UN, as well as many African advocacy groups who pushed for the eradication of the practice. This modified discourse of “female genital mutilation”, while much more accurate in depicting the reality of what genital cutting looks like for the women who are subjected to it, maintains certain problems of its own. While much more accurate, it also brands women who have suffered from genital cutting as mutilated, a term many of the women who have been cut are both offended and shocked by. Therefore, out of respect for these women, there has been a movement to rebrand the practice “female genital cutting” or “female genital cutting/female genital mutilation”, which seems to be a much empathetic (without sacrificing the accurateness of the practice) way of thinking and talking about the practice.
I was struck by the way that practices such as female genital cutting seem to stem from a place of such deep-rooted culture, that is deeply intertwined with the culture’s history and beliefs. While there are links to modern religion, governments and politics, or more recent cultural phenomenon, it seems that these practices reach further back than simply organized religions or modern governments. These cultural practices seem to be maintained, then, not because of the rule of religion or rule of law, but simply because this is something that has always been done, and it is taboo to suggest that it should stop. As was mentioned in this UNICEF video, entitled Speaking Out On FGM, “I may not support it and you may not support it, but I see you are cutting your girl and you see me cutting my girl and you think I support it because you see me cutting my girl but we don’t talk.” Because of the deeply rooted and staunchly held cultural beliefs and the smallness of communities, FGM is held as the law of the land: it seems to be a case of ‘we do it because we have always done it.” Of course, there are also other considerations: the existence of sacred “secret societies”, the risk of shunning from a community if a girl has not undergone FGM, and the performing of FGM as only of the only viable sources of income for women. Overall, FGM is maintained for a plethora of reasons: above all though, it is self-perpetuating, stuck in a cycle it pushes onwards itself.
I think that while significant strides have been made towards eradicating FGM in the countries where it is most prevalent (through both advocacy groups, and laws being slowly passed, as well as upheld by the governments of this countries, eradication will not happen overnight, precisely because it is so deeply rooted in cultures, beliefs, and histories of the people who practice it. It doesn’t seem to be an issue of logic- in fact, it seems that presenting statistics and information to those who practice FGM and their communities of young women seem to fuel a rise of rates of FGM, almost a form of backlash against outsiders dictating the correctness and morality of FGM. However, this very dialogue and discussion is also the only thing that can truly uproot the practice. Through education and subsequent discourse, I think that it is very possible that the world sees an end to the practice of female genital cutting.
If you would like more information about FGM, I would recommend looking through the UNICEF website and the information they have put out on the practice.