By Lata Jha:
If the countless cases of female infanticide, rape and domestic abuse were not proof enough of the miserable conditions women live in around the world, here’s another shocking piece of information. Girls barely into their adolescence in many African countries undergo female genital mutilation, a painful and humiliating process where the vagina is cut to create a narrow seal to allow only urine and menstrual blood to pass through. Infibulated girls often have their legs bound up for weeks for the freshly fused tissue to be allowed to heal.
Fiercely condemned by rights and health organisations, about 140 million girls and women are living with consequences of this practice that they undergo as soon as they reach puberty. This is most prevalent among females in Africa, where it is carried out routinely in 28 countries.
An estimated 101 million girls of 10 years and above in age have undergone varying forms of genital mutilation in Africa. A study by child rights and development organisation, Plan International in Mali in 2010, found that more than half of all fathers and one-third of mothers wanted their girls excised.
For families, it is an assurance of the girl child shielded against any sexual encounter before her marriage. The process is reversed only on the day of the wedding when the vaginal opening is restored through another painful surgery. In most cases cutting is done by a traditional practitioner without any anaesthesia and little care for hygiene. Razors, knives or scissors are used and they are rarely sterilised. The surgery takes place wherever it is convenient, from out in the open to a bathroom floor. It is only after she undergoes this procedure that an excised bride is considered ‘free’ and ready for her first sexual experience that usually takes place the very same night after cutting.
Thousands of girls every year suffer health complications, as consequences of this measure, including severe vaginal pain, shock, bleeding and infection. Life-long effects include infertility, childbirth complications and new-born deaths. In many instances, female circumcision is performed on extremely young girls. In rural areas in Mali, for example, there are reports of it being done to girls under five. In some urban areas, the surgery is even conducted on new-born girls before they are 40 days old.
The practice violates a number of fundamental rights outlined under international protocols. But despite that, only 19 of the 28 countries that practice FGM in Africa have national laws prohibiting it. And even where laws exist, prosecutions are rare. Despite many African countries signing up to international legal frameworks to protect children, traditional laws governing customary practices often override such treaties.
The fact that even today a woman has to be virtually chained from indulging in sexual activity, or the belief that she needs to be absolutely ‘pure’ for her spouse, who in turn, could have had his share of sexual experiences, are questions we need to debate. The liberated woman in many of our societies who is not afraid of living life on her own terms is still a far cry from the female whose existence is based on the dictates of her circumstances.