Female Circumcision or Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) In West Africa Countries and the United States
Female genital mutilation (FGM), also referred to as female circumcision or female genital cutting, is a traditional ritual that entails the removal of all or some of the external female genitalia. The practice is mostly carried out by traditional circumcisers with a razor or a blade, without or with anasesthesia. FCM is most prevalent in Africa, with more than twenty seven countries reported to be practicing it. FGM is also common in Iraqi Kurdistan and Yemen and less practiced in Asia and other diaspora communities across the world. The age when FGM is conducted varies from when one is born to puberty and in more than half of the nations where the national statistics are available, most girls face the knife before the age of five.
The procedures also differ from one ethnic group to another. The general procedure includes the removal of the clitoris and clitoral hood, and in its most severe form, referred to as infibulation, the procedure goes to the extent of removal of the outer and inner labia and vulva closure. In infibulation, the circumciser leaves a small hole for the passage of menstrual blood and urine, while the vagina is left open for childbirth and intercourse. There are a number of health effects associated with the practice and they depend on the procedure. Some of the health effect include chronic pain, recurrent infections, cysts childbirth complications, problem in getting pregnant, and fatal bleeding. So far, there are no associated health benefits that are known.
FGM is rooted in attempts to control the sexuality of women, gender inequality and ideas about modesty, purity and aesthetics. It is in most cases carried out and initiated by women, who regard it as a source of honor and who are afraid that failing to have their granddaughters and daughters cut may result in social exclusion. More than 125 Million girls and women have undergone FGM in at least 29 countries where it is concentrated, and approximately 3.6 million are cut in such countries each year. More than eight million have undergone infibulation and this practice is largely in Eritrea, Djibouti, Sudan, and Somalia (Shandall 180)
Female circumcision has been practiced in parts of Africa, especially West Africa for centuries as a rite element of passage preparing girls for marriage and womanhood. The practitioners are often with no or little knowledge of medicine, and human anatomy; hence the practice may result in permanent health problems, severe pains or death. Despite the associated grave risks, its practitioners consider it as an integral part of their ethnic and cultural identity, while some perceive it to be a religious obligation.
Opponents of FGM on the other hand emphasize that this practice is detrimental to the well-being and health of women. Some consider the practice a ritualized form of violence against women and child abuse, a human rights violation. FGM has been restricted or outlawed in most of the nations in which it is practiced, but the laws seem to be poorly enforced. Since 1970s, there have been international efforts aimed at persuading practitioners to stop it, and the United Nations General Assembly, in 2012, recognized FGM as a violation of human rights, and voted unanimously to intensify the efforts against the practice. The opposition has faced critics, especially among anthropologists. An article by Eric Silverman has it that FGM has emerged as one of the central moral topic of anthropology, leading to difficult questions on tolerance, cultural relativism and the human rights universality (Rich 7).
The two sides of those who are for FGM and those who are against have resulted to a heated debate between feminism and anthropology, with the latter insisting on the women equal rights while the former insisting on culture and tolerance. This paper is going to look at the reasons for and against female genital mutilation in West Africa Countries and the United States. Debate For and Against FGM
The debate over FGM is a relatively recent debate. In Africa, the practice was rarely spoken of and little known in the Western countries until as late as the second half of this century (Abusharaf 53). Between the 1950s and the 1960s however, African medical practitioners and activists brought the female circumcision health consequences to the international organizations attention such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations. Despite the above efforts, it was not until 1979 that a formal statement was made with regards to FGM. WHO organized a seminar in Khartoum aimed at addressing traditional practices that affect the health of children and women and recommended that governments should work to eliminate female circumcision.
