FGM: The Facts

CW: female genital mutilation, gendered violence, death, forced marriage.

Maddie Burton, one of Bristol Feminists’ Campaign Officers, explains the importance of Bristol Feminist Society’s FGM Awareness Week.

The aim of Female Genital Mutilation Awareness Week is to draw attention to the problem of FGM worldwide and to inform students; the more people know about this issue and the facts surrounding it, the more people there are to potentially help those at risk. With that in mind, this article is particularly factually based in order to make clear the horrific consequences of FGM, which we believe speak for themselves as reasons to stop the practice. This is not to trivialise the personal experiences of those living with FGM, which are nuanced and deeply psychological – there will be further exploration on a more personal level later in the week.

What is Female Genital Mutilation?

There are four types of female genital mutilation, which vary in popularity across different countries and cultures. FGM is most likely to take place between infancy and 15 years of age and can also be referred to as ‘Female Circumcision’ or ‘Cutting’.

  • Type 1: Clitoridectomy

This is the removal of part or all of the clitoris.

  • Type 2: Excision

The removal of part or all of the inner labia. This can be with or without the removal of the labia majora.

  • Type 3: Infibulation

The removal of the inner labia and the labia majora. The wound is then stitched up leaving only a tiny hole for urine and menstruation to pass through.

This type of FGM is the hardest when it comes to sexual intercourse and giving birth. It is consequently not uncommon for the vagina to be opened with a razor blade on a woman’s wedding night and again when she gives birth.

  • Type 4: Other harmful procedures

This can include anything from pricking, cutting, piercing or burning the female genital area.

Any number of tools can be used to perform FGM, from unclean razor blades to rocks or shards of broken glass, while many women can also be stitched together with thorns from trees and pieces of string. In countries like Egypt, however, the procedure is starting to be medicalised so that it takes place under more sterile conditions.

What are the dangers?

  • Infection

Due to the unclean tools often used when the procedure is carried out, subjects are exposed to deadly infections such as gangrene. The same tool can be used on a number of different girls, which means that all of them may become infected. This also increases risk of HIV infection. Infections and other complications can lead to infertility.

  • Blood loss

Girls may simply bleed to death, either when the procedure is carried out, or later when she they have sexual intercourse or when they give birth. If a woman has undergone infibulation, she is 70 per cent more likely to suffer from haemorrhaging after giving birth.

  • Complications in childbirth

Women who have undergone FGM are reportedly twice as likely to die in childbirth. They are also more likely to require a caesarean section and the baby itself is more likely to die.

  • Extreme pain

The pain is extreme when FGM is carried out, often without anaesthetic. However, infibulation subjects in particular are likely to suffer pain when urinating and menstruating. It can take a long time for urine to pass through the opening and menstrual blood can gather inside the vagina and cause severe abdominal pain and fainting.

  • Physical shock and psychological trauma

Subjects undergoing counselling after female genital mutilation in the UK report a feeling of betrayal and anger towards their parents for putting them through the procedure. These girls are commonly held down during the circumcision by their relatives, people they trust. Pain during intercourse may also cause subjects to have negative psychological associations with sex and they may suffer flashbacks at any time.

These are just a few of the negative side effects of FGM; it can also cause damage to nearby organs if they are accidentally cut, subjects can become incontinent, and can suffer problems like kidney failure due to the increased risk of urinary tract infections. Victims are also at an increased risk of anxiety and depression.

How bad is the problem?

According to Plan UK, 130 million girls have undergone FGM globally, with around 97 per cent of girls in Somalia and 91 per cent of those in Egypt. Around 137,000 women are estimated to be living with FGM in England and Wales, but the hidden nature of this crime makes it hard to gather statistics. Girls in the UK are most at risk during the school holidays as the practice is illegal here, so they may be taken abroad to have the procedure and in order to give them time to heal before they return for the next school term.

So why do people practice it?

According to a Unicef study, the majority of those in countries who practice FGM think it should end. However the most commonly reported benefit of FGM is social acceptance; it is simply a traditional practice that people want to uphold. Many think it is a religious requirement of Islam, even though there is nothing about female circumcision in the Quran. Ultimately, it is a tradition that is closely associated with virginity and female honour, so some argue that FGM is the best way for a husband to guarantee that when he marries he is getting a virgin.

How can we stop it?

By supporting education on FGM and other health matters we can help change the trend. Charity organisations like Unicef, and particular FGM charities such as Forward, teach people about the problems with the practice across Europe and Africa.

Another way to stop it is to educate men about the issues with the practice and try to remove the taboo surrounding marrying a girl who has not been circumcised. If parents know that a girl can get married without FGM, they will not be pressured to subject their daughter to it.

Organisations also aim at providing alternative employment for the traditional circumcisers, such as retraining cutters as midwives. If they have no other means of livelihood and there is still a demand for their practice then they will not stop.

The collaborative aim from charity organizations is to end FGM within a generation; saving one girl saves all the daughters of her family from there on.

If you are reading this and are worried about FGM personally, there are any number of helplines one can call and organizations that can help you. The NSPCC FGM helpline is 0800 028 3550.

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