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Today, there are 29 countries where female genital mutilation (FGM) is being practiced. Most of these countries are concentrated in Africa, the Middle East, and some parts of Asia. FGM is the removal of the female genitalia, in part or in whole, by cutting for non-medical reasons. In order to address this issue, London held a worldwide summit on July 22 to make advancements toward ending FGM, as well as forced marriage. Ending FGM remains a contested issue in regions like Africa, for it has been incorporated as a cultural tradition for many years. A pressing concern arises: is it worse to face the pain and health risks of female genital mutilation or is it worse to undergo the social stigmata that comes with not being circumcised?
The World Health Organization (WHO) states that an estimated 125 million women and young girls have been affected by FGM worldwide. There are around 3 million girls at risk of FGM every year. Furthermore, this process is often performed when girls are young, usually 15 years or younger. In addition, WHO states that FGM has no health benefits. Instead it brings medical problems such as immense bleeding, problems with the urinary tract, infections, infertility, child-bearing difficulties, and even death. Despite the physical harm it creates for girls, many countries continue this practice due to cultural traditions.
Female genital mutilation is done in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, because it is viewed as a rite of passage to prepare a girl for marriage. Many in these countries believe that it is the proper way to raise a girl. Furthermore, FGM is practiced as a means to proactively prevent promiscuous sexual behavior. When the genitalia is sewn shut or narrowed, it makes it harder for girls to engage in lewd behavior due to the pain of it being opened. The fear of being “found out” is overwhelimg if the girl does participate in sexual intercourse and her genitalia is found to be open. In addition, FGM is seen to make the girl “clean” or “beautiful,” according to research conducted by WHO.
In Somalia, female genital mutilation is performed mainly for the assurance that the girl is a virgin. If she did not go through FGM, she will then face the social stigma of being unclean. These girls’ genitalia are stitched and closed until the day of marriage to prevent intercourse outside of marriage. If the girl is not a virgin, most men will not consider marriage.
Having the social stigma of sexual lewdness that comes with not undergoing FGM can be crippling. A blogger from the University of Oxford, who spoke to Ethiopian girls, says that these girls face a lot of pressure for not being circumcised, at times getting bullied. So great was the fear of rejection that the blogger reported some young girls were organizing their own circumcision ceremonies even though their parents did not force them to do so. For them, the potential health risks and the pain involving female genital mutilation are not worse than the social stigma they will carry for the rest of their lives for being “unclean” or “uncut.”
According to WHO, FGM is an internationally recognized violation of human rights, for it discriminates against women and points to the deep inequality that exists between the two sexes. Furthermore, it violates the person’s right to physical integration, health, and safety, since they are put through torture and cruel treatment. Although many girls are being educated on the dangers of female genital mutilation through international organizations like the United Nations, eliminating it still remains a challenge, because some believe the social stigma of sexual promiscuity is worse than the potential health risks and pain.
By Joyce Chu