The following decade witnessed the widespread silence on female circumcision broken. After the meeting of African women’s organization in 1984, in Dakar, Senegal, to discus FGM as well as other cultural practices, the Inter African Committee Against Harmful Traditional Practices (IAC) was formed ((Rich 7). The IAC, with national committees in at least 20 countries, has played a significant role in bringing the female circumcision harmful effect to the attention of most of the African governments. To add on the above initiative, several other networks and organizations for women that had focused mainly on issues like women rights, reproductive health and legal justice were more involved in working against FGM.
In part because these groups come up with a fresh perspective to FGM, the emphasis of female circumcision discussions shifted to include human and reproductive rights for women as well as their health. International treaties and consensus statements like the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination against Women and Welfare of the Child started to include language applicable to FGM.
Female genital mutilation emerged as one of the central moral contemporary anthropology topics. Some of the anthropologists have accused female circumcision eradicationists to be of cultural colonialism and this in turn resulted to the former being criticized for their failure to defend the universal human rights idea as well as their moral relativism.
For Female Genital Mutilation
In most part of the West Africa, it is the women who organize FGM regardless of the evident suffering associated with the practice. In parts where educated men staying is cities and towns did not want their daughters and grand daughters to undergo female circumcision, they would go home to find their girls sewn up following the arrangements by their grandmothers to visit a relative. Studies have shown that only a quarter of the total women populations in West Africa countries oppose FGM, with most of them preferring infibulation and excision over clitoridectomy.
Some of the Anthropologists like Fadwa El Guindi argue that female circumcision is not an issue of male control and it is not meant to appeal to men as argued by some cultural beliefs. Male circumcision is regarded in Africa as defeminizing the men while female circumcision as demasculinizing the women. The Anthropologists maintain that the removal of clitoris is a choice of women for women, to reduce their sexuality before they get married and to enhance the sexuality after getting married.
They argue that the sexual desire reduction is normally temporary. Faumbia Ahmadu, who is a Kono people of Sierra Leone and an anthropologists, chose at the age of 22 to undergo clitoridectonomy during a Sande society initiation (Rich 7). She argued along the same line as the other anthropologists, that the clitoris being an important part of female sexuality is an assumption centered on the men. Female symbolism in Africa revolves around the womb concept according to them and that infibulation and excision drew on that idea of confinement, enclosure and fertility.
UNICEF has termed FGM as a “self-enforcing social convention” where there exists a strong social obligation in the society to conform, at the uncut daughters risk facing social exclusion and ridicule. Uncut women and girls in some of the West Africa communities are viewed as unmarriageable and dirty. Following the poor access to knowledge and education, and because the ones carrying out the exercise downplay the casual connection, women and girls are not likely to associate the health impacts of the practice with the procedure.
The president of women’s association Lala Balde, told Mackie that when a girl in her society died or fell ill, it was considered as to be out of evil spirits. When informed about the casual relationship, the women and girls wept. According to the surveys of Mackie, there was a great difference between the levels of FGM between those communities that were informed and those who did not receive the information. This shows that lack of information about the consequences of FGM on both the women and girls and the circumcisers has greatly increased the practice in West Africa. Those who are not informed about FGM are the ones in the forefront in encouraging it (Abusharaf 53).
Some of the cultures in West Africa like boys and men are not allowed to marry uncut girls, force parents to engage their daughters in such practices so as to gain wealth and avoid social exclusion. In most cultures, considerable pressure coming from the society is brought to bear on girls and families who resist conforming to the tradition of FGM. In Ivory Coast, a Yacouba girl who has not undergone circumcision is looked at as not marriageable. A girl who has a younger brother may be circumcised if she does not get married by her late teens, now that the Africa customs dictate that a boy who has an elder sister who is not circumcised should not be initiated into the class of warriors.
Women and girls who desire to confirm to the peer norms tend to be eager to undergo FGM, now that those who remain uncut may be looked down on and teased by their age mates. To add on the above, the cutting ritual is mostly embedded in the traditional ceremonies in which the young men and girls are showered and feted with presents as their families are honored. The wish of the girls in any case, are in most cases irrelevant as in most families, the father or some of the elder female relatives are the ones to decide whether they undergo circumcision. Like in Yacouba, the viewpoint of a girl is not important as it’s the father who is supposed to decide. In such a case, the family are the once for female circumcision regardless of the decision of the girl child.
