56. A Third World Problem Moving Into the First World

Author: Theresa Gilligan, Sophomore

Female genital mutilation (FGM), also referred to as female genital cutting (FGC) has been a long practiced tradition in many third world countries, particularly in Africa.  But as of late, this practice has been spreading to richer, more civilized countries like the United States through the large immigrant groups that currently reside in those countries.  The US has been slowly taking steps to eradicate this inhumane practice.  This practice must be forced to an end, especially in first world countries.  Average citizens can play their part in the eradication of FGM by being educated about the dangers of the practice, by supporting laws that would specifically make FGM illegal by showing lawmakers that it is an important issue to the population, and by reporting any known incidents.

FGM is often the term used by activists, although lately there have been more and more people referring to this practice as FGC or female circumcision.  There are four different classifications of FGM, differing only in the severity of the mutilation inflicted.  A clitoridectomy is the least destructive, and usually consists of the removal of part of or the entire clitoris.  Excision involves both the complete removal of the clitoris and the cutting of the labia minora.  Infibulation, the most severe form of mutilation, is the removal of both the clitoris and the labia minora, and the cutting and sewing together of the labia majora.  There is only a small space left open, for urination and menstruation.  After infibulation is performed, the girl’s legs are usually bound together for days or weeks at a time, so that the stitches will stay (Castledine 1).  The stitches remain until marriage, when the groom is given the option to remove them himself (Burnstyn 8).  The fourth type of mutilation is not technically defined, but is just considered to be any other damage that does not fall into the other three categories (World 1).

FGM typically occurs in many African countries, with appearances in Islamic cultures as well.  In several countries, such as Ethiopia, Guinea, and Sudan, well over 95% of the women are victims of FGM (Wakabi 1).  It is estimated that over 100 million girls have been subject to some type of genital mutilation (Female 1)  The decision of whether or not to have this procedure performed on a girl is almost always made by a man, but performed by other women who themselves were victims and have no formal medical training (Obermeyer Health 399) .  FGM is traditionally performed in the home of either the victim or the practitioner, never in a hospital or other sterile setting.  The practice is rarely done with any type of anesthesia or anesthetic, and is usually performed with crude, unclean, instruments like razors or broken glass.  Because of the lack of sanitary standards, infection and HIV are common results (Dorkenoo 14).  FGM can be performed on a girl at any time in her life, but is usually done at infancy, puberty, or when she receives her dowry (World 1)  Women who are not cut are often seen as masculine (the clitoris is considered a sort of miniature penis) and, therefore, undesirable for marriage (Dorkenoo 47).
While the world becomes more modern and tolerant on a daily basis, old practices are still prevalent in some cultures.  FGM is performed usually out of respect for tradition, but there are other reasons for it as well.  Women are kept in the dark about the natural functions of their own bodies and are often told that FGM will make menstruation and childbirth easier and less painful, while, in fact, the opposite is true (Dorkenoo 40).  Some women have even been told that if they do not have their clitoris cut, it will grow long and drag on the ground.  Women are also told that being cut is better for them socially, that it is necessary for their daughters to be circumcised, or else they will grow up to be wild and to have an uncontrollable desire for men (Burnstyn 1).

Over the past several years, with more immigrants from all over the globe coming to the United States, traditions like FGM have arrived in this country as well.  It is becoming prevalent wherever African and Islamic immigrant groups are clustering, particularly in urban centers (11 Facts 1).  Because the cutting is not done in hospitals or by professionals, it is difficult to accurately gauge the amount of women who suffer from FGM in America.  It has been estimated that about 228,000 women have been subjected to FGM or are at a high risk of being subjected to it, because of their cultural background (Chen 2).  Reportedly, doctors are regularly asked by new mothers to perform some type of FGM on their infant daughters.  There are even cases of women asking their gynecologists to reinfibulate them after giving birth, for fear of the reaction of family members, husbands in particular, if it isn’t done.  All known physicians refuse, but the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists believe that a few doctors will perform the requested procedures (Skaine 82).  Because there are so few physicians who are willing to do this, many families are resorting to either performing the procedure themselves, taking their daughters overseas, or chipping in with other families to bring someone from their home country to the US (since it is less expensive to bring one person to the US than it is to send several girls abroad) (Burnstyn 2).

In an effort to appease both the cultural traditionalists and human rights activists, the latest trend in FGM is known as nicking or pricking.  This involves piercing a small, supposedly harmless hole in the hood of the clitoris.  It is supposed to be as harmless as piercing an ear (Skaine 138).  But while this method is certainly less horrific and destructive than more traditional tactics, most human rights activists are against it, saying that it undermines their cause, because the very idea of nicking is an acceptable form of FGM.  These activists want all FGM to be considered inhumane and eradicated (Obermeyer Female 91)  Because this is mutilation that technically doesn’t fall under the definition of clitoridectomy, excision, or infibulation, nicking can be classified as Type 4 FGM (Rahman7)

Several bureaucratic entities have come to terms with the extent of the FGM epidemic.   The World Health Organization and the United Nations have both taken official stances in opposition of FGM (World 1).  The United States’ Office of Health and Human Services, in their 2010 annual report, recognized that FGM is a growing problem and created lists to help locate high risk immigrant groups (General 226).  A few states have passed laws banning FGM, but in many others the legislation is stalled because of the cultural aspect of the practice (Laws 1).  But this is not enough.  While many governments are verbally condemning FGM, very little is actually being done to stop the practice.

