Women Betrayed: FGM and the Hidden Truth

“I did not know what they had cut off from my body. I just wept, and called out to my mother for help. But the worst shock of all was when I looked around and found her standing by my side."

“I did not know what they had cut off from my body. I just wept, and called out to my mother for help. But the worst shock of all was when I looked around and found her standing by my side. Yes, it was her...right in the midst of these strangers, talking to them and smiling at them, as though they had not participated in slaughtering her daughter just a few moments ago.”  The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World, by Nawal El Saadawi

The government have said they condemn it. People protest against it. Yet every year, women and children across the world are subjected to the horrific practise of Female Genital Mutilation. Laws have been enforced and awareness has been raised – yet still it continues. It is illegal in the UK, yet in the years since it has been outlawed not a single perpetrator has been convicted. Why isn't anything being done by those in a position of power? In a situation that calls for swift and heavy action, why are those who are able to bring about change standing back?

Where it is practised, (for religious and cultural reasons – although the two are often linked), Female Genital Mutilation can sometimes be performed on a child as young as five years old. There is no health benefit or medical reason to justify the stressful surgery whereby a female's genitals are cut, parts removed and sections stitched: it is the result of a custom usually enforced upon those who do not have a choice in the matter. Often, the girls are too young to even realise or understand what is happening until it is simply too late.

The World Health Organisation reports that 300 million girls are at risk of FGM annually, and UNICEF have estimated that 200 million women living today in 30 countries have actually had the procedure. Since the mid 1990s, efforts have been made to raise awareness and to educate those involved or at risk because of the practise. Despite this, and despite government and mainstream media who are aware of the growing problem of FGM, it still continues to happen, putting lives and the health of many at risk across the world. It was made illegal in the UK in 1985, yet there has not been a single conviction.

According to an article in The Guardian, cutters (as they who perform the surgery are often known) are working across the UK, including in London, Bristol and Birmingham. Sarah McCulloch, from the Agency for Culture and Change Management, says of the isssue: "Wherever [ethnic minority] communities [that practise FGM] are residing, it is a problem...because why would they stop? No one is giving them information... they come with their cultures and hold on to them."

            FGM: Stages of the Procedure

The procedure itself is painful, extremely sensitive and often brutal. The NHS reports that there are four distinct surgeries related to FGM, and those are:   

  • Type 1 (clitoridectomy) – removing part or all of the clitoris.
  • Type 2 (excision) – removing part or all of the clitoris and the inner labia
  • Type 3(infibulation) – narrowing of the vaginal opening by creating a seal, formed by cutting and repositioning the labia.
  • Other harmful procedures to the female genitals, including pricking, piercing, cutting, scraping or burning the area.

The tradition of practising FGM descends mainly from the Middle East, Asia and Africa. It is widely believed that it actually began 2,000 years ago in Egypt, and was quickly adopted across many cultures and communities. It is seen as “preserving purity” for women who undergo it, although the majority outside those practising it view the surgery as continuing a harsh inequality between the sexes - a way to dominate women and control their sexuality. There have been many widespread reports of women who have been forced to have FGM performed on them (the painful and damaging procedure often leaving them psychologically and physically effected) and being taught that it would “bring shame” if they refused. When a woman is older and married, her vagina is cut open with a knife (by a midwife or health professional) or opened by her husband for sexual intercourse.

Does it Serve Religion?

Where FGM takes place, religious belief appears to be a contributing factor. According to The European Journal of Contraception & Reproductive Health Care by A. Abdulrahim Rouzi, (published in 2003), FGM is a problem in many Muslim societies, likely due to a mention of female circumcision in the hadith. In certain pockets of Muslim culture it is seen as a “noble” thing for a woman to undertake the surgery, and something that is “honourable.” Some Muslims disagree, claiming they view FGM as 'prohibited.' Most view the procedure as a religious or cultural practise that is strongly linked to belief and traditions.

A recent article in the Dailymirror.ik reports that in Sri Lanka there are Muslims who want to withdraw the prohibition of what they consider 'female circumcision.' The article states that there is “concern about moves to ban the practise,” and goes on to explain how they view it as an intrusion upon their beliefs for professionals to try to prevent it. Some have attempted to defend it by saying there is a difference between circumcision and what most consider as FGM: irrespective, many are concerned about the nature of such a thing being done to children and young woman, who often have no say or may feel pressured to take part.

Whilst the Christian bible does not mention FGM, or any version of it, there are areas where Christians have practised it – mainly Kenya, Egypt and Tanzania. However, Christians in Africa were amongst the first to protest to stop it, and were amongst the earliest to label it a “mutilation.”

According to Siobhan Fenton, writing for The Independent: “It [FGM] is sometimes practised as it is believed to reduce a woman’s libido, thereby increasing her suitability for marriage and she is perceived as more faithful.” Fenton then goes on to explain that people who have moved to the UK from the Middle East and African countries continue the practise here as a continuation of this belief.

Many who protest against FGM point to the religious and cultural reasons that it still takes place and argue that no faith system should be valued over the life, health and well-beings of the children and women who are hurt by the process. Essentially, it is an abuse that does not belong in our modern world.

FGM in the UK

Although the mainstream media and various politicians from the UKs main party's have spoken out against it, there appears to be nothing that seriously combats the practise, or few who are willing to speak out in any way that would bring about action. Worryingly, a report by Reuters in July of 2018 said that “more than 6,000 women and girls who visited a doctor, midwife, obstetrician or another public health service in England between April 2017 and March 2018 had undergone FGM at some point in their lives.” They also stated that, “An estimated 137,000 women and girls in England and Wales had experienced FGM.”

Whilst some of these procedures would have been done whilst the women were taken abroad by family to other countries - like Somalia, Nigeria and Egypt - many indeed had taken place in the UK.

In her interview on Tremr, Anne Marie Waters spoke about FGM and the politicians in Westminster who are failing the women who experience it. Of the issue, Waters said:

            “Such people have no concern for the individual girls that will be mutilated. That demonstrates a profound immorality. They merely express concern about FGM for political reasons, any tough action to end this grotesque misogyny will be met with accusations of absurdities such as ‘colonialism.'”

Things Need to Change

Until those with the power to do something use their position to bring an end to the mutilation to the hundreds of thousands of women across the world – many vulnerable young children - the practise will continue. The same conversation and outcries will echo throughout time until it is tackled. Critics point out the lack of a single conviction even though the procedure is still practised widely and considered illegal in most countries. Whilst religious and cultural reasons are used as a 'justification' to continue FGM by many, modern UK law and child protection agencies must be at the forefront of tackling and putting an end to it, otherwise what is the law there for, and who is it really protecting? This is where For Britain want to take a determined stance and make a positive impact.

It is no longer enough to simply say it is wrong. It is no longer enough to say it is illegal – Female Genital Mutilation is still occurring and whilst that is so, each and every woman who undergoes it is being utterly failed. Words are no longer enough, action needs to be taken for the betterment of women in society as a whole. Whilst women will stand proud for many issues to ensure gender equality for future generations, this is one issue that still needs to be examined and tackled by all, or it will never end. 2018 must be the year the conversation turns to action.

By Fiona Dodwell

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