In addition, the choice of girls is limited considering the age at which FGM is practiced in most communities as well as the lack of resource and education. This situation makes the girls remain dependent on their families and husbands, for the basic life necessities. The young women and girls who resist may be circumcised by force. Incase they remain uncircumcised, their families are not in a position to arrange a marriage hence are likely to cast out of the family or community without any subsistence means.
Following the powerful traditional influence and lack of choice, most of the girls accept FGM as a natural and circumcision, part of life and adopt rationales related to its existence. Of the countries for which the DHS data is provided on the opinions of women towards excision, West Africa stands out as the region with the majority discontinuation. Various justifications have been shared by the respondents who were in favor of the continuation of FGM, and they include, virginity preservation before marriage, fidelity after marriage, enhancement of the sexual pleasure of their husbands, fertility enhancement, prevention of child and infant mortality, religious requirements and cleanliness. Traditions stood out as the mostly mentioned reason by the respondents.
As the existing data have it, women themselves are in the forefront in perpetuating the female genital cutting practice. The data on men show that men are slightly more likely to favor discontinuation compared to women. Those men who believe that FGM should be stopped make about approximately twice as many as the women and they site reasons like lack of sexual satisfaction and medical complications. In West Africa, a study showed that men are more likely to believe that FGM should continue than women, but are less likely to prefer infibulation compared to the women.
Female genital mutilation has remained to be an integral part of the societies that engage in it, where patriarchal authority as well as control of female fertility and sexuality is givens. In societies where the place of a person in determined by lineage that is traced back through father, FGM reduces the uncertainty that surround paternity through preventing or discouraging sexuality activity among women outside marriage.
Although the communities that practice FGM differ in many ways, most girls and young women receive limited education and are valued mainly for their role as labor sources in future and producers of children. In some societies, the prospective the family of the husband pays for the bride-price for the bride’s family, giving the family the right to her children and labor, makes the girl have no control or right over either.
The virginity of a girl may be considered as being essential to the ability of her family to receive a bride-price and arrange her marriage, as well as to the honor of the family. In West Africa for example, a prospective family of the husband may be given the right to inspect the body of the bride prior to marriage and mothers keep on checking their daughters to make sure that they are still virgins. In the above contexts, parents view both early marriage and infibulation as means of making sure that the daughters are pure and hence worthy of the bride-price (Boddy 5).
Against Female Genital Mutilation
Several organizations, governments and individuals have risen up against female genital mutation considering the adverse consequences and conditions the practice has to young women and girls. The conditions under which female genital mutation is performed in West Africa, even the types that are less extensive types of cutting genitals can result to possible fatal complications like infection, hemorrhage and shock. Being unable to pass urine following the severe pain, inflammation and swelling after the operations may result in urinary tract infection. A girl may also suffer from pain and abscesses as a result of nerve endings damages longer after the wound heals.
Infibulation in most cases results on long-term medical conditions. This follows the fact the urethral opening is covered during the process, urinary tract infections that are on and off are common, and stones may appear in the bladder and urethra because of infection and obstruction. If the opening happens to be too small, the menstrual period can be blocked and this blocking may cause reproductive tract infections as well as lowered sterility or fertility.
Obstructed labor is likely to occur incase deinfibulation does not take place before childbirth causing life-threatening complications for both the infant and the mother. Now that the birthrates are higher in most of the West African countries especially those areas where infibulation is a common practice, an infibulation scar on a woman may be reswen and cut a number of times during her years of production.
The clitoris amputation as well as other sensitive tissues reduces the ability of women to experience sexual pleasure. In the case of infibulated women, the marriage consummation is often painful following the reduced vaginal opening as well as reduced elasticity in the scar tissue forming it. Bleeding and tearing is likely to occur or the infibulation scar is likely to be opened up so as to allow penetration.
