For those of you unfamiliar with the practice, FGM (or Female Genital Mutilation, also known as female circumcision) will probably cause your stomach to turn over.  It is a common practice in many African countries, where the skin of a young girl’s clitoris and/or surrounding tissue of the vulva is cut, sliced, and sometimes even completely removed, then the edges of the vagina are actually sewn shut.

This practice occurs upon a young girl reaching adulthood and is rooted in the cultural values of many native societies as a way to ensure that a girl is “clean” and virginal upon marriage.  It is also considered to increase the pleasure of sex for her future husband, while simultaneously removing it for the girl herself.

Now there are A LOT of problems with FGM that would take hours to go into, but primary among them are the medical and hygienic issues that the procedure causes.  Since most FGMs are done in the home of the girl being cut, they are highly unsanitary- those who perform the cutting use dirty razors or sometimes even crude instruments like tin can lids, which can lead to serious infection and shock or death from blood loss.  FGMs are almost never done with anesthesia (as the process is outlawed in most countries, but performed ritualistically by families regardless) and many girls do not know exactly how the process is carried out, leading to immense psychological and emotional trauma, as well as physical.

It only gets worse after that- build-up of blood which sometimes cannot escape during a girl’s period can cause toxic shock syndrome, infertility, and death.  According to an article by the Guardian about the practice, “In Sudan, 20%-25% of female infertility has been linked to FGM complications.”

And this is not exclusively an “African problem.”  The same article by the Guardian chronicles the struggles of English girls with family abroad, who are taken home during the 6 week summer vacation to be cut.  For these girls, the trauma is even worse, as they are generally only told that they will be going on holiday or to visit an aunt, and the procedure is then forced on them.  I would HIGHLY suggest you read the article in full and if you can stomach it, the video, because I can’t detail it all.

What I’d like to focus on, in addition to the medical horror of the FGM practice, is the problems it causes for women who are developing their sexual identity. Because FGMs destroys all feeling in a woman’s genitals and can cause problems internally as well, it renders “cut” women almost completely incapable of sexual pleasure. One study among Egyptian women found 50% of women who had undergone FGM “endured” rather than enjoyed sex, and even among women will some ability to feel arousal and pleasure through vaginal sex, the psychological and emotional scars of a cutting makes intimacy even harder.  For girls as young as age 5, their first “sexual” experience was probably their cutting, where several of their close family members held them down and took a razor to the most sacred part of their bodies.  You simply do not recover from that.  Allowing another person to touch you where your family members have so abused your body takes an amount of trust I cannot even fathom.

For women who suffer the most extreme form of mutilation (having the vagina completely sewed shut), cutting renders them incapable of deciding their own sexual future.  Even if they are married or are in a committed relationship, the sutures which bind together the sides of the vagina have to be torn apart each time she wants to have sex (which is of course, not for her to decide, generally- but for her husband).  Afterwards, in many cases, the vagina is sewn up again, completely robbing a woman of her sexual agency.  After all, she can’t very well decide for herself when and how often she wants to have sex, if the act must be preempted by a medical procedure.  In addition, if she has surgery done to remove the sutures, or god forbid, reform part of the labia in a healthy manner, she may be tossed out by her husband, alienated by her community, or looked upon as “unclean.”

A wonderful nonprofit in Kenya called Maendeleo ya Wanawake Organization (which translates to “Women’s Development Organization”), as well as other groups like Human Rights Watch and  United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) are trying to combat this terrible practice.  Maendeleo ya Wanawake offers a ceremonial “cutting with words” process, which they urge traditional families to use instead of a physical FGM for their daughters.  One of the women in the Guardian’s featured video recommended a gynecological exam in the airport for children being taken between the UK and countries which practice FGM to enforce the ban in both countries.  While this would probably constitute a HUGE violation of privacy, it could also spare the devastation of an FGM for millions of young girls and women.

For me, this is one of the most crucial issues which can be addressed in a developing country, not only because of the emotional and physical damage done to women who undergo FGMs, but also as a means of promoting gender equity in general.  Women who are connected and in control of their own bodies, who can assert themselves as beings both sexually and professionally equal to men will move underdeveloped areas strongly in the right direction.  Self-assured women are resourceful, creative, hard workers, who, when given agency and control over their own lives (the choice to work or have children, to do both, to marry or to stay single, to have sex when and with who they want), will thrive.  But agency starts at this first, very physical performance of societal norms.  A young woman who has the power to say “no” or who had parents who dared to say “no” to FGM, will move forward with her life with the self assurance that this powerful decision has given her.

When I was given the power to chose whether or not I wanted to get a tetanus shot, I felt more respect for my body, because I was given control over what went into it.  In the same way, women who can chose against an FGM will gain immense respect for their bodies and for the power they hold as individuals.  A woman who refuses FGM will go on to spread the spirit of refusal, and create social change.  The societal pressures to perform FGMs is HUGE, so it is in the spirit of groups like Maendeleo ya Wanawake that I salute those who help women to end this brutal practice.  How will you help?