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‘I Feel Like I’m Not A Woman’: What Female Genital Mutilation Has Done To 200 Mn Women

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By Sarah Marzouk for Cake:

This old lady sawed away at my flesh for what felt like forever, and then when she was done, she threw that piece of flesh across the floor as if it was the most disgusting thing she’s ever touched […] I feel like I’m not a woman because of what was done to me, I feel incomplete.” This is what Khadija Gbla, the director of No FGM Australia, said in a TEDxCanberra talk. In her speech, Khadija talked about her experience with Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), and the consequences she’s been living with every day because of it.

How would you feel about someone who gives himself the right to do whatever he wants with your body, claiming that he’s preserving your honor? What would you feel if someone just slaughtered a piece of your own body, and threw it away as if it were something impure? Sadly, at least 200 million women and girls worldwide have literally experienced this kind of practice.

FGM: Cutting Women And Controlling Bodies

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), FGM – also called Female Genital Cutting or Female Genital Circumcision – is the process that includes “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons” and it has four major types:

I. Clitoridectomy: Partial or total removal of the clitoris, or in rare cases, the prepuce.

II. Excision: Partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia manora, whether with or without the labia majora.

III. Infibulation: Narrowing the vaginal opening with a covering seal through cutting or repositioning the inner and outer labia.

IV. Other: Any harmful procedure to the female genitalia without any medical purpose.

The trauma doesn’t stop at the point when the cut is made causing immediate physical and psychological complications, it also follows you in your everyday life causing long-term and sometimes deadly issues. The risks depend on the type of cutting and the health condition of the girl or the woman who undergoes the procedure.

The immediate risks exceed the shock, severe pain, bleeding, infections and vulnerability to HIV – sometimes it can end in the death of the victim. The long-term risks are painful and even harder to deal with. They include chronic pains, keloid, cysts and abscesses, reproductive tract infections, sexual diseases such as HIV, chronic pelvic infections, urinary tract infections that sometimes ascend to the kidney and can cause failure, septicemia, and death. Furthermore, FGM can cause difficulties in childbirth, infertility, and the death of a newborn.

The removal or damage of these sensitive tissues, especially the clitoris, has its effects on the quality of the victims’ sexual life. Women and girls who undergo FGM may suffer from anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and even fear of sexual intercourse.

Rates Are High In Spite Of Legal Prohibitions

Although WHO stated that FGM is considered as a “violation of the rights of children. The practice also violates a person’s rights to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death.” The rates of prevalence are pretty shocking. The procedure is most commonly performed in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. It is also being performed in the European community as a result of the increasing number of immigrants that carry the FGM culture along with themselves.

FGM is prohibited by law in many countries, but it’s still performed with high rates in some of them. According to the UNICEF the practice of FGM is most common in 27 countries: In Somalia, the prevalence is 98%, in Guinea 96%, in Djibouti 93% and in Egypt 91%. In Eritrea and Mali, the prevalence rate is 89%, and 88% in both Sierra Leone and Sudan.

It’s horrifying that the UNICEF’s latest statistics show that at least 200 million girls and women alive today in 30 countries have gone through this horrible experience, and half of them are in Indonesia, Egypt, and Ethiopia. This means that despite all the efforts that have been spent over the past years to eliminate FGM, the rates are still high. According to the new data collected by the UNICEF, around 70 million more girls and women in Indonesia have undergone these procedures in spite of a ban in 2006.

A Cultural Or A Religious Belief?

The main reasons for performing FGM are a mix of social, cultural, and religious beliefs, and it differs from one place to another. It’s commonly believed that FGM empowers women as it reduces her libido and therefore, preserves her ‘honor’. In some African cultures, it’s believed that FGM is performed as a transformation step for girls, from childhood to womanhood, and it prepares her for marriage. Men are more interested in circumcised women, and if a man finds that the woman he got married to is not circumcised, he sent her back to her parents’ home and asks for the dowry he paid. In Sudan it is believed that if the clitoris is not cut, it will grow until it gets as big as a man’s penis.

There are many practitioners who believe that FGM has religious heritage, however, there is no strong proof that it is a religious requirement for Muslims, Christians, Jews, and even native religions, such as Animists, who believe in the existence of the individual’s spirit and supernatural forces.

In Islam, there is no proof in the Qur’an that FGM is required, however, some people justify this practice by saying that the Sunna (the words and actions of the prophet Mohamed) asks for minor cutting of the clitoris. According to Judaism, circumcision isn’t allowed for women, and it’s only performed among an Ethiopian group called “The Falashas” or “Beta Israel” who have been isolated for thousands of years and didn’t have access to Jewish texts. Even in Christianity, FGM has no foundation in the religious texts as the Christian dogma emphasizes “the sanctity of the human body.” But of course, a huge part of the responsibility lies with the religious figures who remain silent.

Hope Is Revived

Although nothing can undo the psychological damage that was done to those victims who have been through this, there is maybe another chance for them to have a normal life. In The United States, reversing surgeries are being performed, in order to repair the vagina and the clitoris. The procedure started in 2001, aiming to repair the genital area in general. Later in 2004, a more advanced procedure called “Clitoroplasty” was improved by a French urologist, Dr. Pierre Foldès. The surgery is very beneficial as it can give the woman the ability to give birth naturally, to urinate comfortably, to menstruate comfortably, and it can give the woman a part of her sexual pleasure back. The purpose of the procedure is to expose the clitoral tissue, but unfortunately, it’s not very common.

This Needs To End. But How?

Apparently, law enforcement will not be enough until people understand women’s rights to their own bodies, that a woman’s honor is not anybody’s to preserve, and that every woman has the same right to pleasure and sexual choices as men do. There are many countries that still don’t have laws to prevent FGM, and these countries require special focus. Besides the laws, huge steps need to be taken to deal with these solid cultural beliefs to increase awareness about human rights, and the procedures’ risks. The initiatives that have been carried out by the UNFPA, UNICEF, and other concerned organizations, don’t seem to be enough as the progress is still very slow in ending FGM.

Religious figures need to break their silence and participate in spreading religious awareness. It’s important to know that these barbaric rituals won’t be eliminated without spreading a wide range of awareness, education, and law enforcement at the same time.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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