Female genital mutilation: A gruesome torture

Every year, three million girls and women undergo female genital mutilation (FGM). It is torture, and yet it is tolerated and excused in many places as just another example of cultural diversity.

While the details are gruesome, it is necessary to have some specifics. In Somalia, 90 to 98 percent of women have their genitals cut. Eighty percent of those cases are Type III, meaning that part or all of the external genitalia is excised, and the vaginal opening is stitched up to the size of a matchstick. In Somalia, this procedure is usually performed on girls aged six to seven. In Ethiopia, 80 percent of girls undergo FGM, ranging from the removal of various parts of the female genitalia to genital piercing.

FGM has been reported in 28 African countries, several countries in Asia and the Middle East, and some ethnic groups in Central and South America. And according to the World Health Organization, there are “increasing numbers” of girls now living in North America and Western Europe who have already undergone FGM or are at risk of suffering through the practice. Today, between 100 and 140 million girls and women worldwide are thought to have had their genitals cut. The risks and consequences do not fade when procedure itself ends; the medical dangers are numerous. Blood is shared, risking HIV infection, cutting instruments are sometimes unsanitary, and bodily functions such as urinating and childbirth often become a source of excruciating pain.

Justifications for FGM range from religious obligation to familial honor to men’s sexual pleasure to the aesthetic appearance of FGM scars. FGM “ensures” virginity, and virginity “ensures” the absence of “loose morals,” and the absence of loose morals guarantees a high bride-price, in addition to the family’s honor. Indeed, the practice is often buried deep in a community’s social structure.

A CARE International study carried out in Somalia in October 1999 found that forty percent of women interviewed felt there was nothing bad about the practice, and only eleven percent did not want their daughters to undergo FGM. The practice also carries significant ethnic and political implications. British colonial legislation against FGM in Kenya was a serious source of resentment, and attempts to eradicate the practice by some African governments who do not have the support of FGM-practicing ethnic groups have met stiff resistance.

We have now witnessed about three decades of intensified opposition to the practice by non-governmental organizations and some governments. FGM has declined in frequency or been made safer in some areas, and there is a growing number of educational initiatives to stop it altogether. Yet governmental legislation has translated poorly into de facto enforcement. At times, the legal prohibition of FGM has forced the practice underground and into more unsanitary conditions. While the World Health Organization projects a greater decrease in the prevalence of FGM within a generation, the pace of decline has been much too slow.

What can we do? First, we can be aware of the massive suffering and the unconditional need for it to stop. Second, we can lend support to the non-governmental organizations who are visiting villages, educating parents, providing medical care, and seeking to protect girls and women on the ground. Third, we should push international organizations to put a much greater spotlight on the matter. Fourth, we should insist that our own government highlight the issue by placing conditions on funding to countries in which the practice is widespread.

The prevention of FGM is one of the most basic women’s rights issues in the world, and it is a defining example of women’s inability to exercise personal autonomy. We have been confronted time and again with the false dichotomy between “forcing our values upon others” and “being pragmatic.” Taking local customs and considerations into account does not mean relinquishing the moral authority to call the deliberate mutilation of women’s bodies wrong — regardless of culture, religion, or nationality. It means pursuing the eradication of FGM now.

Asha Rose Migiro, the deputy secretary-general of the United Nations, announced at the current session of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women that U.N. agencies had made a “collective commitment to stop the archaic practice of female genital mutilation.” It is not only archaic; it is torture. Call it what it is, and we will be closer to eliminating this immediate and fundamental destroyer of women’s equality.

Rachel Bayefsky is a junior in Morse College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays.

Comments

  • Anonymous

    so…some multicuturalism is OK no matter whose cultural and religious beliefs it steps on, and other multiculturalism is not OK because it steps on the beliefs of do-good white bread Yalies….hmm….

  • Hieronymus

    Stop. Breathe. Think. Why is this fundamentally different?

    Every year in the US, more than one million infants--both boys and girls-- undergo involuntary genital modification. It is torture, and yet it is tolerated and excused in many places as just another example of cultural diversity.

    Justifications for genital modification of infants range from religious obligation to societal conformity to sexual hygiene to aesthetic appearance. Indeed, the practice is often buried deep in the community’s social structure.

    A National Health and Social Life Survey study carried out in 1997 found that most people interviewed felt there was nothing bad about the practice. US legislation against genital modification (U.S. Female Genital Mutilation Act of 1996) was a serious source of resentment, and attempts to include protection for males met stiff resistance and were ultimately defeated.

