By Theresa LeBane.
In every society in which it is practiced, female genital mutilation is a manifestation of gender inequality that is deeply entrenched in social, economic and political structures. Like the now abandoned foot-binding in China and the practice of dowry and child marriage, female genital mutilation represents society’s control over women…. Analysis of international health data shows a close link between women’s ability to exercise control over their lives and their belief that female genital mutilation should be ended.
A girl is being cut, mutilated at this very moment. Maybe with a razor, maybe with a piece of cut glass, or just maybe in a hospital. If she’s so lucky. Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) has been marked out by the United Nations as an active, documented concern in 30 countries. What is Female Genital Mutilation? In short, FGM “comprises all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.”
To supporters, FGM is a rite of social acceptance. Who would want their daughters, even if opposed to FGM, to be isolated, outcast from friendships, from marriage, from the whole social fabric in their community? No loving parent wants that for their child. Hence the difficulty in tackling the practice.
The Global North is not impervious to FGM. It happens in North America, Europe, and Australia. In Canada, some newcomers and citizens enact this age-old practice on minors. Officially criminalized in the Criminal Code, Canadian girls are sometimes sent home to their family’s country of origin for “vacation cutting.” This is a criminal offense too. The latest statistics from a 2016 UNICEF report, even with FGM on the decline, are staggering: 200 million girls have been mutilated and millions are projected as at-risk in the near future. The health effects can last a lifetime. Michelle Landsberg believes she may have been the first to write about FGM in the Canadian press for the Toronto Star in 1981. We need to talk about it more. We need it to end.
Girls require protection and women who suffered from FGM as minors need support. Support for the courage to come forward, to tell their stories for this practice to stop. What has historically been called a ‘cultural tradition’ is really an act of gender-based violence, committed against the most vulnerable. There are no health benefits, and no religious leaders, Christian or Muslim, support the practice. In 2015, Pope Francis spoke out against FGM, and Muslim imams have repeatedly taken a stand against it – for decades. And yet it stubbornly continues.
It is women who carry out this practice, girls and women who suffer the painful complications of FGM, and yet the purported benefits are intended for men. “While the girl’s father may pay for the initiation rite, men generally regard FGM as women’s business and by tradition are not allowed to witness the procedure. Thus, most often the people who benefit most from this “tradition of pain” —men—are shielded from the gruesome details” (Chisholm-Smith, 156).
Education about human rights and the human body is the key to prevention. Medical professionals play a major role. Doctors who are sensitive and respectful, deeply understanding and empathetic to the pain and humiliation that many women feel, are critical for women having their voices heard. And for encouraging mothers and fathers to safeguard their girls.
Men and women the world over must come together and say no to FGM.
* Cited in World Health Organization, Department of Reproductive Health and Research, Eliminating Female Genital Mutilation: An Interagency Statement – OHCHR, UNAIDS, UNDP, UNECA, UNESCO, UNFPA, UNHCR, UNICEF, UNIFEM, WHO (Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization, 2008), 5.
World Health Organization, Eliminating Female Genital Mutilation: An Interagency Statement.
United Nations Children’s Fund, Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A Global Concern, UNICEF, New York, 2016.
Michelle Landsberg, Writing the Revolution (Toronto: Second Story Press, 2011).
Lisa Chisholm-Smith, “Female Genital Mutilation: An Examination of a Harmful Traditional Practice in a Canadian Context,” in Towards an Ethics of Community: Negotiations of Difference in a Pluralist Society, ed. James H. Olthuis (Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2000).