The Tragedy of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)

Female genital mutilation complications: pain, bleeding, infections, fistulas

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is sometimes referred to euphemistically as female circumcision, but it’s drastically different from male circumcision in form, function, and consequences.

FGM involves cutting or removing parts of the external female genitalia, including some or all of the clitoral glans and clitoral hood, inner labia, and outer labia. The diagram below shows the different types of mutilation that may be performed. In the most extreme form, infibulation, the vulva is sewn shut and only a small opening is left for urine and menstrual blood to exit.  This opening may be as little as 2-3mm wide.

female genital mutilation diagrams: type I, type II, and type II (infibulation)

Sometimes, rather than sewing the vulva shut, it’s sealed with acacia tree thorns, shown below.

acacia thorns
Acacia tree thorns – Image by blom3 from Pixabay

In case you are so inclined to see a human version of type III, the National Library of Medicine has an image that I won’t include here because it’s extremely disturbing.

More than 200 million women and girls in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Indonesia are affected., as well as smaller numbers in South America. Over half of these are in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Indonesia. Over 90% of females in Djibouti, Guinea, and Somalia undergo FGM. Infibulation is done mostly in northeastern Africa.

How it’s done

Typically the procedure is done before age 5. It may be performed by a traditional circumciser (typically an older woman) or a medical professional. Anaesthetic is used sometimes, but not always.  Often blades are not sterilized. The clitoris is removed first, and the senior female relative is asked to approve the amount removed.

Unsurprisingly, there are potential complications galore, including infections, bleeding, difficulty urinating, and formation of fistulas. There is also increased neonatal mortality, with the level of risk corresponding to the severity of the mother’s FGM.

FGM and sex

When a woman who has an infibulation gets married, her infibulation must be partially opened. The husband is expected to do this with his penis, but if this isn’t possible, he or a midwife may cut the woman open with a knife. The infibulation must be opened further to allow for childbirth. Typically after giving birth, the woman would be closed back up again.

In some areas where FGM is practiced, there’s a preference for “dry sex.” This involves applying various substances to the vagina to prevent lubrication. This increases friction and is thought to increase male sexual pleasure. However, for the poor woman who’s been cut open with a knife, this combination must be horrifically painful.

In areas where this is practiced, it’s seen as a sign of purity and honour for girls to be cut. Because of cultural traditions and social expectations that women must be cut in order to be suitable for marriage, bringing about changes in attitudes can be difficult. Not only do women’s attitudes need to change, but men must be willing to marry uncut women.

UN Women infographic on Female Genital Mutilation
UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women

Inequality in action

According to UNICEF, “in every society in which it occurs, FGM is a manifestation of entrenched gender inequality.” Women’s genitalia in their natural form tend to be seen as ugly, dirty, and immodest. However, the primary goal is generally constraining a woman’s sexuality. FGM is believed to decrease libido, ensure virginity prior to marriage, and reduce the chances of marital infidelity.

While male circumcision does have some health benefits in terms of reducing sexually transmitted infection risk, there are absolutely no health benefits of FGM; instead, there are significant health risks.

While those that practice FGM may claim religious justification, there are no religious scriptures in any faith tradition that condone the practice.

It’s hard to find words to capture how profoundly disgusting this practice is. This represents an extreme example, but the line of thought that women are sex machines who will hop on the nearest available penis is certainly not unique to areas that practice FGM.

Why not teach men to keep their pants on?

It may be dressed up more prettily and presented with a neat little bow claiming the need for modesty, yet the underlying assumption is that a woman is an irresistible draw for any man in the vicinity. Yet I’ve never heard of a cultural group that deals with this by identifying strategies to keep men’s pants on.

Instead, women need to be covered up and sewn up so men’s penises don’t come flying out of their pants and into the nearest hole. Where is the sense in that, and why isn’t anyone talking about an intervention to keep men’s penises restrained?

Meanwhile, many women, particularly those who have been infibulated, are sentenced to a lifetime of pain.

Culture is no justification for this kind of barbarism. The United Nations considers it a human rights violation. I can only hope for our sisters in those parts of the world that it comes to an end sooner rather than later.

For more information, you can check out the Al-Jazeera Correspondent video The Cut: Exploring FGM.


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20 thoughts on “The Tragedy of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)”

  1. Thanks so very much for raising awareness of this horrific practice. I’m so glad there’s some progress made against it, though it’s slow-moving.

  2. Johnzelle Anderson

    Powerful words. That image link was horrifying. I don’t understand a practice that “fixes” god-given anatomy deemed “immodest” yet requires follow up procedures to help it function as it was intended; more specifically, sex and childbirth (I leave out “satisfaction” in the list because that’s what they’re trying to eliminate, not immodesty…) smh. Thanks for sharing!

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