Female Genital Mutilation
What is FGM?
FGM is a procedure to remove a person’s clitoris, and it is often performed on girls between the ages of 4 and 14. The extent of removal depends on both culture and the person performing the removal. There are up to three types of FGM, which include removal of the clitoris; the removal of the clitoris and the labia minors; and the most extreme option, which involves cutting the labia major and sewing it together, leaving nothing but a small opening (2).
There are no health benefits from FGM, but plenty of serious consequences. The procedure is often performed without providing anesthesia to the victim, and with unsterilized tools or pieces of glass (2). It is also typical for the newly cut area to have mud or ash rubbed on it, with nothing but ice to soothe the pain (2). Other common short-term consequences include pain, shock, infection, and injury to nearby tissue. As for long-term health consequences, survivors often experience bladder and urinary tract infections, cysts, infertility, and difficulty during childbirth.
The Purpose of FGM
FGM is typically performed because people believe it rids a woman of sexual desire, therefore keeping her “preserved” for marriage (2). A general lack of sexual education, a belief that the female genitals are dirty and need to be removed, and urban myths can add to this practice. One such myth claims that the clitoris “will grow to the length of a goose's neck until it dangles between the legs, in rivalry with the male's penis, if it is not cut" (2).
Location and Commonality
This practice is very common in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt, where nearly half the cases occur. One study found that FGM affects up to 130 million women in roughly 28 African countries (2), and another reported that the practice is occurring in the Middle East at epidemic rates (2), as well as in the United States.
Presence In The U.S.
Currently over 500,000 women in the U.S. have either had the procedure or will be subjected to it. Researchers explain that this number has doubled between 2000 to 2014 (2). While the practice of FGM was originally criminalized in 1996, that ban was overturned in 2017 based on the belief that making the practice illegal on a federal level was unconstitutional. Legal decisions now rest with each state. Today, many organizations, such as The AHA Foundation, are working to make it illegal again, but the practice is still permissible in 11 states. For a look at where the U.S. currently stands, check here.
It is important to note that it can be challenging to record accurate numbers of FGM, as the practice is done in private settings, especially in the U.S. Some groups also withhold statistics in hopes that international organizations will simply “conclude that the problem does not exist in their jurisdictions” (2). Therefore, we can rightly assume that the majority of the numbers are an underestimation.
The degree to which FGM is tied to religion has been a point of contention amongst scholars. Some argue it is a practice immersed within culture, rather than religion. But it is likely a combination of both elements, and varies by community (2). Some cultural and/or religious groups push back on banning the practice because they are concerned about disturbing “tradition.” However, as one expert explained, if communities were cutting little girls’ fingers as a cultural “tradition,” people would be up in arms (1).
The Effects of Patriarchy
It is common for women to perform this practice on other women, and many mothers who subject their daughters to the practice often defend it by saying “it has always been like that." Others claim that men prefer female genitals that have been mutilated, and express concern that they won’t be able to find matches for their daughters without the mutilation (2).
When experts interviewed men, they often had little to say. One research found that “men usually avoid offering a clear statement about whether FGM is a good practice; rather, they refer to FGM as a female practice in which men should not interfere. None of the men said he had ever discussed the question with his wife” (2). This is not to say men are not involved in upholding the tradition. However, it does give an indication of how patriarchy and internalized misogyny have been created and upheld by all members of the community, not only those whom it most benefits.
While a lack of sexual education is a huge underlying problem, it runs deeper than just sex, and seeps into the study of psychology. For example, in the Middle East, “psychology remains a shadow discipline… and only slightly more present in North Africa … The Library of the British Psychoanalytical Society, for example, holds only one journal on psychotherapy or psychoanalysis in Arabic” (2). Of course, access to psychology is also a problem in the U.S., and stigmas abound everywhere.
Tackling this problem will be an ongoing effort, and awareness is the first step. It’s also important to promote empowerment through education and in spreading information. If you want to get involved further, look into your state’s legislation and support where you can.