There are very few laws in the United States that restrict or outlaw FGM.  Almost all of the action that the United States government has taken simply consists of gathering and reporting data and statistics about the quantity of girls who are suffering from the various type of FGM (Laws 1).  Congress passed legislation in 1996 that criminalized anyone who knowingly mutilates female genitalia, on a victim under the age of 18.  There are exceptions if the procedure is performed for medical reasons.  As of 2000, there have not been any criminal trials or legal proceedings from a violation of this law (Rahman 236-237).  But with over 200,000 women estimated to at least be at risk of FGM in America each year, this law clearly is not being enforced.

  The first big step on the way to end the long history of FGM is to educate people.  FGM is not a widely known issue, and is considered a taboo topic in almost all settings.  A great place to start educating people on this disgusting human rights violation is on college campuses, like Elon.  This can be done by distributing information through clubs about social justice and human rights, or even just by bringing it up as a topic for discussion at Model UN conferences.  Another easy way to spread awareness on this issue would be to have a speaker or two come to the university to talk about the dangers of FGM, and what it involves.  Once students are fully aware of the horrors that innocent young girls face, they will be motivated to do something, or to at least to donate to organizations that will do something to help victims.

There is currently legislation in motion (albeit slow motion) to make FGM specifically illegal.  Before these laws, it was difficult to convict someone who performed this mutilation because of the cultural significance that it holds for so many people (Burnstyn 5).  These laws would likely move much faster if American lawmakers knew that this issue is important to the citizens that they represent.  Average citizens should let their congressmen and senators know they want FGM of all types to be illegal.  This can be done through phone calls, letter writing campaigns, and petitions.  A college campus like Elon is a prime place for this sort of activism.  Because there are students from all over the country, many different senators will be contacted.  Since a university campus is a hub of learning, there will likely be more individuals who are educated on the practice of FGM, and can therefore more accurately express why there need to be laws against it.

The last step towards a solution may seem obvious, but is in fact very underrated—reporting known incidents.  Thousands of mutilations go unreported every year, either because it isn’t seen as wrong, or because it is too late.  If immigrant groups who are considered high-risk for FGM and those who live and work in the same area are properly educated on the dangers of the practice, more and more incidents will be reported, and can eventually be stopped (Burnstyn 6).  Even if doctors who treat women with any type of genital mutilation, especially if it has been done recently, report the case, it could dramatically decrease the number of incidents of FGM in the US.  If a woman is genitally mutilated, she and her family could be flagged.  They could be targeted as part of a high-risk group of people, and be taught the truth about the natural functioning of a woman’s body and the dangers that FGM presents.

All possible solutions to this problem depend on an educated population.  If no one knows about FGM, no one can do anything to help change it.  If any problem in the world is going to be corrected, it will only happen through an educated populace who care enough to make a stand against it.  With a cause as personal as FGM is, it should not be difficult to drum up the necessary support to make crucial changes in both the United States and the world. 
With FGM becoming a growing problem in the United States, action must be taken.  Education about the practice, letting lawmakers know that female genital mutilation should be made specifically illegal, and reporting known incidents are three simple ways that ordinary citizens can play their part in helping to one day completely eradicate FGM.

Works Cited
"11 Facts about Female Genital Cutting | Do Something." Do Something | Largest organization for teens and social cause. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 May 2013. <http://www.dosomething.org/tipsandtools/11-facts-about-female-genital-mutilation>.
Burnstyn, Linda . "Female Circumcision Comes to America - Linda Burstyn - The Atlantic." The Atlantic â?? News and analysis on politics, business, culture, technology, national, international, and life â?? TheAtlantic.com. The Atlantic, 1 Oct. 1995. Web. 8 May 2013. <http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1995/10/female-circumcision-comes-to-america/306051/?single_page=true>.
Castledine, Jacqueline . "Female Genital Mutilation." An Issue of Cultural Relativism or Human Rights?. Mount Holyoke College, n.d. Web. 5 May 2013. <https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/jc.htm>.
Chen, Stephanie. "Pressure for female genital cutting lingers in the U.S. - CNN.com." CNN.com - Breaking News, U.S., World, Weather, Entertainment & Video News. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 May 2013. <http://www.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH/05/21/america.female.genital.cutting/index.html>.
"Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) | Equality Now." Equality Now | End violence and discrimination against women and girls . Equality Now, n.d. Web. 8 May 2013. <http://www.equalitynow.org/fgm>.
"General Departmental Management." Justification of Estimates for Appropriations Committee. Department of Health and Human Services, n.d. Web. 9 May 2013. <www.hhs.gov/about/budget/fy2010/2010gdmcj.pdf>.
"Laws on Female Genital Cutting | Do Something." Do Something | Largest organization for teens and social cause. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 May 2013. <http://www.dosomething.org/tipsandtools/laws-fgm>.
Obermeyer, Carla Makhlouf. "Female Genital Surgeries: The Known, The Unknown, And The Unknowable." Medical Anthropology Quarterly 13.1 (1999): 79-106. Print.
Obermeyer, Carla Makhlouf. "The Health Consequences Of Female Circumcision: Science, Advocacy, And Standards Of Evidence." Medical Anthropology Quarterly 17.3 (2003): 394-412. Print.
Rahman, Anika, and Nahid Toubia. Female genital mutilation: a guide to laws and policies worldwide. London: Zed Books, 2000. Print.
Skaine, Rosemarie. Female Genital Mutilation: Legal, Cultural, and Medical issues. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2005. Print.
Wakabi, Wairagala. "Africa Battles To Make Female Genital Mutilation History." The Lancet 369.9567 (2007): 1069-1070. The Lancet. Web. 6 May 2013.
World Health Organization "Female Genital Mutilation." Fact Sheet.  Web. 6 May 2013. www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs241/en/index.html.



Make an Appointment