It is the portal that leads to creation, the deliverer of life, and the very essence of womanhood-female genitalia. Now, imagine you are a young girl between the ages of four and fifteen; you are taught to honor your parents, you trust them to always have your best interest at heart. Then one day, they take you to a place, you are forced to bare your genitalia in a crowded room of women, you are held down with even greater force, and with no anesthesia your genitals are cut and mutilated. That is the sanitized version of what is known as female genital mutilation. This ancient and barbaric ritual, which is practiced in areas of Africa, the Middle East, parts of Asia, and has even made its way to America through the immigrants that have made a home there, has become a controversial debate between whether to allow this practice to stay legal for the sake of maintaining tradition or to criminalize it globally. Even though Female Genital Mutilation is a historically cultural tradition, Female Genital Mutilation should be deemed an illegal criminal practice and enforced as such internationally because of the immediate and long-term health effects, and its violation of basic human rights.
Since one of the significant reasons given for the continued practice of Female Genital Mutilation stems from its history as a cultural tradition, it only seems fair to highlight the origins of this practice. When considering cultural traditions, some naturally feel inclined to protect them at all cost. It is a notion that something that has been culturally practiced for so long cannot be morally wrong. It is no different for Female Genital Mutilation. Evidence of Female Circumcision has been found in Egyptian mummies as far back as the sixteenth century B.C. with possible linkage to a second millennium civilization known as the Meroite of Middle Nile (Yount 1064). Coincidentally, time has not changed the reason this tradition was considered necessary. Kathryn Yount paraphrases and cites in her own argument that “female slaves who were genitally cut initiated discourse about the fidelity-promoting purpose of the practice… [Female Circumcision was] a convention sign of marriageability….” (Yount 1064). It was then, and still today, a tradition that signified control of women, and what better way to do so than by cutting away the very essence of their womanhood. Hence, there is a credence to Female Circumcision due to its bridge to the past, but an understanding of the actual procedure should help identify why some traditions need to fade away.
Next, a brief account of what Female Genital Mutilation will shed some necessary light on this ritualistic practice. Female Genital Mutilation goes by a few different names such as Female Circumcision, Female Genital Cutting, or simply FGM. It refers to the practice of cutting away parts or all of the female genitalia, and depending on where the tradition is carried out will decide the varying degree of severity of cutting to be done. The World Health Organization, also known as WHO, is a leading authority on the practice of FGM in the world community, and they state, “Female Genital Mutilation is classified into four major types: Clitoridectomy, Excision, Infibulation, and all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia” (Female Genital). This makes it sound clinical or even medically professional, but to really understand these procedures it is necessary to add into the equation that Female Genital Mutilation is not done, the majority of time, in a hospital setting under sterile conditions; and, the victims, young girls, are not fully aware of what will happen or of the lasting effects that can ensue from the procedure, nor the serious disfigurement they will live with for the rest of their lives. The FGC Education and Networking Project further emphasizes that “it [female genital mutilation] is mostly done in unsanitary conditions in which a midwife uses unclean sharp instruments such as razor blades, scissors, kitchen knives, and pieces of glass” and if this is not horrific enough it continues to note that “these instruments [whatever is available] are frequently used on several girls in succession and are rarely cleaned” (Sarkis). This is definitely not a clinical procedure, and despite the claims of tradition, no tradition should be allowed to place a child into a harmful situation. Now that a brief understanding of Female Genital Mutilation has been established, it only demands a look at the health effects that are related to this procedure.
Although not all cases of FGM are carried out primitively, the majorities are; and between the actual procedure, conditions under which it is done, and the tools used, it seems obvious that there will be resulting health problems. Female Genital mutilation serves no medical purpose and does more harm than good because it literally cuts away healthy normal tissue, which results in real medical conditions (Female Genital). Again, it cannot be stressed enough that this procedure is not carried out for medical reasons, but rather for traditional repressive ritualistic benefits. Because of this, these young girls are not given anything for pain. So, as they are forceably held down by other women who are present, they scream and they struggle as their vaginal area is cut and mutilated. The procedure itself can cause them to go into shock from the trauma they endure and the copious amounts of blood they may lose. If the conditions are not sterile and multiple girls are circumcised with the same tools, the risk of infection is heightened, and with infection can come death. Long after the procedure and long into womanhood, the area where the genitalia once were may not heal properly and there is a greater chance for scar tissue to grow. The girl, and woman she will grow into, are subject to increases in urinary and reproductive tract infections, painful menstruation, sexual dysfunction, and are at greater risk for blood borne types of diseases like HIV/AIDS. If that is not enough and if infertility has not resulted, they are more prone to harsh childbirths that can lead to stillbirths or complications for both mother and child (UNICEF). Consequently, it is because of these horrific details that FGM meets the description of being a human rights issue.
When a person is forced without consent or disclosure of facts to undergo a procedure for the sake of acceptance into their culture, it becomes a true question of human rights. Depending on the age at the time of the ritual, these young girls are forced by their family with threats of disowning or the shame they will bring to the family. As children, we are taught to obey and listen to elders because they have wisdom, and yet the elders neglect to inform these young girls about the downside to this procedure-the medical aspects. The other issue is that FGM, at best, is a way in which the men of these cultures keep control of women. Liz Ercevik Amado summarizes in her conference report on women’s human rights, “The patriarchal notion that women’s bodies and sexuality belong not to themselves, but to their families and society” and that, “lack of control over their own bodies and sexuality is at the root of a wide range of women’s human rights violations in the region, and taboos around women’s sexuality serve to maintain the structures, which support these violations” (Amado). So, these women choose to subject their young daughters to Female Genital Mutilation for fear and obligation to the men controlling this tradition, men who believe a woman does not have the right to enjoy sexual relations and are there to serve only them. They do not give their daughters the facts about the experience, nor do the give them a choice to say no. When a culture takes away choice and free will, it becomes a human rights issue.
Some may say, it is not right to invade a culture’s practices, traditions, rituals, and especially ones that have a long standing in history. However, as societies progress, it is also necessary to look at certain customs for the values they have in today’s society, and this also means banning some practices that are no longer suitable. When a practice facilitates the devaluation of a woman and contributes to the oppression of a gender, there needs to be greater international influence toward ending such practice. Because FGM is a barbaric practice that knowingly and willingly puts the life of a young girl in jeopardy, while sentencing her to a life of health issues, it becomes a human rights issue that demands the enactment of international bans, strict criminal penalities, and vigilance with respect enforcing the laws and policies.
Amado, Liz Ercevik. “Sexual and Bodily Rights as Human Rights in the Middle East and North Africa .” Reproductive Health Matters 12.23 (2004): 125-128. JSTOR. Web. 22 sep. 2009.
Female Genital Mutilation. May 2008. 20 Sep. 2009 .
Sarkis, Marianne. Female Genital Cutting (FGC): An Introduction. 2003. 22 Sep. 2009 .
UNICEF. Child protection from violence, exploitation and abuse: Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting. 6 March 2008. 22 Sep. 2009 .
Yount, Kathryn M. “Symbolic Gender Politics, Religious Group Identity, and the Decline in Female Genital Cutting in Minya, Egypt.” Social Forces 82.3 (2004): 1063-1090. JSTOR. Web. 22 Sep. 2009.