The Unkindest CutAlthough it is illegal in many countries, female genital mutilation persists in the Global North, too -- even the United States.
Female genital mutilation (FGM) has inflicted pain, illness and death for 2,000 years. Today, nearly 140 million women and girls globally have endured this so-called cultural tradition. The pain lasts, intensifies, recurs: at the cutting, at sexual contact, at childbirth. And that's if the woman doesn't die first, as 35 percent do, from such immediate- or long-term complications as fistulas. Those who survive suffer emotional trauma as drastic as the physical pain.
Sometimes euphemized as "female circumcision," FGM is defined by the World Health Organization as procedures removing the entirety or parts of the external female genitalia. Attributed to various faiths but transcending religious/social/ethnic traditions, FGM is prevalent in Somalia, where approximately 98 percent of women undergo cutting, often by untrained practitioners. It's also common in some other African countries, and sporadically practiced in the Middle East.
Less known is that FGM was common in the United States and United Kingdom until the 1950s, prescribed as a cure for such "female deviancies" as lesbianism, masturbation, nymphomania and even epilepsy. In 1996, after decades of feminist lobbying, Congress passed legislation making it a crime to perform FGM on a minor.
But some immigrant populations are reviving the practice. It's estimated that in one year, nearly 200,000 women in the U.S. will be cut, plus 22,000 in the U.K. Laws must be strengthened, and better enforced (in the U.S., those performing FGM can receive a maximum of five years' imprisonment and/or a fine). Furthermore, women in these communities sometimes defend the procedure, so there is need for support and education about FGM's health-destroying, even fatal, effects.
For decades, Ghanaian activist Efua Dorkenoo, founder of FORWARD (Foundation for Women's Health Research & Development), a London-based NGO, has campaigned to eradicate FGM. Awarded an Order of the British Empire in 1994, her greatest success has been in the U.K., where a law prohibits FGM and has greatly increased awareness among health professionals. Following Dorkenoo's lead, nurse ComfortMomoh -- chair of London's Black Women's Health and Family Support -- counsels survivors.
She warns that it is delicate, yet critical, to address immigrant communities about the procedure, while using language understood in their cultures. Momoh compiled Female Genital Mutilation, a book of information and personal stories. "[M]y friends ... said that they did not want to play with me because I was not done; or that I was unclean," wrote one anonymous Somali woman, "so I put pressure on my mother to have myself done."
Attitudes are changing about FGM, especially on the African continent. But there's a long way to go -- including in the U.S. This past November, Khalid Adem, an Ethiopian immigrant in Lawrenceville, Ga., was convicted of having scissored off his 2-year-old daughter's clitoris in 2001. Although federal law bans FGM, many states lack laws addressing it directly. Georgia legislators, prodded by the girl's mother and women's groups, passed an anti-mutilation law in 2005. But since that law hadn't existed when his daughter was cut, Adem was convicted of aggravated battery and cruelty to children, and sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment. It is believed to be the first such criminal case in the United States.
More on FGM:
- Rising Daughters Aware
- World Health Organization | Female genital mutilation
- The Female Genital Cutting Education and Networking Project
- Religious Tolerance | FGM
- Female Genital Mutilation Information Pack Amnesty International
- Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Africa (Link to new Web site by noted author Hanny Lightfoot-Klein)
- Prisoners of Ritual: An Odyssey Into Female Genital Circumcision in Africa by Hanny Lightfoot-Klein
- World Medical Association, Statement on Condemnation of Female Genital Mutilation, Adopted by the 45th World Medical Assembly, Budapest, Hungary, October 1993.
- American Medical Association, Council on Scientific Affairs, Report 5 (I-94): Female Genital Mutilation, Chicago, 1994.
- Committee On Medical Ethics, Guidance for doctors approached by victims of female genital mutilation. London: British Medical Association, 1996.
- Committee on Bioethics, American Academy of Pediatrics, Female Genital Mutilation (RE9749). Pediatrics 1998; 102(1):153-156.
- American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists Female Circumcision/Female Genital Mutilation (FC/FGM) Fact Sheet
- Female Genital Mutilation Research Home Page
- The Tahara Project From filmmaker Sara Rashad
- Research, Action, and Information Network for the Bodily Integrity of Women (RAINBO)
- Deutsch-Afrikanische Frauen Initiative
- PATH Female Genital Mutilation page
- FGM Network
- Women's International Network
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