Female Genital Mutilation: Part 2
The below text is copyright, “Broken Bodies – Broken Dreams: Violence against Women Exposed”:
“Attitudes sustaining the practice
Custom, religious belief and, at the heart of these, the desire to maintain a woman’s purity by restraining her sexuality have prevailed over negative health effects of FGM to perpetuate the practice. A female circumcisor from Kenya explained that the ritual is a way to ensure purity and fidelity:
“When you cut a girl, you know she will remain pure until she gets, married, and that after marriage, she will be faithful. … But when you leave a girl uncut, she sleeps with any man in the community.”
While there is no definitive evidence documenting why or when FGM began, many theorize that it provided families a means to ensure virginity before marriage. Infibulation scars in particular form a “seal” that both guarantees and confirms a bride’s chastity, and even the less severe forms of FGM may diminish girls’ and women’s sexual desire, thus decreasing the likelihood of premarital relations.
Social control of women and girls remains a primary argument for FGM even today. According to a demographic and health researcher in Eritrea, the most common defence for FGM among survey respondents was that “Chastity is a woman’s only virtue and all measures have to be taken to maintain it. … Women have to be protected, and infibulation is the defense mechanism.” Chastity is not a universal goal, however. In some communities in Kenya, Uganda and select West African countries, a girl may be expected to produce a child before marriage to prove her fertility. If she successfully delivers a baby, she will then undergo FGM and be married. In these atypical examples, FGM is practiced on older girls and women.
Both men and women who embrace the practice say that FGM promotes cleanliness, attractiveness and good health. Implicit in their view is the perception that female genitalia are dirty, unsightly and, if left in their natural state, may breed disease or be susceptible to other maladies. The tradition also increase marriage ability. FGM is believed to confer a sense of general calm on its initiates and, insofar as it decreases sexual desire, to limit the risk of extramarital affairs. In the words of one tribal elder in Kenya, “A circumcised woman will choose a partner for love, not for sex.”
In some communities, in fact, FGM is a prerequisite to marriage. Failing to comply with the tradition may constitute grounds for divorce and/or forced excision. In others, bride price may be significantly lower for an uncircumcised woman. A smaller vaginal opening is thought to increase a husband’s sexual pleasure. Despite this, FGM cannot be assumed to be solely “male-driven”. Some men currently are acknowledging the negative impact of FGM and speaking out against it, even as societies of women continue to insist that FGM is a critical rite of passage for girls.
Practiced by followers of Christianity, Islam and traditional or animist faiths, as well as some Ethiopian Jews, FGM transcends religious belief. Nevertheless, and notwithstanding the fact that FGM predates Islam, research suggests that Muslims in particular associate FGM with sunnah, or “required practice”. In fact, clitoridectomy is referred to as “sunnah circumcision” in Arabic. Although most Islamic clerics actively discourage infibulation and an increasing number of imams are speaking out against any form of FGM, some maintain that lesser forms are acceptable. For example, one cleric from Ethiopia, speaking at a regional conference on female genital mutilation concluded, “This conference, and the medical research associated with it, does not show that the sunnah circumcision – cutting only the outer part of the clitoris – has caused any medical complications. … I believe that Islam condones the sunnah circumcision; it is acceptable.”
Across cultures, religions and continents, one common feature of the practice of FGM is the social conditioning of women and girls to accept and defend it. Longstanding traditions and social norms have ordained FGM as a social imperative that promotes the future wellbeing of girls. In most communities, song and poems are used to deride and taunt unexcised girls. Myths similarly help to ensure FGM’s perpetuation. In Nigeria, for example, some communities believe that if a baby’s head touches the clitoris during delivery, the infant will die. Community and family pressure to conform to traditional practices is great for both mothers and girls, and mothers are often the primary actors responsible for their ‘daughters’ mutilation. In the words of one mother who was interviewed at a refugee camp in Kenya, “The practice adds to a family’s prestige in the community. Who would not want to bring honour to her family?”
There are economic aspects to FGM as well. The practice is an important source of income for cicumcisors, who most often are female. In impoverished settings, the financial impetus can be strong. The social support of secret societies also can be compelling, as one 26-year-old female cicumcisor explained: “I was circumcised at 13 and have myself circumcised 23 girls since then. This is the only way I earn a living and feed my children. I was a school when my parents were killed – I had nobody to take care of me and entered the secret society. It was from there I got married.”
Response: from legislation to prevention
In the 1970s and 1980s, FGM gained international attention as a critical health issue for women and girls. As a result, women’s advocates have broadened the discourse surrounding FGM to include gendered considerations of women’s subordination and oppression, acknowledging FGM as a violation of internationally recognized human rights, including the rights to life, liberty and freedom from torture. Largely in response to the worldwide action of numerous local and international organizations, the WHO launched a 20-year-old plan in 1997 to accelerate the elimination of FGM. Since its inception, the WHO initiative has informed individual country plans to eradicate the practice.
Implicitly denounced in several international treaties and conventions that condemn harmful traditional practices, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (1990), FGM is explicitly condemned in the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination Against Violence Against Women (1993), the Declaration and Platform for Action of the Fourth World Conference on Women (1995) and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and its Protocol on Women’s Rights (2003).
Many Western countries receiving immigrants from settings where FGM is customary have passed laws forbidding the practice, including Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States. France has used existing legislation to prosecute FGM cases.
At the national level, 14 of the 28 African countries with cultures that perform FGM have instituted legislation prohibiting the practice, most in the last decade, including Benin (enacted in 2003), Burkina Faso (1996), Central African Republic (1966), Chad (2003), Cote d’Ivoire Kenya (2001), Niger (2003), Senegal (1999), Tanzania (1998) and Togo (1998). Nigeria has state laws outlawing FGM (1999-2002), and Egypt’s health ministry declared FGM unlawful and punishable under the penal code (1996).
Infibulation was outlawed in Sudan in 1946 and again following Sudan’s independence in 1956, but the 1993 penal code does not explicitly prohibit FGM. Nor do several other countries with a high prevalence of FGM have laws proscribing the practice, including Eritrea (95 percent prevalence), the Gambia (60 percent to 90 percent), Guinea Bissau (50 percent), Liberia (50 to 60 percent), Sierra Leone (90 percent) and Mali (90 percent). Although no laws in Mali prohibit FGM, the Ministry of Women, Children and Family has developed a national plan for eliminating the practice by the year 2007.
Despite progress in legislation, enforcement of anti-FGM laws in countries where they exist is often poor. Even more importantly, according to the president of the Research , Action and Information Network for the Bodily Integrity of Women (RAINBO), “Social change will not be attained through legal or punitive action alone.” Many experts argue that laws preventing FGM are valuable for underpinning education efforts and giving credibility to those working to eradicate harmful practices, but criminalizing FGM practitioners can inhibit critical discussion and encourage those involved to “go underground” in order to continue the practice, making an already dangerous procedure even more perilous.”