Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), also known as Female Genital Cutting, is a form of maiming whereby a female’s genitals are partly or entirely removed with the aim of inhibiting a woman’s sexual pleasure. When 51 of 54 African nations ratified the Maputo Protocol in 2003, they agreed that they would prohibit ‘all forms of female genital mutilation, scarification, medicalisation and para-medicalisation of female genital cutting and all other practices in order to eradicate them’, but 16 years later, it is predicted that three million girls a year are still undergoing the procedure.
Although most countries have laws and policies in place against FGM, which are progressively reducing both practices, there is still a long way to go before both practices are completely eradicated. Lack of law enforcement is undermining progress on FGM, as is the fact that FGM is a deep-rooted cultural tradition in many communities, creating is fear of stigma, especially among parents, for those girls that do not undergo the procedure.
Here are three myths that exist about FGM that highlight how damaging FGM is societally and personally:
- There is one, standard FGM procedure:
It is estimated that more than 200 million women and girls alive today have undergone FGM. However, the type of FGM that they have undergone will not all be the same. There are four types of FGM as follows:
Type 1: is when the clitoris or the clitoral hood is cut off.
Type 2: is when the clitoris and inner lips are cut off.
Type 3: is when the clitoris, inner lips and outer lips are cut and sewn together or sealed, leaving only a small opening (infibulation).
Type 4: is all other harmful practices which could include pricking, piercing, cutting, scraping and burning of female genitalia.
The first two types are the most common. They are also performed in multiple different ways. The UNFPA have predicted that one in five girls are treated by a medical practitioner, but the remaining four out of five, community elders, practitioners of traditional medicine, relatives, and sometimes even barbers will perform the procedure, using anything from a razor blade, to broken glass to a thorn to remove a girl’s genitals.
- Women’s health is benefitted from FGM
In the countries and communities where FGM is prevalent, powerful myths are spread that encourage the perpetuation of the tradition. For example, stories are told that if you do not get cut, your clitoris will grow, your genitals will start to smell, you will become hysterical and sex-obsessed and that you may be unable to have children. These are all scientifically proved as incorrect. In fact, the risk of long-term physical, and mental health implications is much higher to those who have had the procedure.
There is a long list of long-lasting effects that FGM has on the health of girls and women, including the resulting discomfort of sex, the increased complication of childbirth, incomplete healing and infections such as HIV, among other health risks, and that is without considering the psychological traumas that result.
This poem, “The Three Feminine Sorrows”, a Somali poem poignantly captures the life-long pains of FGM.
The truth of the impact of FGM is starting to be told across Africa, with newspapers reporting on the falsehoods of these myths and support groups slowly emerging. However, there is still a long way to go before the tradition is abandoned completely.
- Women / girls consent to FGM before they do it
It cannot be said that every girl who undergoes FGM does NOT give their consent, but it is fair to say that often, girls are too young to know the true, lifelong implications to FGM in terms of both their sexual pleasure, their bodily confidence, and perhaps more importantly, their physical health, as described above.
There are multiple accounts of women who have undergone the procedure as a sort of ‘surprise’, with consent being given by her culturally-pressured mother. Sarian Karim Kamara from Sierra Leone, where prevalence of FGM is higher than 80%, was unaware she was about to be cut and instead was told it would be a sort of ‘rite of passage party’ involving dance and gifts. She had no idea that what she would experience would be ‘hell’.
Even more worrying is the fact that often women are told not to talk about their experiences, making it harder for them to share their pains and maybe reverse the perceptions of the tradition.
’Girls and women are told that they should never mention it, and that doing so can bring on a curse and humiliate the family’
As long as women are suffering, FGM needs attention, and it is predicted that there are 200 million women living in the world today who have experienced FGM. It is not just about making FGM illegal in the 28 countries in which it is practiced, it is about enforcing law and educating communities about thr true implications of the procedure. At Right By Her, we are working to advocate for improved rights for young women and girls living in Africa and FGM is one of our key rights areas. To find out more about the rights versus realities of women living in Africa, please read our report here.