You are a woman — perhaps a baby, but perhaps more relatable, a young girl. A minor. One day you are strapped down. Your utmost privacy and biological cue into femininity becomes devastated. You are operated on despite being healthy — without anesthetic.
The doctor removes your labia majora (the lips of the vagina). Or perhaps decides to cut away at your clitoris (imbued with more nerves than in any other part of the body). Perhaps the doctor decides to sew your vagina shut, leaving an opening just for the urinary tract and mensuration. Perhaps the doctor decides to utilize cauterization — later surgeries allot for these narrow openings to be cut and widened in cases of sexual intercourse and childbirth.
Wednesday marks the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation — meant to raise awareness of the aforementioned practices. Backed by the United Nations, it found its origins in 2003, when the First Lady of Nigeria, Stella Obasanjo called for a no tolerance policy on the practice at an Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (IAC) conference.
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is practiced differently, but at the heart of the issue as defined by the World Health Organization (WHO), it “comprises 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.”
FGM commonly occurs at childbirth, but young women up to the age of 15 years can undergo the operation. Although rare, it can also occur with even older women. The WHO lists the complications of an unnecessary procedure, which include but are not limited to infections, sores, infertility, cysts, newborn deaths, and a need for multiple surgeries over the course of a lifetime. There are also evidenced psychological effects and diminished enjoyment in a woman’s sex life.
An estimated three million girls undergo some form of FGM each year, The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported in 2005.
The WHO states that approximately up to 140 million women have been victim to some form of FGM most prevalent in northern, western, and eastern Africa as well as instances with immigrants across the Middle East, North America, Europe, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand.
A study by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) released a study in 2008 that included the following illustration displaying the predominance in particular African countries.
FGM has cultural roots in the belief that women are prone to being sexually promiscuous and therefore need to be tamed, and that a woman’s purity is at stake so long as she maintains the “impure” parts of her body.
Some cultures label it as an enduring ritual.
According to an article in the New York Times, published in 2008, ceremonial circumcision of the vagina holds benefits. These benefits included a “stabilized libido,” appearing beautiful to her husband, and balancing her psychology. Although this article covered a less severe form of the practice, the ideology behind it echoes the sentiments shared with the more disturbing versions of it.
Many tend to associate FGM with Islam — for example the country of Yemen overwhelmingly practices Islam and 24% of women have experienced some form of FGM. In actuality, FGM happens across the board with Christian, Jewish, and other faiths included. Some cultures may argue it to be religiously related, but according to the Human Rights Watch, preexisted before the onset of Christianity and Islam.
And while it is easy to push aside FGM as an event that occurs in far away places like Egypt, Jordan, Nigeria, and Mali, it cannot be forgotten that there may be and there are cases of FGM happening right on American soil.
One of the earliest documented cases of FGM in the United States took place in Georgia with an Ethiopian immigrant. The two-year-old daughter of Khalid Adem had her clitoris cut off using scissors. His ex-wife at the time testified against him and Adem was sentenced to prison. Federal action to ban the practice soon came thereafter.
Within the U.S., female genital cutting/circumcision (FGC — the labels differ between cultural and human rights groups) is illegal. In 2000, it was estimated that about 227,887 females were at risk or had been subjected to some form of FGM/C. Since the practice is not as dominate or in the public eye compared to other countries, documented cases of FGM/C are far and few in between. And while illegal, it is an extremely difficult law to enforce since the practice is discreet.
Many actions are currently underway in the face of FGM, including an international day. Eighteen African countries have made FGM illegal with 12 industrialized countries banning the practice as well. Decreases in the practice have also been marked across the board since entering the public sphere.
According to the WHO, in December of 2012, the UN General Assembly put to pass a resolution meant to permanently ban FGM.
Kenya’s representative at the time described the resolution as “historic.”