By: Tashika Gomes
Visibly weak and shaking, Mary cups her right hand in between her legs to stop the bleeding but she is already standing in a pool of her own blood. She has just had her genitals cut and is now considered a woman, according to this estimated 2000-year-old practice.
The issue of female genital mutilation or FGC has been long thrown into obscurity, perceived by many as an archaic ritual and a non present-day issue. You would probably be surprised to know that every year over three million women are subjected to FGC and 140 million are living with the consequences of it. The practice spreads across 29 countries and in 19 of these countries, there are laws criminalizing it.
The problem is that, although, legislature has been put into place, there hasn’t been sufficient attention to educate communities and thus reinforce the negative implications of cutting. So in some instances, prohibition has led to FGC going underground. Due to the communal spirit concerning FGC, cover-ups are easy; if a girl dies, one can say she has died from malaria.
“I think that the important thing about it is that it starts at the community level, with community discussions,” said Anne Veneman, executive director of UNICEF, at the World Economic Forum, in support of the more grassroots level approach that Tostan has taken.
FGC, also called Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), is most prevalent in West Africa and, in many places, 98% of the women, usually between the ages of 4-12 years old, are cut in an effort to control their sexual attitudes and ensure their virginity and thus suitability for marriage.
FGC is usually performed using razor blades, knives or scissors and without the use of anesthetic or sterilization. The most prevalent procedures are clitoridectomy, excision and infibulations. The most invasive form is infibulation, which is the removal of the clitoris, labia minor and part or all of the labia majora, and then the stitching of the two sides of the vulva closed, with a small opening left for urinary and menstrual flow.
“FGM happens because women are disempowered, they deserve to reach their potential, they deserve access to education, (and) autonomy over their own bodies” said Julia Lalla-Maharajh, founder of Stop Female Genital Mutilation Now and the 2010 winner of the Davos Debates on YouTube.
In Canada, FGC is illegal and women, who fear being mutilated, if they return to their country of origin, are granted refugee status. Here, doctors usually see women who have already been subjected to the procedure and now face the numerous, chronic health complications that often ensue, such as urinary tract infections, keloids, vulva abscesses, sterility, painful menstruation, difficulty in childbirth and psychological debilities.
Due to the nature of the procedure, documentation is difficult to come by, but with the high number immigrant families living in Canada, there is a very real possibility that many are being cut here too, as in the U.S.A., Australia and Europe.
This year, as president of the G8 Summit, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said that he is setting a global agenda to improve maternal and child health. Unfortunately, the agenda did not include Female Genital Cutting.
“I think it’s clear to everybody that it’s part of a larger struggle of women’s rights in general,” said Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International U.S.A., at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Media on FGM: Fire Eyes by Soraya Mire, Possessing the Secret of Joy and Warrior Marks by Alice Walker.
International Anti-FGM Day: February 6.