Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is still a common practice in parts of Africa and some countries in Asia and the Middle East, where five million girls suffer it every year.
Its practice extends to immigrant populations in North America and Europe, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
This thousand-year old practice, also known as ablation (circumcision) of the clitoris, or infibulation in its most severe form, is bound up with cultural, religious, social, family and community factors.
Between 100 and 140 million women and girls suffer the consequences of this phenomenon worldwide, considered in many places as a rite, even though it has nothing to do with religion, according to experts.
It could be argued that in recent years progress has been made to achieve a greater awareness of this ancient affliction, but strong factors still persist that contribute to its practice.
An important step in this regard has been the announcement of the International Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM (6th of February), propagated by the African Union, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
In Africa, where 26 countries practice female circumcision, most governments include it in their laws as a crime, but the reality is different against the force of tradition and tolerance.
It has such a strong presence in some places, that in communities where circumcision is prevalent it is difficult for a candidate to be elected for office if she has not been circumsised .
The chastity belt
The origin of female circumcision in Africa dates back to the Ancient Egyptian-Nubian Empire, and is associated with the cosmogonies that the inhabitants of the Nile Valley used to understand the cosmos, the world, and society.
Thus, according to ‘Maat’, (the universal law of Justice, Truth and Harmony) the union of two androgynous beings will cause a ‘chaos-disorder’, which could constantly threaten Creation.
For Doctor D. Sylla Abdoulaye, this logic led to the need to direct all young people who have recently gone through puberty towards a certain sexuality.
FGM includes all the procedures that, either intentionally or for non-medical reasons, alter or injure female genital organs, according to the WHO. This procedure, which has 4 different classifications, involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, as well as other injury to these organs.
The first classification, which represents 5% of cases, is the most minor, and women lose the visible part of the clitoris, whilst the second case (80%) is the cutting of the erect organ and the two inner labia.
The third classification (15% of cases) is the removal of all visible genitalia and a suture of the vaginal orifice, and is known as infibulation.
A fourth classification includes all the other practices, from stretching, abrasion, cutting the clitoris or the labia, to the introduction of corrosive or plant substances into the vagina, according to sources.
All these practices are for the most part carried out by traditional circumcisers, who occupy important positions within the community, such as those dedicated to health care during childbirth.
There are many explanations, or justifications, for why female circumcision is performed, but in one way or another they are all detrimental for women in their social and family outreach.
For men from Bambara, Mandinka and Wolof in northern Senegal, the incision allows women to control themselves better and to not feel pleasure during sex.
This ancestral phenomenon is closely linked to women entering into a marriage in a virginal state to perpetuate the offspring of their husband ‘without any trace of impurity’, explains Lucie Sarr from Senegal.
Moreover, many believe than FGM has religious endorsement, despite not knowing texts that prescribe its practice, and leaders adopt different stances.
Beyond the fundamentals that prevail for carrying out circumcision, in some cases it is considered as a kind of chastity belt, and turns women into a kind of object.
For some, female circumcision is the theft of a woman’s personality, as a human being sensitive to giving and receiving pleasure.
Gertrude Chebet from Uganda was 14 when she, her sister and other girls were subjected to FGM, and that cold morning has remained forever in her memory as one of the most terrible days of her life.
Today a teacher, Chebet chairs the Initiative of Women in Peace from Kapchorwa/Bukwo, and has become a tireless campaigner for the abolition of this ancient practice.
In telling her sad story, she recounts that she and the other girls had samples of saliva, urine and pubic hair taken, all of which were buried by an old woman who led the ceremony.
Chabet recounts that both she and the other girls were not allowed to use medicines and were forced to use cow urine to clean the wound, as custom dictates.
The first study carried out in 2006 by the World Health Organisation revealed the harmful effects of genital mutilation, usually carried out in poor hygienic conditions.
The WHO points out that victims of female circumcision are more likely to suffer problems during childbirth, and that their children are more likely to die.
Immediate complications include severe pain, shock, tetanus, sepsis, urine retention, open wounds in the genital region, and injuries to the surrounding tissues.
Another trauma associated with the removal of the clitoris is the development of fibroids in first-time mothers, known in medical texts as myoma or fibroma.
This develops within the uterine muscle as an indirect consequence of the incision, and is characterised by an emanation of a foul smell from the woman’s genital organs.
In some villages in sub-Saharan Africa, the fibroids are given magical explanations, and the women who suffer from them are excluded from meetings with others.
Similarly, the tissues that separate the bladder or rectum from the vagina of a circumcised woman may suffer necrosis, and repeatedly be unable to control urination, a process known as general enuresis.
FGM is now seen as a problem of human rights violation, being an extreme form of discrimination against women and children.
It also contravenes rights to health, safety, and physical security, to not being subject to acts of cruelty or torture, to inhuman or degrading treatment, and to life, in cases where the operation results in death.