International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation: Breaking the Silence around FGM- A Dreadful Practice That Still Exists Today By Bushra Satkhed

If you have read the title of this article, you might have debated with yourself if you want to read further since this topic may be considered a taboo in the society you live in. But it is indeed necessary to talk about this issue which affects the lives of at least 200 million girls globally who have undergone a form of female genital mutilation (FGM). FGM, also known as female circumcision, excision or genital cutting, is the removal of the external parts of the female genitalia. It comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injuries to the genital organs for non-medical reasons. Typically performed on girls between infancy and the age of 15, the procedure has no health benefits but can cause girls great harm and serious health complications. It is a brutal form of child abuse and violence against women. Moreover, since it is usually performed without consent of young girls and often against their will, it violates girls’ rights to make important decisions about their reproductive health. Girls are cut in unsanitary conditions using unsterilized equipment without anaesthesia.

Consequences of this practice are immediate and long-term which can stay with a woman throughout her life. Besides causing severe menstrual pain and infections, it causes severe bleeding and problems urinating, development of cysts, complications during childbirth, which could endanger the lives of both the mother and the child. The lasting psychological effects on victims can be traumatic, often leading to long-term mental health issues and sexual dysfunction.

Although primarily concentrated in 30 countries in Africa and the Middle East, this practice is a universal problem which continues to persist amongst immigrant populations living in Western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand as well as parts of Asia and Latin America. If the current trends continue, 15 million additional girls between the ages 15 and 19 will be subjected to it by 2030.

Gender inequality and discriminatory social, cultural and religious norms are factors which contribute to the continuation of this harmful practice. Common reasons for FGM to be carried in certain communities around the world are to ‘save’ a girl for marriage, a perceived need to control female sexuality, for family honour or as a ‘coming-of-age ritual’, higher dowries for girls and women seen as more ‘chaste’ and so on. Although there have been attempts in some countries to restrict this practice, it was not very helpful. There are laws created to protect girls from FGM which are not enforced efficiently, for instance, the ban imposed in Senegal, West Africa in 1999, however, FGM continues to exists in the country despite the law.

The issue of FGM requires sensitive handling to make families, communities and religious leaders understand that FGM is not a necessary part of a girl’s coming of age ritual and, ultimately, that it will no longer be accepted or tolerated. Many NGOs are working hard to put an end to such harmful traditional practices and protect women’s rights and well-being. Giving the youth a voice, to involve them, especially girls and empower them to claim their rights to a safer, more fulfilling life is the first step that every individual must take in our society.

There is a need to end FGM and the way to do this is education. Awareness about the horrors of FGM is what works in the long term. Despite the fact that it is embedded deeply in many cultural traditions, times are changing as girls are learning increasingly more about the law, their rights and their bodies. Girls and their communities are boldly speaking out, breaking the taboo and spreading awareness of the harmful consequences of FGM. 

Grandparents, mothers, fathers and in-laws all have their role to play, as do religious leaders who can help dispel the myth that FGM is a religious necessity. Many religious communities in different countries, such as Christians, Jews and Muslims practice this as a religious requirement, although none of their scriptures talk about FGM as a necessary practice. Therefore, it is important to spread the understanding amongst the people that religion does not demand FGM. The first and possibly most significant of these misconceptions is that FGM makes a girl ‘pure’ and, thus, is encouraged by religious leaders.

For instance, people tend to believe that Islam advocates cutting to ensure that a girl stays virtuous and pure while the reality is that the religion does not advocate this harmful practice. Instead, it is appalling that this is exactly the kind of ignorance and injustice that Islam instructs Muslims to fight against in society, yet many Muslims still stubbornly uphold the practice. The Holy Qur’an, for example, makes absolutely no mention about FGM and the few statements falsely attributed to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) supposedly approving FGM were declared unreliable centuries ago. In the modern era, representatives of Al-Azhar University, which is one among the oldest universities in the world, as well as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation which represents 53 Muslim-majority nations, have both declared FGM to be unacceptable. Moreover, it is important to note that the Holy Qur’an does state, in a chapter dedicated to women’s rights, that any and all attempts to “alter God’s fair creation” can only be an evil act inspired by the devil. And what the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) did, in fact, reliably say is that we should ‘not harm ourselves or others’. Therefore, FGM is a practice that is created by man to control its counterpart and many Muslims as well as non-Muslims can find inspiration within the true Islamic teachings to fight against FGM. Similarly, other communities can also notice that no such verse or mention is given in their holy scriptures that will approve this atrocious practice of oppressing women,

In today’s world, the fight against this brutal mutilation, carried out upon an estimated three million girls every year, is a crucial matter. Women and girls have a fundamental and God-given right to live healthy, gratifying lives free from violence and harm. The need for legislative change is essential and  the change in traditional attitudes as well as social norms that allow FGM to continue are required to be tackled perceptively so that open honest discussions about the risks and consequences of FGM may happen, eventually eliminate it once and for all.