Exact figures are hard to establish, but the World Health Organisation estimates that 120 million women and girls across the world are affected by Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). So, what exactly is it? MTV Staying Alive spoke with Lisa Zimmermann, Director of the youth empowerment charity Integrate UK, to find out.
Female Genital Mutilation or Cutting (FGM) is a practice that is still surrounded by secrecy, but unfortunately it happens much more often than most people think. FGM can be divided into 4 types. Type I involves the total or partial removal of the clitoris, whilst type II involves removal of the clitoris and / or the prepuce and the inner labia or ‘lips’. Type III refers to infibulation – the procedure that involves removing the inner and outer labia and stitching the two sides together to leave a hole that can be as small as a matchstick head. Type IV refers to miscellaneous other procedures, including labial stretching, piercing or burning, and vaginoplasty, which is plastic surgery for the vagina.
Despite the fact that many governments have banned the practice, FGM continues to happen in many places around the world. The main reason for this is that it’s often seen as an important cultural tradition. But all forms of FGM stem from the same place – the desire to control and oppress girls.
There are also still a lot of misconceptions around FGM, and many people think it is somehow necessary to cut a girl. Additionally, in the West, there has been a surge in vaginoplasty due to an increased focus on the myth-based ideal female genitals and pressure to achieve this.
Of course, the risks and effects of FGM are numerous. Depending on the kind of procedure involved, risks include infection from unsterilized and shared equipment – including HIV infection –, infertility and reduced sexual experience as well as serious psychological implications that can tarnish a woman’s life.
In fact, FGM is so risky that it can cause death. In a recent case in Egypt, where an estimated 87% of women and girls undergo FGM, a girl died when undergoing the procedure. In a trial following her death, the doctor was fined $150, whilst the girl’s mother and the anaesthetist received one-year suspended sentences and a fine of $30. All over the world, a fundamental shift is needed to ensure real gender equality if FGM and other forms of violence and abuse against women and girls are to end.
It is with this alarming cases such as this in mind that action on FGM has become part of UN Sustainable Development Goal 5, which aims to achieve gender equality. Included within this wide-ranging point is tackling the issue of violence against women and girls.
Although the percentage of women and girls who are being mutilated will fall in the next years, a recent UNICEF report predicts that the total number of FGM cases will continue to rise due to population growth.
However, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic that FGM will decrease in coming years. In the UK and some other European countries, for example, the taboo around FGM is slowly but steadily being tackled. Terminology has shifted from ‘female circumcision’ to Female Genital Mutilation or Cutting and there have been several changes to legislation including mandatory reporting and the introduction of Protection Orders. Activists face much less resistance than even 4 years ago and all over the world, inspirational women are leading the campaign to end FGM in a generation.
Country-specific research can also be reason for optimism. In Ghana, for example, the current FGM rate is 2% amongst girls aged 15-19, which is a quarter of the figure thirty years ago. Kenya as well has seen progress, with half of adolescent girls affected thirty years ago, but on track for the figure of 10% soon.
At the heart of this change is an increasing cultural understanding that cutting girls is unnecessary and wrong. Education about FGM and challenging the myths around it has made a big impact on the way people perceive the practice.
Local charities such as Integrate UK are contributing to this change in attitudes towards FGM, for instance through their ‘My Clitoris’ video campaign, which was watched online by thousands of people. This is an example of youth action Lisa, head of Integrate UK, refers to when saying that the ‘biggest change has come from young people all over the world, standing up and saying ‘no more!’.
The key to helping FGM decline even further is to talk openly about it and make girls aware of whom they can talk to if they’re under pressure to undergo the procedure. It’s also vital to equip health professionals with the skills to identify all types of FGM, and to recognise when a girl might be at risk of FGM so that they can help prevent them from going under the knife.
At its core, FGM is about controlling women’s sexuality and about suppression, whether the procedure happens in Africa or in Harley Street, whether it’s forced or elective. Breaking the silence around FGM is an important step if we are to see a continued reduction in this kind of violence against women and girls.
Cover image by: Sami Ullah