    We have now witnessed about three decades of intensified opposition to the practice by non-governmental organizations such as NORML and NoCirc. Genital modification of minors has declined in frequency or been made safer in some areas, and there is a growing number of educational initiatives to stop it altogether. Yet governmental legislation has translated poorly into de facto enforcement.

    What can we do? First, we can be aware of the massive suffering and the unconditional need for it to stop. Second, we can lend support to the non-governmental organizations who are visiting schools, educating parents, providing medical care, and seeking to protect infants on the ground. Third, we should push international organizations to put a much greater spotlight on the matter. Fourth, we should insist that our own government highlight the issue by placing conditions on funding genital modification via health plans.

    The prevention of involuntary genital modification is one of the most basic human rights issues in the world, and it is a defining example of an infant's inability to exercise personal autonomy. We have been confronted time and again with the false dichotomy between “forcing our values upon others” and “being pragmatic.” Taking local customs and considerations into account does not mean relinquishing the moral authority to call the deliberate mutilation of infants' bodies wrong — regardless of culture, religion, or nationality. It means pursuing the eradication of involuntary genital modification now.

    Asha Rose Migiro, the deputy secretary-general of the United Nations, announced at the current session of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women that U.N. agencies had made a “collective commitment to stop the archaic practice of female genital mutilation.” It is not only archaic; it is torture. Call it what it is, and we will be closer to eliminating this immediate and fundamental destroyer of women’s equality.

    This information is not intended to deny or minimise in any way the shocking pain and harm of FGM, merely to point out that ALL involuntary genital mutilation is equally reprehensible.

    Many people emphatically deny any similarity between Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and Male Genital Mutilation (MGM, circumcision).

    But ask yourself--does each involve:
    Cutting? YES
    Of the genitals? YES
    Of infants? YES
    Of children? YES
    Without consent? YES
    At parents' behest? YES
    Removing erogenous tissue? YES
    Deemed beneficial by supporters? YES
    Justified by aesthetics? YES
    Justified by supposed health benefits? YES
    Justified by religion? YES
    Justified by sexual effects? YES
    Justified by custom? YES
    Justified by conformity? YES
    Effects minimised by its supporters? YES
    Performed by its adult victims? YES
    Extremely painful? YES
    Can cause harm? YES
    Potentially severe damage? YES
    Has caused death? YES
    Legal in Western countries? ???

    And, if you have read this far…

    The first time circumcision was brought to my attention (I was handed a book called "The Joy of Uncircumcising") I--LITERALLY--put my hands over my ears and yelled "LA LA LA LA LA!" (I never claimed that I was mature, by the way). Aren't you--RIGHT NOW--doing the same thing, intellectually?

    Compare the two at a fundamental level and ask yourself: what. difference.

    None.

    FGM is tragic, yes. But, when you think about it, ALL involuntary genital mutilation forced upon another is a violation of HUMAN rights. And it happens. Right here. In America. Every day.

    Want to fight genital mutilation? No need to travel to Somalia: think globally; act locally.

    Men: go read "The Joy of Uncircumcising." It could change your life.

  • A.C.

    I agree that circumcision is pretty stupid and useless and should probably be eradicated -- it was a good idea back in the day when it was hard to…keep things clean down there, especially if you were spending lots of time in the desert as the biblical folk always seemed to do. But now there's really no good reason for it.

    The reason I would still consider female genital mutilation as the greater evil is because, while men are circumcised mostly for religious/tradition, aesthetic, and supposed health benefits, as I understand it, FGM is mostly about removing or severely decreasing a woman's physical enjoyment of sex. The reasons for circumcision are bullshit, the reasons for FGM seem more nefarious -- one of many ways in which society dictates that women shouldn't enjoy sex and sexuality…you know, because having orgasms is sinful or something.

  • Anonymous

    Hieronymus,

    In some ways, FGM is a conceptually-similar process with similar cultural implications to circumcision. However, FGM is far more painful, far more invasive, and far more dangerous than male circumcision, and is counterindicted by much more than the anecdotal evidence that exists against male circumcision.

    From Wikipedia:

    "[FGM], when performed without any anesthetic, can lead to death through shock from immense pain or excessive bleeding."

    "Other serious long term health effects are also common. These include urinary and reproductive tract infections, caused by obstructed flow of urine and menstrual blood, various forms of scarring and infertility. The first time having sexual intercourse will often be extremely painful, and infibulated women will need the labia majora to be opened, to allow their husband access to the vagina. This second cut, sometimes performed by the husband with a knife, can cause other complications to arise."

