Female Genital Cutting: A Normal that Should Not Be.

Female Genital Cutting (FGC) is a topic that has been discussed by many great writers, human rights activists and academicians. This article re-echoes the voices that have overtime been silenced at the altar of upholding some repressive aspects of culture and norms that ought to be progressive. Ayaan Hirsi Ali in her book; “Infidel-My life” avers that certain things must be said; because there are times when silence becomes an accomplice to injustice.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is the most ratified human rights international treaty, sets the standard for the rights of children; any person less than 18 years of age. It specifically calls on States to ensure that children attain basic rights such as health and education which is in their best interests for a holistic development. This should be done while respecting the rights, duties and responsibilities of the parents.

Under Article 19 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, States Parties are required to take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child.

Such protective measures include effective procedures for the establishment of social programmes to provide necessary support for the child and for those who have the care of the child. FGC is a gross violation of the sexual and reproductive health Rights of the girl child and according to the World Health Organization it comprises all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.

According to UNICEF, at least 200 million girls and women alive today living in 31 countries have undergone FGC. It is most prevalent in countries such as Somalia, Guinea and Djibouti in Africa with levels rising to around 90%, Yemen and Iraq in the middle East and Indonesia in Asia to mention but a few. Worth noting is the fact that this is a worldwide issue that exists in several other countries such as Malaysia, Oman, United Arabs Emirates and India. It is also prevalent in some parts of Europe, Australia and North America.

However, there are variations on the type performed, the circumstances surrounding the practice and the size of the affected population groups. The World Health Organization categorised FGC into four types. The partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or the prepuce, the partial or total removal of the clitoris and labia minora with or without excision of the labia majora, the narrowing of the vaginal orifice by cutting and bringing together the labia minora and/or the labia majora to create a type of seal, with or without excision of the clitoris(in most instances, the cut edges of the labia are stitched together and this is referred to as ‘infibulation’), and the fourth type is other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes such as pricking, piercing, scraping and cauterization.

FGC is practiced in different regions of the world for various reasons. It is a social norm in some regions and hence there's pressure to do what others have done and worse still, refusal to conform to such patterns leads to  girls being referred to as unclean, outcasts and are socially excluded. Others practice FGC because it's considered a necessary part of raising the girl child to prepare her for adulthood and marriage as girls who are not 'circumcised' don't make the cut for 'marriage material'.

FGC is also said to be a way for girls to preserve their virginity for their future male partners and by doing so, they don't ashame their fathers, uncles and brothers. In cases of infibulation for example, some men find pleasure in penetrating into the girl's vagina to open up the seal hence it also enhances male sexual pleasure. In addition to ensuring pre-marital virginity, FGC is also believed to ensure marital fidelity since it's associated with reducing a woman's libido and therefore helping her resist extra marital affairs.

In surveys carried out in countries such as Mali, Guinea and Mauritania, there was wide spread belief that FGC was a religious requirement while in other societies, it is considered a cultural tradition and thus the need to keep practicing it.

However, there are no known health benefits for girls and women who undergo this practice. On the contrary, it only serves to cause harm. There is need to sensitise people about the immediate and long-term effects of FGC in order to bring to an end to this horrendous practice. It interferes with the natural functions of girls and women's bodies and violates their rights to health, security and bodily integrity, freedom from torture, cruel and inhuman or degrading treatment and their right to life in the extreme circumstances when it results into death.

The risks involved in practicing FGC generally increase with the amount of tissue damaged although it has been proved that all types of FGC are associated with health risks. The immediate complications include; severe pain, excessive bleeding, fever, swelling, contraction of infections(because in traditional setting the same object usually a knife is used for all the girls during the ceremony which puts them at a high risk for contracting infections), shock, urinary problems such as urine retention and wound healing problems to mention but a few.

The long-term complications on the other hand include; urinary problems such as painful urination, menstrual problems such as difficulty in passing menstrual blood resulting into painful menstruations, pain during sexual intercourse and hence increased sexual dissatisfaction, infertility, keloids, childbirth complications such as difficult deliveries, excessive bleeding and still births, the need for later surgeries and psychological problems such as depression, anxiety and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Therefore, there's a need to stop this practice and it's sad that it remains a common practice among many people today. It reflects deep-rooted inequality between sexes and is a form of discrimination against girls and women. Opposition to FGC started as early as the 1920s for example in Egypt where there were campaigns held against the practice and Egyptian Doctors' Society called for a ban against it. In the 1930s, missionaries in Kenya began to refer to FGC as the "sexual mutilation of women" and some of them were murdered for it including Hilda Stumpf who was helping in running a girls' school.

Equality Now, an NGO that seeks to promote and defend human rights of girls and women works towards ending four main issues among which is FGC and cutting by 2030 and has suggested that ending FGC would require the work input of various players such as government agencies, survivors, child protection professionals and law enforcement agencies. United Nations Population Fund estimates that 59 countries have passed laws against FGC and some of these include the United Kingdom, Sweden, Norway, Canada and Denmark.

Furthermore, in Africa, 26 of the 29 countries that traditionally practiced FGC have passed laws prohibiting the practice. These laws range from monetary fines to spending months or years in prison for example Kenya which exerts  punishment of up to three years in Jail or a fine of 200,000 Kenyan shillings (approximately USD 2000). However, the laws put in place still do have their own loopholes since they protect only girls less than 18 years of age. This leaves a huge number who remain vulnerable to such practices.

In countries like Mali and Sierra Leone, there is no legislation banning FGC as most of their citizens support the practice. Uganda banned FGC in 2009 and in 2010 enacted the Prohibition of Female Genital Cutting Act. A convicted offender faces up to ten years in prison and where a girl dies during the act, they serve a life sentence. Despite the existence of that law, in 2019 the country reported a spike in cases with gangs forcefully subjecting girls to genital mutilation. This goes to show that even in countries with specific legislation banning FGC, implementation is still lacking, at the expense of so many girls.

Everyone needs to know the dangers posed by this practice. It violates treaties such as the Convention on Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against women, the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The right to health and well-being is vital as seen under article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and it is practices such as FGC that threaten this right for the girl child most of whom won't be able to speak against it since it's the way of life in which they've been raised.

Hopefully, a day will come when Female Genital Cutting will be a thing of the past. There's  need to have a conversation on the risks and realities of FGC without sugar-coating them and girls need to receive education on their right to decide on what happens to their bodies. Otherwise, various rights to which girls and women worldwide are entitled continue to be repressed with impunity while the world turns the other way.