What is FGM and Why is it Still Happening?
FGM. Its full meaning is shortened and sanitised by those few capitalised letters, making it quicker and easier to talk about, particularly in polite conversation. But the reality of female genital mutilation is far more brutal, bloody and excruciatingly personal than those three letters can possibly convey.
21 Sep, 2016
Warning: This story contains graphic descriptions and may distress some readers.
“Every time I talk about female genital mutilation I think of what happened to me. I am five years old again and I am sitting on a rock back at home in Somalia. It is early in the morning. I am afraid. I’m sitting sort of in my mother’s lap—her legs are encircling me—and she puts a bit of broken-off root in my mouth to stop me biting off my tongue with the pain …
“I can see again the harsh, ugly face of the old woman and the fierce looks she gives me with her dead-seeming eyes. I can see the old carpet bag, see her taking out the rusty razor blade in her long fingers, can see the dried blood on the blade. My mother blindfolds me. Then I feel my own flesh being cut, my genitals being sliced away. I have never been able to describe what this felt like. There are no words which can give the measure of the pain … Finally I fall into a faint. When I come round my first thought is that it’s over now, at least. The blindfold has slipped off … The pain is driving me mad. I have only one thought in my mind: I want to die.
“I see my mother’s face as if it were yesterday. She is utterly convinced that she is doing the right thing for me. The only thing that is right.”
–Waris Dirie, a Somali-born supermodel, actress and now human rights campaigner, in Desert Children (2005).
FGM is the practice of removing or permanently injuring the female genital organs for non-medical cultural and social reasons. It is almost always carried out on girls younger than 15. The World Health Organisation (WHO) calls it “an extreme form of discrimination against women”, “a violation of the rights of children”, and a fundamental infringement of “the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”. Strong words.
And yet, more than 125 million girls and women alive today in the 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East have been subjected to FGM, and an estimated three million girls in Africa alone are at risk of FGM every year. More than half a million more from Norway, France, Germany, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Britain, the United States, and even Australia are at risk as well, particularly during summer school holidays—“the cutting season”—when many migrant families take their young daughters back to their native countries to have the procedure performed.
The consequences of FGM are devastating, psychologically and physically. The immediate dangers are shock from the excruciating pain, haemorrhage, bacterial infection, urine retention and open sores. But the trauma doesn’t end there. FGM survivors face recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections, cysts, infertility, an increased risk of complications in childbirth and a higher rate of newborn deaths. And so FGM claims the lives of thousands of children, those forced to undergo FGM as well as those born to FGM survivors, every year.
How could they?
Confronted with the horrific reality of FGM, those of us from a different culture cannot fathom how a mother could not only allow her daughter to be subjected to this barbaric practice—which at best will leave her maimed for life, and at worst end it—but could actively pursue and participate in it. And yet, story after story of FGM survivors tells of mothers holding their daughters down to be cut by knives, scissors, razor blades or pieces of broken glass, usually without anaesthetic and under “catastrophic” hygienic circumstances.
These mothers are bowing under the great weight of generations of cultural, religious and social pressures spawned from deep-rooted gender inequality. This extreme and intimate violation of a girl’s most fundamental human rights is justified as a rite of passage ensuring modesty and fidelity—and consequently, the girl’s marriageability. And so, for the millions of mothers who have been subjected to FGM themselves and have no experience of a society in which women are seen as valuable individuals independent of their value as a wife, FGM is an act of love.
Redefining FGM in the minds of mothers and their societies is a complex and heart-wrenching task. The roots of FGM run deep into the core mores and beliefs of communities, and standing up against social expectations and entrenched views on the position of women comes at a cost just as personal and almost as dangerous as the practice itself. Purity’s story is a vivid example.
The cost of courage
Purity is the mother of six girls. While such a sequence might be cause for a joke about boy-deterring dads in Australia, in Purity’s Maasai community in Kenya, it was no laughing matter. Sons are tasked with carrying forward the family’s future, while daughters are married off to other clans and are commonly considered poor investments. When her youngest daughter was just three months old and her eldest had turned 17, Purity and her girls were thrown out of the family home.
