“Welcome to society,
We hope you enjoy your stay,
And please feel free to be yourself,
As long as it’s in the right way,
Make sure you love your body,
Not too much or we’ll tear your down,
We’ll bully you for smiling,
And then wonder why you frown…”
writes Erin Hanson in one of his poems in an effort to reveal the sham is the society we all reside in. In an attempt to vindicate society’s age old prejudices and stereotypes, it suppresses the fundamental freedom of an individual and turns a blind eye towards humanity. ‘Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)’ is a traditional practice that, in disguise, represents a similar depiction of society, whereby, young girls undergo a process of partial or complete removal of their external genitalia for non-medical reasons, thus bearing no medical benefits for them.
Though this practice is justified in the name of religion, no religious scripture mandates its necessity. This practice is, in fact, a manifestation of deep-rooted gender inequality prevalent in society and how this society, predominantly patriarchal in nature all across the globe, deliberately resorts to gender-based violence of this intensity to accord an inferior position to women — economically, politically, socio- culturally and sexually.
The origin of FGM is vague. While some opine that it originated during the rise of Christianity and Islam, historians are of the view that it was found in the Egyptian tribes, and African tribes in Australian, Philippian, and early Roman and Arab societies. Until the 1950s, Western European and American societies also practiced it to treat ailments such as mental disorders, hysteria and so on. FGM is said to prepare a girl for adulthood and validate her marriageability. This traditionally seated practice is primarily conducted to exercise control over a female’s virginity before marriage and maintain her fidelity to her husband, thereby discouraging or in a sense preventing her indulgence in extra-marital affairs.
FGM is carried by traditional birth attendants, who are often the elderly in a said community. Lately, there has been an attempt to carry out the procedure by medical practitioners. One might ask the question, does this offer medical advantage? No. It still poses great risk to the sexual and reproductive health of girls and women, and offers zero medical advantage to them. Societies across the globe are found to practice it, believing its customary and religious necessity. Hence, the practice goes largely unchallenged by people. It is prudent to mention here that since FGM is conducted on girls usually in their infancy, it constitutes not only a form of gender-based violence, but also as an infringement of child rights.
The term ‘female genital mutilation’ cannot be interchangeably used with ‘female circumcision’, since it would then draw a parallel or similarity between the practice of male circumcision and female genital mutilation. While male circumcision is encouraged medically to curb chances of infection from HIV (allegedly), FGM increases the risk of a female being infected with sexually transmitted diseases.
Besides, adhering to this custom may prove to be catastrophic in terms of her menstrual cycles, virginal and urinary infections during child birth, post-partum haemorrhage etc. Psychologically, it is said to leave an indelible mark on the person. This invites reactions such as fear from engaging in sexual intercourse, suppressing one’s sexual desire and many more. A Somali poem describes FGM as ‘the three feminine sorrows’:
“It is what my grandmother called the three feminine sorrows: the day of circumcision, the wedding night and the birth of a baby.” – The Three Feminine Sorrows
The international community has taken cognisance of such a harmful practice and endeavoured to restore human rights through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR); International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR); Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW); Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment and Punishment; and Convention on the Rights of Child (CRC) and the Vienna Declaration.
The exclusive work to curb and gradually eliminate FGM began in 1997, for which the WHO, UNICEF and UNFPA are credited. The WHO recently a launched a clinical handbook in 2018 to spread awareness about FGM, its health benefits, medical risks and complications. This is considered to alter attitudes and help societies all across the world overcome their prejudice with respect to female body, its acceptance as well as its social validity. Having done so, it shall also contribute towards safeguarding a female’s right to life and safety.
In spite of all the early actions taken by the international community, a question still persists: what can we do as a member of the society? The answer, in my view, underlies in our societal attitudes and mentalities, which have long been treated with gender stereotypes in an effort to endure structural differences between the two sexes through such grotesque forms of violence.
Putting an end to FGM through legal mechanisms is an easier procedure. These mechanisms can act, and in fact have acted, upon by the international community, as noted above and also by many national governments. The real escape, however, is in eradicating socio-religious stigmas by enlightening everyone, especially the elderly, of FGM’s long term medical side-effects.
Social campaigns and a direct dialogue with communities that believe in such practices might prove fruitful to bring about a change, saving over 200 million girls whose rights are being assaulted in the name of religion and culture every year. FGM is yet another social evil that usually goes unnoticed, and we await to reckon with. In an attempt to solve this, we must also facilitate the creation of a much safer, promising and equal world for a large section of the world population.