    "A June 2006 study by the WHO has cast doubt on the safety of [female] genital cutting of any kind.[1] This study was conducted on a cohort of 28,393 women attending delivery wards at 28 obstetric centers in areas of Burkina Faso, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Senegal and The Sudan. A high proportion of these mothers had undergone FGC. According to the WHO criteria, all types of FGC were found to pose an increased risk of death to the baby (15% for Type I, 32% for Type II, and 55% for Type III). Mothers with FGC Type III were also found to be 30% more at risk for cesarean sections and had a 70% increase in postpartum hemorrhage compared to women without FGC. Estimating from these results, and doing a rough population estimate of mothers in Africa with FGC, an additional 10 to 20 per thousand babies in Africa die during delivery as a result of the mothers having undergone genital cutting."

    To sum up: FGM can result in death just through the pain it causes ("death by shock"), which simply does not happen in male circumcision. FGM, unlike circumcision, requires a second operation in order to engage in sexual activity- often, this operation is performed under incredibly unsafe conditions. Finally, FGM causes complications in childbirth, and has been estimated to cause the deaths of 1-2% of babies born in Africa.

    It's not hard to see that your claim that "ALL involuntary genital mutilation is equally reprehensible," is false. While you do your best to obfuscate the issue with your series of rhetorical questions, the fact remains that the two procedures vary by incredible degrees. To suggest, then, that we ought to divert our attention to male circumcision rather than try to do something about FGM is absurd.

    Also, you sicken me.

    -Mike

  • Hieronymus

    #3 By A.C.
    "[A]s I understand it, FGM is mostly about removing or severely decreasing a woman's physical enjoyment of sex."

    I hear you. Actually, the reasons cited by the PRACTITIONERS (in addition to curbing sexual desire--reducing enjoyment is a Western interpretation of that goal) are pretty much the same as for male circumcision, i.e., cleanliness, godliness, and socialization.

    Even the article states "Justifications for FGM range from religious obligation to familial honor to men’s sexual pleasure to the aesthetic appearance of FGM scars," and only alludes to reducing of women's pleasure (via preventing "loose morals").

    #4 By Michael Z
    "FGM is far more painful, far more invasive, and far more dangerous than male circumcision, and is counterindicted by much more than the anecdotal evidence that exists against male circumcision."

    While the article focuses on the worst type and worst offender (Somalia), worldwide the practice cited accounts for ~15% of cases. In reality, FGM runs the gamut. Since you like Wikipedia, I cite the following from their article on FGM:

    Type I
    The WHO defines Type I FGC as the removal or splitting of the clitoral hood, termed "hoodectomy" (or "clitorodotomy"), with or without excision of the clitoris.

    Type II
    The WHO's definition of Type II FGC is the "excision of the clitoris with partial or total excision of the labia minora."

    Type III: Infibulation with excision
    The WHO defines Type III FGC as "excision of part or all of the external genitalia and stitching/narrowing of the vaginal opening (infibulation)." It is the most extreme form of FGC, and accounts for about 15% of all FGC procedures."

    Mike states:

    From Wikipedia:

    "[FGM], when performed without any anesthetic, can lead to death through shock from immense pain or excessive bleeding."

    Circumcision in the US is still often performed without anesthetic; deaths numbered over 200 in 2007.

    "To sum up: FGM *CAN* [emphasis added] result in death just through the pain it causes ("death by shock"), which simply does not happen in male circumcision.

    Death *CAN* occur from male circumcision; does it matter why or why not? How can you PROVE that "death by shock" is not involved?

    "FGM, unlike circumcision, requires a second operation in order to engage in sexual activity- often, this operation is performed under incredibly unsafe conditions."

    Only Type II--the rarest form--is covered by your statement.

    "Finally, FGM causes complications in childbirth, and has been estimated to cause the deaths of 1-2% of babies born in Africa."

    Ibid.

    "It's not hard to see that your claim that "ALL involuntary genital mutilation is equally reprehensible," is false."

    What? How on EARTH can you make that claim? How on EARTH can an unnecessary, involuntary medical procedure FORCED on another human (and, in the case of neonatal circumcision, a defenseless newborn INCAPABLE of consent) be deemed other than reprehensible? Seriously.

    "While you do your best to obfuscate the issue with your series of rhetorical questions, the fact remains that the two procedures vary by incredible degrees."

