Female genital mutilation – the hidden torture of women in our society
Imagine that you are 6 years old and your mother is holding you down whilst another woman takes a knife to your genitals. Imagine that no matter how hard you beg, cry and scream, the pain doesn’t end. Imagine that you are reminded of the ordeal each time you go to the bathroom, because it feels like an ‘opening wound rubbed with salt or hot chilli’. Imagine that as a woman, you are robbed of pleasure – that sex is a form of torture.
This is Hibo Wardere’s reality.
Shockingly, it is also the reality of 200 million girls and women, living across 30 countries. And it will be the nightmare of 30 million girls in the next decade.
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is defined by WHO as the ‘partial or total removal of external female genitalia for non-medical reasons’. Although there are various types, the most severe form involves sewing the area together following the removal of the clitoris and labia. With globalisation, FGM has spread from Africa and the Middle East, and is now performed covertly in the UK, US and Australia.
But why is it practised?
FGM is ultimately a manifestation of the deep-rooted inequality between sexes in society. In the areas where FGM originates, many women are dominated by men throughout their lives. Firstly by their fathers, then their brothers, their husbands and finally their sons.
Although it is performed by women, FGM is motivated by male fear of female sexuality. It is a tool used to control female sexuality in a patriarchal society. It labels women who are not circumcised as ‘dangerous’.
Moreover, FGM is motivated by a cultural belief that the removal of ‘unclean’ body parts will make girls more ‘beautiful’ and ‘pure’.
FGM is a rite of passage for many societies, with mothers encouraging the act out of ‘love’, as they are convinced that it will raise their daughter’s status in society and make her more attractive for marriage. As FGM victims are robbed of their sexual pleasure, it is believed that their marriage would be ‘stronger’ and based on ‘love’ rather than ‘lust’.
It is also maintained that any resulting children will be better cared for as these women are unlikely to have affairs. In a twisted logic, FGM is thought to empower women, giving girls positive traits of ‘femininity’ and ‘modesty’.
This, however, could not be further from the truth.
Khadija Gbla, a survivor of FGM and prominent advocate for its cessation in all countries, describes the traumatic experience in powerful yet heart-breaking terms. “I feel like I am not a woman because of what was done to me. I feel incomplete.”
This disconnect between a woman and her sexuality can lead to psychological disorders, such as depression, anxiety and PTSD. In addition to emotional suffering, many physical complications arise from the procedure. FGM is typically performed in an unsterile environment without anaesthesia and using instruments such as pieces of glass, razor blades or kitchen knives. This leaves victims of FGM at great risk of contracting tetanus, septicaemia, HIV, and raises a significant risk of significant blood loss.
In addition to painful menstruation, chronic urinary problems and vaginal infections, victims experience severe pain during intercourse resulting from extensive nerve damage. To allow for intercourse and childbirth, surgery is also required to resolve the scar tissue. In some cases, recurrent pelvic infections can lead to infertility.
However, the impact of FGM does not end with the woman who has survived the practice. Having significant generational consequences, the brutality of FGM is two-fold.
Studies show that FGM can have serious ramifications on the health of both mother and child during pregnancy. It not only increases the risk of haemorrhage during childbirth, but due to the obstruction that results from FGM, babies are at risk of hypoxia-induced brain damage. Adding to this trauma, studies have also noted that there is a greater need to resuscitate babies belonging to mothers who have undergone FGM.
Australia, which prides itself on the mantra of ‘no violence against women’, has done little to acknowledge or record data on FGM. A study conducted by Professor Elizabeth Elliot revealed that girls as young as five months old were subjected to the procedure. Her study underlined the hidden prevalence of FGM, as out of the 59 cases that she reviewed, only 13 were reported to child services.
Although it is a criminal offence in Australia to perform FGM on a child or remove a child from Australia for the purposes of FGM, penalties vary in each state. The consequences range from 7-year imprisonment to 21 years.
In Victoria, the legislation states that ‘consent’ by a parent or child is ‘not a defence’. The Attorney General’s 2013 Review report of FGM notes the discrepancy between the number of women who have sought care for FGM and its prosecution in Australia. Despite the extensive criminalisation of the act, there is a lack of prosecution. The report recommends that there needs to be an increase of information shared between the health and legal systems.
According to QC Felicity Gerry, ‘Up until now people have not looked at FGM as child abuse, they’ve looked at it as some sort of traditional/cultural practice that we don’t have to think about, but it’s child abuse just the same as any other form of child abuse. If you were cutting up any other bit of a child, bits that could be seen, you’d soon report it.’
The stigma that is imposed on FGM victims places them in the most vulnerable corners of society. It further degrades their self-worth and voice, perpetuating the very purpose of FGM. Although some progress has been made, there is a clear need to end the silence that obscures FGM from the public view.
FGM violates the rights of children, the right to health, security and the right to be ‘free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment’. It is simply a violent act against women, robbing them of their right to sexual pleasure, their identity and their bodies. It’s time we started recognising it as such.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Doctus Project.