Give the medical complications mentioned above as well as the related consequences of female genital mutilation; it remains a big puzzle why the practice still continues to be practiced. Some of the possible reasons include the fact that the frequency of such problems is unclear, considering the already existing data.
The other reason is that in the communities where few girls remain uncircumcised, issues arising for female genital mutations are often considered as a normal part of the life of young women and girls and they may not even be associated with the practice. The most significant reason however is in the economic and social conditions of the lives of women.
Efforts to try eliminating female genital mutilation have always been successful mainly because the opponents of this practice ignored its economic and social context. In most cases, external intervention have managed to strengthened the communities resolve to continue their FGM rituals as a means of what they consider as cultural imperialism (Dugger 6).
During the colonial era in West Africa, some of the governments tried to ban FGM but met with resistance. In some of the countries, when the law banning infibulation was enacted, most of the parents went to midwives for their daughters to be infibulated just incase it got impossible later on. Some of the midwives were arrested for being part of FGM against the laws and anticolonial protests started in some of the affected areas.
In the recent past, interventions by human rights activities and the U.S feminists have provoked the same negative reactions witnessed in the colonial times. Most of the African women have considered some of these interventions as aimed and derogatory towards their culture. Most of them believe if the women change from such practices, the change has to be initiated by them and come from within them.
In most of the United States publications focusing on female circumcision, one of the anthropologists observed that West Africa women have been depicted as aberrant, while intact U.S women have their sexuality affirmed to be norm. Some of the anthropologists such as Nahid Toubia, have pointed out that U. S women have also subjected themselves to hazardous procedures that are medically unnecessary, like cosmetic surgery as well as breast implants insertion in an effort to better their sexual desirability (Abusharaf 53).
The strong opposition against cultures depictions practicing FGM as violent, savage, and abusive to children and women have resulted to new means of approaching the practice. Some of the international organizations involved in fighting the practice are in full support of the local activists groups with training, funding and technical expertise instead of being directly involved. Many projects have been launched in an effort to eliminate FGM. However, non of the efforts have taken into consideration rigorous evaluations so as to determine the success of the efforts.
Some of the approaches against FGM include;
Community Education: A study that was carried out a cross the nation by the National Association of Nigerian Nurses and Midwives between 1985 and 1986 found out that FGM was common in all states and in every five in a sample of eleven states, more than 90 percent of the women and girls had undergone FGM (Mustafa 304). Reacting to the above information, the organization come up with an eradication campaign supported by Population Action International as well as the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health. The project involved the training of health workers to teach the locals about the harmful effects associated with FGM and to work with religious organizations, social clubs and women’s organization to mobile the rest of the communities against FGM.
Alternative Rituals: Some of the NGOs conducted a pilot project in some of the countries in West Africa to come up with an alternative initiation ritual. Some twenty five mother-daughters were paired and participated in a training that lasted for six days. The training included sharing of information on the consequences of FGM and ways of defending the decision to resist being cut. The training culminated in a celebration that was coming to age planned by the society, excluding circumcision but including T-shirts and other gifts for the initiates and wisdom books written by the parents of the participants (Dugger 6).
Drama: In Burkina Faso, a local theater group director came up with a play that was based on his niece experience. The play was on female circumcision consequences and was aimed at men in particular. A Research Action and Information Network for Bodily Integrity of Women grant enabled the director to videotape the play and it was shown all over the region.
The FGM concern is based on the human rights standards as well as the associated health consequences. The practice constitutes unacceptable rights of girls’ violation as well as the sexuality of adult women. International human rights treaties underscore the United Nations member States obligations to make sure the promotion and protection of human rights, including non-discrimination rights, integrity of an individual and to the highest possible standard of the mental and physical health. Such organizations consider the practice imposed on the girls is indicative of some practice that can be compared to torture.
