FGM involves the cutting, removing or altering of a female’s genital parts and usually takes place between the ages of 5 and 8 years old (though the age may vary). There are four types, and each can cause girls serious problems in the future.
The procedure is physically painful and can lead to shock, increased risk of infections, problems with periods and childbirth. ‘Cutters’, those who perform the process, are usually older women who are not medical professionals, and don’t use sterilised equipment or anaesthetic.
FGM can also lead to emotional distress, fear, feelings of helplessness and post-traumatic stress. According to Forward (the Foundation for Women’s Health Research and Development), women sometimes report having nightmares or flashbacks many years after the initial procedure. In short, FGM can change a girl’s life, and not in a good way.
So why does it still happen?
To find out, we attended a screening of the film ‘The Blood of Women’, presented by Forward. This harrowing documentary reveals how women may see FGM as a way of staying part of the community, continuing a tradition, and becoming a ‘real woman’.
FGM is also encouraged by men in some communities. Watching the film, we were struck by how much FGM is linked to men’s ownership of women.
The belief is that once the surgery has been performed, a husband knows his wife will be loyal to him. However, as stated on Forward’s website, there are “no health benefits” to FGM, and it is “recognised internationally as a human rights violation”.
Ending the practice is far from easy, despite it being illegal in most countries. The difficulty is challenging a deep-rooted tradition, one that also provides relatively well paid work for cutters.
And while ‘The Blood of Women’ is set in northwest Kenya, FGM isn’t just happening in Africa. Christina Fonthes, Youth Programme Officer at Forward says that even though it’s illegal here, it’s also a big concern in the UK.
Christina’s job involves educating 9 to 25-year-olds in the UK about women’s rights and FGM. As it is such a taboo topic, raising awareness is hugely important. There have even been instances where pupils have only realised after learning about FGM that they experienced it themselves when very young.
“They’re called your ‘private parts’ for a reason”, Christina says. “It happens and then you never bring it up again.”
Families may invite a cutter to come to the UK, or they take young girls back to their country of origin. In fact, according to Forward, 60,000 girls under the age of 15 are at risk of FGM in the UK, while 137,000 women and girls here are living with the consequences of FGM.
Forward also works with young men. They are sometimes shocked, after learning about FGM, that their sisters or mothers have undergone the practice. Educating men is vital if they are to appreciate how they fit into the picture, and this is also one of Forward’s aims.
One reason FGM happens is pressure to conform to a man’s expectations. As Christina says: “Men have a massive role in FGM, because they pay for it.”
So far, campaigns have raised vital awareness, and even helped change the law. Not only is it now considered a human rights violation, but also a form of child abuse. FGM is a criminal offence in the UK; medical professionals must inform the authorities if they see that a patient has undergone FGM.
Also you can read this Exposure article which highlights the barbarism of FGM, still perpetrated on women around the world.
Exposure is an award-winning youth communications charity giving young people in north London a voice. Please support us to continue our work. Thank you.