They took refuge in the home of Purity’s elderly father. But her stepbrothers saw their arrival as a poor turn for the family’s fortunes. Purity’s 14-year-old daughter Violet was taken into the Compassion sponsorship program, but despite the assistance the family received, tensions continued to grow. When Purity refused to have her daughters undergo FGM, it was the final straw.
“My stepbrothers could not stand the fact that my girls had not faced the knife like is the custom here. They wanted to circumcise my girls and marry them off, but I stood my ground and vowed to protect them,” says Purity.
Days later, a group of 20 armed men broke into the house in the early hours of the morning. Battering down the doors in their path, they went straight to Purity’s room and beat her violently, tearing off her clothes and whipping her exposed skin.
“What pains me the most is the fact that my baby, Violet, witnessed it,” says Purity.
Purity’s punishment for defying her family wasn’t over yet. Just as her wounds began to heal, she heard the girl next door was raped. Purity found out that her family was supposed to be the target, but the attackers had gone to the wrong homestead. Terrified, she turned for help to the only safe haven she had left—Compassion.
With the help of the centre staff, Violet and her sisters are now safe in a children’s rescue centre while Compassion rents a room for Purity nearby. Violet and Purity have received counselling through the Compassion centre, and both of them have their sights set firmly on the future. Purity’s prayer is that Violet will achieve her dreams—and Violet is clear on what her dream is:
“I want to be a lawyer. I desire to fight for the rights of children because I do not want any child to go through the violence we experienced at home.”
Violet does not stand alone. International momentum to fight FGM has been building since 1997, when the WHO, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) issued the first official statement against FGM. In December 2012, more than a decade of global efforts to tackle FGM with a combination of legal, political, health and community approaches culminated in the UN General Assembly adopting a resolution on the elimination of female genital mutilation.
But the fight to end FGM is fought not only in top-level assembly meetings but in the everyday lives being lived in hot and dusty villages thousands of miles away from any seats of power. It’s a fight not only against the practice of FGM itself, but also against the regressive mindset that sees women as possessions and girls as liabilities.
It’s a fight being fought by people like Isaac Teeka, a history teacher at Waso Najile Girls School outside Nairobi, Kenya, who is battling to change the perception of women held by their community and by the girls who will become tomorrow’s women: “Illiteracy and lack of exposure has dragged us behind. We have many bright girls who can compete with anyone. This opportunity to be in school offers them that chance,” says Isaac.
It’s a fight being fought by 16-year-old Pauline Shonku, a Compassion sponsored child who is a student at the school and a member of the Maasai community: “Other girls [not in school] look much older than me. They are married and have children at a young age and they face many hardships at home. I want to shape my future so that I can be of help to myself and others. I want to be a doctor,” she says.
It’s a fight being fought by 21-year-old Joyce Koilel, who is also sponsored through Compassion and has been working at the school for the last three months: “I want to have fewer children so that I can educate all of them with ease. My mother sold the last of her cows to educate me.”
And it’s a fight being fought by 20-year-old Joseph Kirantu and 29 other one-time Compassion sponsored children who make up the Neema Youth Government. These 30 Compassion alumni formed the group because they wanted to spread the ‘neema’ (translated as ‘grace’) of God to their Najile Maasai community. Their main goal is to empower the Maasai girl-child. The group has been instrumental in fighting two cases of early marriages of young girls to much older men and has taken a vocal stance against female genital mutilation.
“We have received so much grace from God through Compassion, we are doing what we can to sustain what we have learned and received and at the same time spread it to our community,” says Joseph.
Words by Silas Irungu and Elissa Webster; photos by Silas Irungu and Ben Adams
- Pray for strength and healing for girls and women who have suffered the physical and psychological trauma that genital cutting brings.
- Pray for the eyes of the world to be open to this cruel practice; pray for greater intervention on behalf of women.
- Pray for people like Purity, Violet, Pauline, Isaac and Joseph, who are standing up and speaking out for women’s rights.