Female circumcision violates the girls’ human rights when practiced on them especially as young girls and infants. The important issue is that of consent. As an adult is free to engage in a tradition or a ritual, a child who has no formed judgment, does not consent to such rituals and traditions but simply undergoes FGM she totally vulnerable. The available reaction of the young girls that include shock and pain resulting from extreme pain, that takes more than six adults to hold down a girl of six years, shows a practice that can as well be compared to torture. The practice also violates other treaties such as the Africa Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. Article 21 of the Charter stresses that appropriate measures should be taken in an effort to eradicate customs and practices that are prejudicial to children (Dugger 6)
According to the rights of women, Article 5(a) of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, demands that States should take all the possible appropriate measures to modify the cultural and social patterns of conduct of women and men, with an aim of achieving the elimination of customary and prejudices and all other practices that are based in the idea of superiority or inferiority on stereotyped roles for women and men or of either the sexes (Abusharaf 53).
The above data offers little evidence to show that FGM will substantially in the near future. Young women in Ivory Coast, Eritrea and Mali seem to be less likely to have undergone FGM compared to the older women. Despite the general lack of change in the girls’ percentages who have gone through FGM, changes in practice and attitude seem to be taking place in some of the countries in West Africa.
In Senegal for example, men and women below the age of 25 are more likely to believe that the practice should be stopped compared to those in their 40s. In some of the countries in West Africa where female genital mutilation was recorded to be highest in the past, there seem to be a remarkable shift towards clitoridectomy.
Considering the lack of enforcement of some of the laws against female genital mutilation, it is not clear whether a purely legal approach will be effective in itself. While legislation can be enforced in different countries where only a small number of citizens adhere to female genital mutilation, that is not likely to be the situation when the majority follow the practice. Clear policy by declarations by professional and government bodies play a significant role in sending a strong message that disapproves the practice, but if the majority of the community remains convinced that female circumcision is for the common good, legal sanctions which incriminate practitioners as well as families cam be counterproductive. In such countries, public information counseling and campaigns of families on the effects of female genital mutilation on young girls can be more useful.
Changes that are more substantial are likely to take place only with the improvements in the women status in society. To get married and bear children, which in most communities fulfills the reproductive females’ potential and gender expectations, in reality can be considered as a survival strategy in a community that is plagued with disease, illiteracy and poverty. The women socioeconomic dependency on men really affects the way the female respond to female genital mutilation.
In most countries in West Africa, women with higher education levels and those with considerable personal income are less likely to engage in female genital mutilation compared to the rest of the women and are also likely to have their daughters go through the practice. Female circumcision is one violation of the rights of women that cannot be abolished without placing the practice firmly with the context of measures to address the economic and social injustice women and girls experience all over the world. If women can be looked at as responsible and equal members of the society, no aspect of the psychological, physical and sexual integrity will be compromised.
Abusharaf, M. “Rethinking Feminist Discourses on Female Genital Mutilation: The Case of Sudan,” Canadian Woman Studies, 15:52-54, 2005
Boddy, J., “Violence Embodied? Female Circumcision, Gender Politics, and Cultural Aesthetics,” in R. Dobash and R. Dobash, eds., Rethinking Violence Against Women, Sage, Thousand Oaks, Calif
Dugger, W.,”A Refugee’s Body Is Intact but Her Family Is Torn,” New York Times, Sept. 11, 2006, pp. A1, B6-B7.
Mustafa, A “Female Circumcision and Infibulation in the Sudan,” Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology of the British Commonwealth, 73:302-306, 2006
Rich Joyce, “Eradicating Female Genital Mutilation: Lessons for Donors,” occasional paper, Wallace Global Fund, Washington, D.C., 2007.
Shandall, A “Circumcision and Infibulation of Females,” Sudan Medical Journal, 5:178-212, 2007