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Female Genital Mutilation: a bleeding wound for over 140 million women worldwide Printable Version PRINTABLE VERSION
by Charis Demetriou, Cyprus Sep 9, 2002
Health   Opinions
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Waris Dirie, a Somali girl–-now a top model living in New York--knew almost everything about what it is like to be a woman in Africa. She continually moved around looking for prosperous land and water, struggling to survive. Her only companions were her eleven brothers and sisters, her parents and their flock.

Nevertheless, when Waris turned five she became a woman herself, undergoing the same procedure as 140 millions girls worldwide do to enter adulthood: the mutilation of her genitalia. The details of this operation are never explained to girls. All they know is that something special will happen to them. This makes girls actually look forward to the ceremony that will turn them into women like girls in western countries look forward to putting on make-up or wearing a bra. So, you can imagine Waris’ shock when she found out that there were no feasts or presents awaiting her. Instead, there was the worst thing a girl can ever experience.

Female Genital Mutilation or FGM is the partial or total removal of the female external genitalia. This includes the clitoris, labia and the urethral and vaginal openings.

According to the United Nations, mutilation is practiced in at least 29 African countries. In some like Somalia, 98% of the women are mutilated. Even in modern countries like Egypt, prevalence reaches 97%. It is also found among ethnic groups in Asian countries like India, Malaysia and Indonesia and has become a major issue in western countries like the England, France, Canada and the United States. In New York City alone, almost 2000 girls are mutilated every year.

The operation is usually undertaken by traditional practitioners. Unsterilized items such as knives, broken glass, sharp stones and even teeth are used. No anesthetic is given, even though it’s the most sensitive part of one’s body that is going to be mutilated. Afterwards, the trauma doesn’t receive any treatment. The absence of sterilization and medical facilities as well as the mutilation itself lead to countless immediate and long-term complications.

Every single girl who undergoes FGM experiences intense pain and most pass out during the operation. Intense bleeding might even lead to death within hours or to chronic anemia. Needless to say, the fact that a girl will be then left alone for a few weeks to recover, with her wounds still unhealed, exposes her to all kinds of infections, like gangrene. And even if her family realizes that their daughter has been seriously injured, nothing can be done. One of Waris’ sisters, Halemo, was left to die in the desert. As Waris says, “In our society you either live or die. There is nothing in between.”

When the two weeks of abandonment end, girls happily return home, not knowing that their nightmare has only just begun. To begin with, half of all mutilated women report abnormal, long and extremely painful menstruation. One in six women will at some point experience urinary infections, cysts and keloid scars as well. Also, a quarter of female infertility cases has been linked with FGM. Mutilated women are very likely to develop psychosomatic illnesses, too, such as severe depression.

FGM also impedes women’s sexuality. The nerve endings are destroyed and the skin loses its elasticity, delaying arousal, impairing orgasms and leading to painful intercourse. A seventh of mutilated women report having impossible penetration. Out of 1500 women interviewed in Sudan, half of them said they find no pleasure in sex whatsoever.

Bearing in mind that more than 7500 girls are mutilated every day, it’s estimated that by the end of the year over half a million girls will be mutilated. So what can be done?

In recent years, the issue of FGM has been placed on the agenda of various organizations such as the UN, the World Health Organization, and several non-government organizations. Each one of these carries its own campaign against FGM, but their strategies focus on either legislation or medicalization--in other words the use of less severe forms of FGM by medical professionals.

Legislation making FGM a criminal offence has been introduced in some countries like Kenya and Sudan. Although the law exists, it is questionable whether it can be applied in practice. Early attempts to try Sudanese practitioners caused such public protest that enforcement was abandoned.

Other countries like Egypt have sought to medicalize FGM, rather than banning it. Families have been encouraged to let doctors mutilate their daughters, assuming that the sterilized environment will prevent health complications. Although some of the immediate problems might be prevented, none of the long-term ones can be avoided. Moreover, the involvement of doctors in FGM erases the message that FGM denies women the right to the highest health standards and that it is an assault on women’s physical integrity.

Amnesty International admits that all campaigns to date have achieved little more than breaking the silence around the issue. Eighty-two percent of Sudanese mothers participating in a survey in 1981 wanted their daughters to be mutilated. A decade later, that number dropped only to seventy-eight percent, despite global efforts to stop the practice. So what other options are there?

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