    A) I am not using rhetorical devices; I am asking you to put aside your preconceived notions and THINK. Isn't that what you are paid to do? THINK?

    B) By what "incredible degree" does the most common form of FGM, "removal of the clitoral hood" differ from the most common form of MGM, "removal of the prepuce"? Indeed, these two, when compared, actually favor the female once the two have reached adulthood (having to do with general disparity in final size of the organs and, therefore, of the skin that was removed).

    "To suggest, then, that we ought to divert our attention to male circumcision rather than try to do something about FGM is absurd."

    No, I am suggesting that ALL involuntary genital cutting should be discouraged. I am not focusing on MGM; rather, I am pointing out that others shoud not focus on FGM to the exclusion of genital cutting generally.

    "Also, you sicken me."

    Perhaps you should examine that reaction. Is it *I* who is sickening, or is it really some kind of diverted reaction from being asked to think about some dearly held belief. Earliest experiences & indoctrinations are often the most difficult to confront. Examine your own reaction and see what you find.

    Oh, and thanks for reading!

    Doctors are highly motivated to conceal the true cause of circumcision death. Neonatal circumcision has no medical indication and is now considered to be an unnecessary7 non-therapeutic8 operation. It is unethical to carry out such operations on minors who cannot consent for themselves.9 Consequently, most doctors who have a baby die after a circumcision would prefer to attribute the results of his unethical operation to secondary causes, such as infection or bleeding, while ignoring the primary cause, which is the circumcision that resulted in the infection or bleeding.

  • Hieronymus

    A short not this time; just a question (or two), really.

    Do any readers find interesting the vehemence of the responses AGAINST examining one's OUTRAGE against female genital cutting but ACCEPTANCE of male genital cutting? Shouldn't the magnitude of the response itself be worthy of further consideration and examination?

    Lux et Veritas, my friends, Lux et Veritas.

  • Hieronymus

    IF one is outraged by Type III genital cutting (excision of part or all of the external genitalia, the rarest form) AND

    IF one is outraged by Type II genital cutting, (excision of the genital tip with partial or total excision of surrounding tissue) AND

    IF one is outraged Type I genital cutting (removal or splitting of the prepuce, with or without excision of the genital tip),

    THEN please explain how one can apply that outrage discriminately, opposing said practices for girls but de facto supporting the very same practices as applied to boys?

  • Anonymous

    Ooh, what's this. Hey, it's just like every other circumcision thread on the internet. Yay.

  • Ecclesiastes

    There is nothing new under the sun.

  • Marvin L Foushee

    In post modern Chinese culture, it was thought that women with small feet made them more attractive, so Chinese women used to have their feet bound at an early age by their parents to make their daughters' feet smaller--and thus more presentable for marriage. The practice crippled a lot of Chinese women.

    It would take a cultural revolution to stop FGM in Africa, where cultural roots claim that this practice went back to the time of the pharoahs. [I doubt this claim.] At least this article doesn't blame the practice on Islam. The practice is sadistic and inhuman, and I think that most governments in Africa formally ban it--but for the most part, look the other way if the practice is deeply rooted in their culture. Democracy can be a dangerous thing in the hands of mass lunatics.

  • Hieronymus

    Mr. Foushee:

    I agree with your statements wholeheartedly, and ask (yes, again) why you cannot turn your own statements inward, examining in Western culture the analogous "sadistic and inhuman" practice as applied to male infants.

    I offer that cutting of male genitalia at birth has "cultural roots" and that most governments and citizens "look the other way.

    Just as many Chinese women themselves admired their own feet, and just as many African women will state their preference for their modifications, so will our own culture pooh-pooh the practice of involuntary genital cutting of male babies as of minor consequence. Think about it.

    Best of luck to you, sir.

  • Suzie Que

    Thank you for this article. It shows an uncommon maturity at Yale.

    Read "The Hidden Face of Eve" by Nawal El Saadawi, an Egyptian physician who suffered genital mutilation at the age of seven. She writes eloquently about all manner of womens' primal issues.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nawal_el-Saadawi

    She was imprisoned by Anwar Sadat for two years, later teaching at Duke and in Washington State.

    I have two sons and had the elder circumcised. I will never forget his screams from the hospital nursery. Please do not do this to your children.

    Female mutilation is torture. I have met women from the Middle East and Africa who claim to want it so they "won't chase men".

    When women are killed for evem being suspected of 'dishonor', I guess FGM is their alternative.