By Stephanie Haase:
Nigeria banned female genital cutting or female genital mutilation (FGC/FGM) last week. That is a huge step forward for women’s rights. But what is FGC? And what does the situation look like elsewhere?
1. It Happens Quite A Lot
As many as 140 million women around the world are cut; over 101 million of them live in Africa. In India FGC is practised widely among the Dawoodi Bohra community, a sect of Shia Muslims. It’s estimated that more than two million girls are still being cut every year; how many die of the complications related to the cut is unknown though. Girls are usually cut between the ages of four and puberty. But it can also happen much later, or just a few days after birth.
2. It’s Believed To Keep women clean
The reasons for parents wanting their daughters to be cut are mostly cultural. In many cultures in Northern, Eastern and Western Africa, being cut is a rite of passage for young girls and improves their chances of getting married. Others think that it’s more hygienic and that a girl or woman should be flat, rigid and dry. Religious beliefs also play a role. Some Christian and Muslim communities believe that the cut is related to teachings of their religions.
3. Not All Cuts Are The Same
There are four different types of FGC. In the first two, all or a part of the clitoris is removed. With the third type, which is also called ‘infibulation’, all of the clitoris and the inner and outer labia are removed. The fourth type is a variation of type 3, but goes one step further. Parts of the vagina may be stitched shut or tightened by using chemicals. Most of the cut women fall into categories 1 and 2; type 3 and 4 are most common in East Africa.
4. Things Can Go Wrong…
FGC can be dangerous and cause lifelong problems for the woman who has been cut. If the procedure is not done in a clean environment with clean medical tools, serious infections can be the result. They can even kill a girl or woman.
5. And They Can Continue To Go Wrong
Once the wounds are healed, there can be other problems. Women can have recurring urinary tract and vaginal infections, problems when menstruating, pain during sex and chronic pain in general. Being cut might make women more susceptible to sexually transmitted infections (STIs), as well. Incontinence and cysts are common, too. FGC can also cause infertility.
And during childbirth, being cut is a real risk for both the baby and the mother. With type 3 and 4 FGC, the vagina can be too tight to allow the baby to pass through it. This can be a real danger for the mother and the baby. Prolonged, obstructed labour can cause death of the baby and fistulas in the mother. A fistula is a hole between the bladder and the vagina or the anus and the vagina. Fistulas lead to incontinence and other medical and social consequences.
7. It Doesn’t End After Childbirth
When having sex for the first time, or before giving birth, women who have had type 3 or 4 FGC have to be cut open in order for the penis to be able to enter the vagina, or for the baby to come out. Afterwards, the vagina is often stitched shut again. This is called ‘reinfibulation‘.
8. FGM Doesn’t Mean No Pleasure
For women who have been stitched shut, it can be hard to enjoy sex. The opening that is left is very small, too small often for a penis to enter without pain. Nevertheless, some women report having a normal and enjoyable sex life even with this kind of cut.
For the other FGC categories, it will be harder to reach orgasm than for women who haven’t been cut, because many women can get an orgasm most easily by stimulating the clitoris. But that doesn’t mean that if you don’t have an external clitoris, you won’t be able to have an orgasm. The outer part of the clitoris is only a small part of a much bigger organ. With an understanding and patient partner, you should be able to have an orgasm. It’s a matter of trying what you like and what makes you feel good.
9. Cuts Can Be Reversed
There is a procedure called ‘defibulation’ or ‘deinfibulation’. It is a surgery that reopens the vagina of women with type 3 and 4 FGC, restoring the vagina to its normal size. It might also mean some of the scar tissue is removed and the labia is restored.
There are even new techniques to restore the clitoris. Tissues of the clitoris from inside the vagina can be used to make a new clitoris on the outside. This is not done very often yet, though.
10. There Are Myths Too
One of the myths around FGC makes people believe that the cut will actually enhance a woman’s fertility and promote child survival. Another myth claims that cutting a girl will cure or prevent STDs like gonorrhoea.
It is believed that FGC will keep a girl or woman from having sex before marriage and that it increases a man’s pleasure.