A Cutting Tradition on the Decline
Last week, I read an article in the NY Times about female genital mutilation, also known as F.G.M./C or female circumcision, and its effects on women. What I read struck a chord with me because it brought back memories of that practice within my own culture. Therefore, in recognition of International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation which was Feburary 6, I thought I’d comment on this post.
As the number of African immigrants into the United States has grown, so has the number of women living here who have undergone genital cutting or are at risk of undergoing genital cutting on a “trip” abroad. According to new numbers released by the Population Reference Bureau (PRB), the number of women at risk for female genital mutilation has practically doubled in the last decade. The latest numbers suggest that there are more than a half a million girls and women in the United States that are either at risk of undergoing the procedure or have already undergone the procedure in the U.S. or during trips abroad. The PRB estimates that number includes 166, 173 girls under the age of 18. Astounding right?
This practice happens in several African countries (is most common in 27 countries in Africa and mainly Northeast Africa) and the Middle East and involves the removal of a part of the external female genitalia by a circumciser with a sharp razor blade. The girl’s family may request that a new blade be used in order to reduce the amount of pain the girl experiences because a brand new blade is of course sharper than an old existing blade which may have already been used on quite a few others. Let’s ignore hygiene for now, shall we? Did I mention that the circumcision is typically done without anesthesia? How it works is the young lady lies on her back, her legs are spread apart, she’s held firmly in place by older females and then the cutting begins. Sometimes, the girl may be pinned down so firmly that her bones fracture. After the cut’s been made, the girl’s legs are tied together to help the tissue bond, usually from ankle to hip, for anything up to six weeks; the bindings are usually loosened after a week and may be removed after two.
This practice, rooted in ideas about purity and modesty, is considered a thing of honor and pride and is touted as a way to prevent female promiscuity which, in other words, attempts to control a woman’s sexuality. It is usually initiated and carried out by women, who fear that failing to have their daughters and granddaughters cut will expose the girls to social exclusion and ridicule. So imagine your mum and any other older female relative advocating and/or assisting with this practice.
This practice was a part of the culture within the city in which i was raised, Calabar, Nigeria (Abuja is the capital, see picture below) and inevitably, I heard tales of girls who had undergone the procedure. The stories I heard weren’t pretty, thoroughly scared me and made me especially grateful for my mother.
FGM has been outlawed or restricted in most of the countries in which it occurs, but the laws are poorly enforced. Given international outcry as well as the involvement of human rights organizations such as UNICEF (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund), the decline of this practice is on the rise for instance in Kenya, nearly half of the girls age 15 to 19 were circumcised in 1980; in 2010 the rate was just under 20 percent.
This is certainly good news as it can only mean that we are letting go of old, ineffective traditions (albeit sloooowly) and embracing a new era of enlightenment, development and progress. This move towards new ways of thinking and interacting with the world is crucial as Africa struggles to find its place in the 21st century. It definitely helps that more people are becoming involved in the fight to end FGM and that more women are speaking up and making a stand.
Therefore, I make mine today.
For all those speaking up against this practice, I stand tall beside you.
For those of you who’ve experienced this, my heart goes out to you.
And for every female unable to speak up, I’m here and I lend you my voice.