FGM, a topic normalised in the non-western world yet one that elicits dread elsewhere. For those unaware, FGM – female genital mutilation is the act of partially or wholly removing the external female genitalia and is otherwise known as ‘female circumcision’ or ‘cutting’.
This act is predominantly practiced in 29 African countries with few middle and far eastern countries also. There is a resounding assumption that the act is undertaken as an attempt to remain ‘pure’ for male approval as in such cultures female status and stability usually comes with marriage.
In a BBC documentary about the practice of FGM in the Afar tribe (Africa), when asked the reason why such cultures undertake FGM despite the risks and pretty horrific procedure involved, the response was: ‘this is a tradition, we circumcise our children to keep them virgins’. If they did not do it, they believed that men would embarrass and refuse to marry them. Words like ‘shameful’ were used suggesting that the women and particularly female sexuality has negative connotations to and is shunned in these cultures. It is administered and encouraged by women for these reasons; they truly believe they have no choice.
Although it is important not to be ethnocentric in such a sensitive topic like this, that is, judge another’s culture by the standard of our own. When girls as young as weeks old have to endure this, it really does spark concern to say the least. The health implications are severe due to the typically unsanitised and blunt materials as well as the absence of professional medical experience of the administrator. Girls can experience severe pain and shock, infections, fatal haemorrhaging, complications in pregnancy and childbirth and possibly death, let alone the psychological implications.
According to the World Health Organisation, between 100 and 140 million girls are affected by this, 3 million of these are under 15 years old. This is a massive number, so many lives are affected by this and increasingly it is an issue that is closer to home than we think. In the UK alone, 60000 girls are at risk of FGM and 137,000 women are already living with the consequences. This is happening here and now right at this very moment. It is not an issue that we can distance ourselves from because it doesn’t affect us. UK Nationals are carrying out this procedure, girls are undergoing this procedure right here all across the country, with some even being forced to travel outside of the UK.
Obviously, being an act that is so ingrained in cultural traditions: it is difficult to stop (if it can be stopped) and whether in actual fact we have the right to take action to stop it, are very problematic questions. We cannot police people’s culture, however we can try and raise awareness of the severity of the act and help assert that they really do not need to endure it.
Luckily, over the years opinions on FGM have shifted within the cultures that it is carried out and hopefully people will be more susceptible to change when this is proposed by someone of likeness to them rather than someone who has not experienced their culture at all. This will all be a process; however we need to work with those who are advocates against FGM but also try and tackle the growth of it within our country to send out a clear message that the harmful, unnecessary practice must not continue.