The Blood of Tradition: female genital mutilation

March 1, 2019

Illustration by Liad Janes © Forward

Rejmonda Gashi and Phoebe Lund Newlyn explore the complex motivations behind female genital mutilation

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a cultural tradition, one that has continued for over 2,000 years.

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 more, 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’.

Given that FGM is often a taboo subject, raising awareness about it is essential

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. Given that FGM is often a taboo subject, raising awareness about it is essential. 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. “The cutting happens and then you never bring it up again.”

Educating young men is crucial for them to understand their role in addressing FGM

60,000 girls under the age of 15 are at risk of FGM in the UK

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, who are often shocked, after learning about FGM, and that their sisters or mothers have undergone the practice. Educating men is crucial for them to understand their role in addressing FGM and appreciate how they fit into the picture. 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 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.

Unfortunately, FGM persists today. Everyone can contribute to its eradication. Visit Forward to learn how you can make a difference.

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