The realities of female genital mutilation

A case study in Ethiopia opens up discussion about FGM

Warning: This article contains graphic and potentially upsetting subject matter and descriptions. It may be triggering.

Eighty to ninety per cent of women and children in eight different African countries  undergo Female Genitalia Mutation (FGM).  This practice is not restricted to Africa but is also prevalent in developed, Western countries such as the UK and France, and over two million girls around the world are at risk of becoming survivors of FGM. Asresash Demissie, director of the Women’s Affairs Office at the Jimma University in Ethiopia and renowned specialist in Women’s Rights, gave a seminar at McGill’s  Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies (IGSF) on the topic.  She revealed details of the procedure and presented a first-hand account from a victim’s perspective.

Demissie began her story by showing us a photo of a young woman, crumpled desolately against a dusty road, crying.  The pain of this woman was palpable, though her face could not be seen.  A silence passed through everyone in the room.  Born into poverty, she was said to have suffered from depression her whole life.  When she was seven years old, her mother told her that she didn’t have to go to school that day.  She was thrilled.  Her mother then instructed her to take a shower and put on the nicest dress she had; this made her even happier.  Then the grandmother came to their house and told her that today she was going to become a woman.  With those words, the grandmother performed FGM on her.  The grandmother and mother tied her legs together and proceeded to deny her food and water so that she didn’t need to go to the toilet.  She survived the trauma, grew up, and got married.  On her wedding night, her husband produced a razor blade and sliced her open so as to penetrate her.  Nine months after that, she delivered her baby and when the baby came out, the majority of her own organs spilled out too.  She also developed fistula, a condition where a woman loses control over her feces and urine.

What is FGM?

Female Genital Mutilation is often confused with circumcision, but to make that comparison would be a mistake.  For one, the cutting is far more extensive than in circumcision, and a blunt instrument is often utilized in the process.  There are four types of FGM, each more mentally and physically scarring than the last.  The first level of FGM is a removal of the clitoral hood.  Upon the preference of the guardian of the child, or at the discretion of the cutter, part or all of the clitoris is cut off.  The second level consists of complete amputation of the clitoris and of the labia minora; both of which are body parts used for sexual stimulation, and the lack of which reduces – if  not completely denies – female arousal.  Eighty-five per cent of women who are subjected to this practice undergo the procedure of either level one or two of FGM.  The third type of FGM is called infibulation and consists of the elimination of all of the external genitalia.  The girl is then stitched up in such a manner that the vaginal opening is narrowed so as to leave only a small hole for urine and menstrual bleeding.  Infibulation leaves a girl facing a lifetime of pain, where intercourse is almost unbearable and giving birth can be fatal.  The last form of FGM is unclassified and entails all other operations on the female genitalia – from burning, scraping, piercing and stretching to introducing corrosive substances into the vagina.  While the majority of girls in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Eretria and Kenya are victims of FGM, 15 per cent of them are subject to infibulation and unclassified operations. These practices are not removed from us in the West: 6,500 girls in the UK between the ages of 4 and 14 are also at risk of undergoing this treatment.


What are the short- and long-term effects?

The short-term effects felt by FGM often translate into long term effects.  The most common effects felt are intense pain and uncontrollable bleeding that can lead to haemorrhaging, which often induces shock during the procedure and after.  The haemorrhaging can also lead to anaemia.  In addition to the gruesome list of short-term effects are the high risks of infection, in particular tetanus – an infection that attacks the nervous system and causes muscle spasms – due to the blunt and unhygienic tools sometimes used during the procedure. Damage to adjacent organs resulting from unskilled cutters and urine retention caused by the swelling of a blocked urethra are also common.  Very rarely is the girl put under anaesthesia, and the experience in it of itself can be traumatic to say the least. It is therefore no surprise that most girls who are forced into this procedure suffer from depression.

The long-term effects are even more devastating.  Fistulas and painful or blocked menses  are the most recurrent symptoms, but an equally common and fatal consequence is the risk of contracting HIV from unsterilized instruments. The highest maternal and infant mortality rates in Africa – particularly in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Eretria and Kenya – are found in FGM-practicing regions.  The real number of deaths directly linked to FGM is unknown as they are often unreported.

Why is FGM practiced?

Culture and deep-rooted tradition, dating back to ancient Egypt, are the main reasons for this ongoing practice of FGM and infibulation.  It is often considered a rite of passage into womanhood, without which the woman is not considered marriage material.  In Ethiopia, it would be assumed that there is something wrong with an unwed woman above 30 years of age. There is, therefore, a saying in Ethiopia, roughly translated as, “It is better to go through FGM than to be stigmatised within society.”  A woman who has been through FGM is also likely to receive better marriage prospects as it reduces her promiscuity and “preserves her virginity.”  This is because the excessive scar tissue after the procedure creates acute pain during intercourse, which can reduce a woman’s desire to have multiple sexual partners.  The excess and often swollen scar tissue makes sexual penetration very difficult, and sometimes impossible without the aid of tools.  Frequently, the husband uses a razor blade to make an incision through the scar tissue and occasionally even resorts to corrosive materials before penetration is possible.  These reasons lead to the conclusion that FGM benefits nobody but males, while the women receive only pain and no pleasure.

There are several ongoing efforts around the world to reduce the widespread practice of FGM, the most active of which are institutions such as UNICEF and new reinforced legislations within nations that attempt to punish the offenders.  The increase in universal education has also been vital in fighting FGM: in a case study done by UNICEF, among 15,000 women who have received secondary education, a relatively low 25.5 per cent continue the tradition of FGM.  It can, therefore, be asserted that increasing the accessibility of education is key to fighting FGM and eliminating the practice from the culture.  The battle against FGM is daunting but not impossible; through the help of education and domestic and international involvement, the practice of FGM may be reduced or even stricken out entirely.