The Perpetuation of Systemic Inequality Through Female Genital Mutilation
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a practice that “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”, as defined by the World Health Organization (WHO). It is a cultural tradition in many African, Middle Eastern, and Asian countries that has been declared a human rights issue by the WHO and other international organizations because of the procedure’s violation of individual’s safety, health and wellbeing (WHO). Annually, it is estimated that over 3 million women will undergo FGM, adding to the ever-growing 200 million women that have already been affected (WHO).
The circumcision is typically done anywhere from infancy to the age of fifteen, with the victims having no say in their fate and often being coerced by their communities into the procedure even though they are minors (WHO). For newborns and infants, their mothers are forced to make the decision to have their daughters mutilated as they face the same societal pressures (WHO). FGM is categorized into four types, each escalating in severity and complications, varying depending on the geographical region in which it is practiced (WHO). While this procedure is quite common in the areas listed above, there are no health benefits associated with having an FGM operation (WHO).
In fact, FGM procedures most commonly negatively affect natural bodily functions and pose a severe health risk to the victim (WHO). Short term complications include: pain and shock due to a lack of anesthetics, hemorrhage, infections due to an unsterile environment and lack of proper surgical tools, wound healing issues and even death (WHO). It is common for wome
Image: "Cut" by Ceren Muratli, Medium: Watercolor
n to experience one or more of these symptoms after FGM, and for those that survive, there are long-term impacts as a result of the procedure. Depending on the type of FGM undergone, women are likely to experience urinary and menstrual problems, childbirth complications, pain during sexual intercourse and other health complications as a direct result of the surgery (WHO). Women who undergo FGM at a young age also face the risk of needing additional surgeries when they reach puberty and their childbearing years in order to allow for the possibility of sexual intercourse or a natural childbirth delivery (WHO). Additionally, the practice of FGM is most often not medically regulated and rather conducted by traditional circumcisers who do not have anatomical knowledge or experience practicing medicine (WHO).
According to research by 28 Too Many- a charity based in England and Wales that strives to provide research and tools to end FGM in African countries- in Kenya, a region predominantly affected by FGM, from 2008-09 78.4% of operations performed on women aged 15-49 were done by a traditional agent, such as a traditional circumciser or birth attendant, while only 19.7% were done by a medical professional, either a doctor, nurse or midwife, on the same demographic group (28 Too Many 2009). 28 Too Many repeated this study in 2014, with their findings indicating that the percentage of women undergoing FGM procedures by medical professionals had decreased by 4.9%, bringing the total traditional circumcisions to 83.3% that year (28 Too Many 2014). Between 2008 and 2014, the years in which these studies were conducted, the Constitution of Kenya was established in 2010 and the Children Act was revised in 2012 (UNFPA- Kenya). These national laws outlaw the practice of FGM in the country, but such a policy is difficult to enforce, especially in rural communities (Onyulo 2018). This outlawing could have contributed to the decreasing or stagnant numbers of mutilations performed by medical professionals, as they now risk facing punishment under the country’s laws for their actions (Onyulo 2018).
With such a long list of medical complications associated with FGM, it is difficult to understand why people themselves would continue to encourage the practice, especially when it comes to their loved ones being affected. According to certain African cultures, FGM is a social norm that is heavily linked to social status and is considered a tradition (WHO). FGM is rooted in cultural ideas of femininity, modesty and beauty, as well as a symbol of social status within the community (UNFPA- Kenya). In certain African countries, women are seen as undesirable if they have not been circumcised (Onyulo 2018). During an interview conducted by Tonny Onyulo for USA Today in a rural area of Kenya, an elder member of the Pokot village suggested that “men from these communities are making the situation worse by shunning these girls. Men who decide to marry uncircumcised women are rejected by the community and denied inheritance” (Onyulo 2018). Due to the cultural reinforcement that FGM is necessary in order for women to be successfully married, families often feel that they are deciding to ensure a comfortable future for their daughters, rather than causing them harm and health complications. With the possibility of not being wedded or even exiled from one’s own community for taking a stand against genital cutting, many see FGM as a simple procedure to fit in with society’s norm. While this theory of desirability is purely socially-constructed, rural regions often lack the financial resources to educate communities in order to break-down such stereotypes (Onyulo 2018).
The general trend suggests that the probability of women undergoing some form of FGM is indirectly correlated with wealth and education (UNFPA- Kenya). In other words, the practice of FGM is predicted to be higher in communities with lower incomes and minimal access to education. In Kenya, women in the poorest 20% of the population or with no education are over six time more likely to experience genital mutilation than those in the richest 20% of the population or with an education equivalent to the secondary level or higher (UNFPA- Kenya). According to Comfort Momoh’s research for Female Genital Mutilation, the “continuance of the practice of FGM, [relates] to men having power over women in making decisions about all aspects of girls’/women’s role in society, local community’s expectations, intimate personal relationships, and family planning and childbearing”, perpetuating gender inequality in these countries (Momoh 1999: 13). Equality of the genders is important because it is “not only a basic human right, but its achievement has enormous socio-economic ramifications… Women in all parts of the world suffer violence and discrimination. They are underrepresented in political and economic decision-making processes”, as declared by UN Women (Takamura- Gender). This contributes to a cycle of systemic inequality, an issue many countries are trying to break in order to further their development.
There is no marker to indicate when the problem of FGM will be solved, as it is tied into the much more complex reality of systemic gender inequality. While national laws and campaigns to educated people on the dangers of such procedures have helped raise awareness of this issue, cultures, traditions, stereotypes and mentalities cannot be changed as fast as policy is implemented. Change cannot overcome what is considered a “social norm” or be enforced without failure. In order to stop the continued practice of FGM, one must look on a larger scale and address the disparities that exist between the genders, as well as the stereotypes that fuel such traditions.
“Female Genital Mutilation Dashboard (FGM) - Kenya.” United Nations Population Fund, www.unfpa.org/data/fgm/KE.
“Female Genital Mutilation.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, 31 Jan. 2018, www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/female-genital-mutilation.
“FGM and Issues of Gender and Human Rights of Women.” Female Genital Mutilation, by Comfort Momoh, CRC Press, 1999, pp. 13–20.
“FGM In Kenya.” 28 Too Many, Dec. 2016, www.28toomany.org/static/media/uploads/Country%20Research%20and%20Resources/Kenya/kenya_country_profile_update_v3_(july_2017).pdf.
Onyulo, Tonny. “'This Practice Should Be Stopped': Teen Girls Decry Painful Illegal 'Circumcision'.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 23 Jan. 2018, www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2018/01/18/kenya-female-genital-mutilation/1041960001/.
Takamura, Kazue. “Gender and Development.” Powerpoint presented in lecture at McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, October 24, 2018.