A note on chosen terminology: ‘female genital mutilation’ is currently the term approved and used by the World Health Organization, because it is thought to capture more accurately the needless, horrific violence of female circumcision processes. ‘Genital cutting’ is sometimes used out of respect for those girls and women who have undergone this process and do not want to think of themselves as mutilated. In this blog I will use ‘female genital mutilation’, or ‘FGM’, because I am approaching the topic as a human rights violation and a health hazard for the millions of girls who undergo the process every year.
Female genital mutilation (FGM), also called female circumcision or female cutting, is the process of removing parts of the female sex organs. Unlike male circumcision, in which only the foreskin is removed, female circumcision frequently involves cutting away part or all of the clitoris and labia minora. In the most extreme cases, the remaining flesh is sewn together, and must be cut or torn open for the woman to have penetrative sex or give birth, and then sewn together again. FGM is usually practiced on girls between the ages of four and twelve, but some cultures practice it as late as just prior to a woman’s marriage, or as early as a few days after birth.
FGM is almost always done by respected older women who are trained to do it from a young age. The process is often passed down from mother to daughter, as it is usually a valued and profitable trade within the communities that practice it. The girls who undergo FGM have to be held down, because it is an extremely painful process, and is completed without any anesthesia. Because the circumcisers usually have little knowledge of medicine or hygienic practices, many girls die from excessive bleeding or infections from unsterilized tools (including sharp rocks and pieces of glass and metal). It is suspected that FGM and the unhygienic practices involved with it has been a major contributor to the spread of HIV in African countries, but there has not yet been sufficient research to confirm this.
The reasons people practice FGM are complex and overlapping, but they can be broadly categorised into five main explanations:
1. Controlling Female Sexuality
In some areas where a woman’s sexual restraint is crucial to the honour of her family or clan, FGM is practiced in order to reduce women’s sexual desire. In some cases this is done to ensure that a woman will not have a greater libido than her husband, thereby allowing men to have multiple wives. The mutilation of the female sex organ also radically decreases a woman’s capacity for sexual pleasure.
2. Custom and Tradition
Many countries practice FGM as a ritual initiating a young girl into adulthood, marriage, and motherhood.
3. Social Pressure
18 of the 28 African countries where FGM is practiced have prevalence rates of 50% or higher. These communities have practiced FGM for generations, and have turned it into a social norm. Many young girls face severe social stigmatization for being uncircumcised. Many mothers believe that their daughters will be unable to find a husband if they are not circumcised.
The problem of FGM predates the arrival of Christianity and Islam in Africa, and is not a requirement of either religion. However, it is strongly associated with Islam and is advocated by many Islamists.
5. Myths and beliefs about Hygiene, Aesthetics, and Biology
Sometimes FGM is practiced because of mistaken beliefs that the vulva is unhygenic or ugly in its complete state, or that the clitoris will grow into a penis if it is not removed. Some people are (falsely) led to believe that FGM increases fertility and child survival rates. These are less significant than the reasons above, but still tragic and important.
FGM is practiced mainly in countries in Africa, the Middle East, and South, Southeast and central Asia. It is conducted without the understanding or consent of the young girls involved. It is a human rights violation. Thousands of girls die from health complications of FGM every year, and still more are left with ongoing physical, sexual and psychological consequences. Circumcised women may experience chronic pain, chronic pelvic infections, development of cysts, abscesses, and genital ulcers, decreased sexual enjoyment/libido, urinary/menstrual problems, depression, post-traumatic stress, and infertility.
Like so many health problems, FGM is experienced mainly by girls and women who are already systematically underprivileged by extreme poverty, lack of education and resources, gender-based oppression, and lack of representation. The added factors of social taboo and squeamishness about female genitalia worldwide mean that even in places where we have the power and resources to openly discuss the problem and maybe do something about it, we rarely do. To this end, I’m launching Paper Vulvas: a craftivism campaign aiming to raise awareness of FGM through public origami. To get involved, use this tutorial to make your origami vulvas, and display them somewhere public where you think they’ll be noticed. Use your voice to celebrate the beauty of female genitalia in their complete, natural state and to stand against FGM. The project will be documented on this tumblr, where you can follow along and also upload photos of your own origami creations.