By Lyndsey T:
“No ethical defense can be made for preserving a cultural practice that damages women’s health and interferes with their sexuality.” –Nahld Toubia (qtd. in Althaus 133).
Ten-year old Hannah Koroma was led down to a river in a rural area of Sierra Leone to take part in what her grandmother described as a festive ceremony. Once she got to the river, two strong women dragged her into a nearby cave, stripped, bound, and shaved her. The drunken women sang as they diligently cut Hannah’s genitals with a dull knife, gagging her with cloth to prevent screaming. Warm cow dung was spread over the raw incisions and her legs were bound (Koroma 6). In the years that followed she suffered from chronic urinary tract infections, kidney complications, and hemorrhaging. Beforehand, Hannah knew little of the horrors that she would endure, yet she admits to having wanted to be circumcised because such women were more feminine, clean, and marriageable; a woman’s acceptance into her tribe depended on it (Koroma 7). Although female genital mutilation (FGM) has been an ingrained cultural practice for over 2000 years, the associated damages to the health and sexuality of women and their children make FGM an overt violation of human rights, which should no longer persist in any culture.
The physical and psychological effects of FGM are extremely grave and can result in death. FGM is the term used to describe the total (infibulation) or partial removal of the clitoris and labia minora (clitoridectomy or the lesser form, Sunni). This practice has been documented in all parts of the world, but is mostly prevalent in the Middle East and Africa. During the operation, typically performed on girls between the ages of 4-9, the genitals are cut with blunt instruments including scissors, broken glass, and tin lids by the village midwife or in rare cases a trained physician (Slack 442). Patients are almost never given a local anesthetic. During mutilation, excessive shock, hemorrhaging, the development of HIV, and damage to surrounding organs can occur due to the immense pain and the lack of sterilization. If the girl survives into adulthood, she is continually faced with risks: the long-term effects of bladder inflections, depression, sexual dysfunction, and sterility.
FGM compromises the sexuality and reproductive ability of a woman. Once a female is finished “healing” from her operation, some or most of the labia majora have been sewn together to conceal the incisions and only a pea-sized hole is left for the passage of menstrual blood and urine. For this reason first time intercourse can be an excruciating ordeal; husbands sometimes have to make incisions in order for intercourse and childbirth to be possible. Following either event the female often has to be restitched (Amnesty International 4). Continuous unskilled cutting and the lack of a clitoris serve to lower sexual desire. If sexual intercourse does occur, the infections resulting from female circumcision complicate initial fertilization, pregnancy, and birth. The fetus is often subjected “to a range of infectious diseases as well as facing the risk of having his or her head crushed in the damaged birth canal” (Althaus 132). The false but widespread belief that female circumcision actually results in increased fertility is just one of the many examples of misleading evidence that help perpetuate this gruesome process.
Proponents of FGM often cite culture and tradition in defense of the practice. While there are no apparent religious origins, FGM is believed to make a girl more docile and submissive, traits which most religions regard highly and associate with a marriageable female. “Circumcision makes women clean, promotes virginity and chastity, and guards young girls from sexual frustration by deadening their sexual appetite” (Amnesty International 5). In FGM societies there is a perception that the clitoris is repulsive and manly. A woman is to have it removed in order to obtain ultimate feminine beauty. Removal of the clitoris is also claimed to make the woman more clean and able to touch food, her husband, and give birth to a baby without pricking its fragile head. Along with clitoridectomy, infibulation, the circumcision of all external genitalia, is crucial in some cultures to ensure first and foremost that a woman is faithful prior to and during a marriage (Slack 445). These claims lack any supporting evidence. As is well known, the clitoris is a natural, harmless part of a female; contrary to widely circulated opinion, its pleasure increases sex drive, which therefore increases procreation. There is absolutely no evidence of the clitoris being the culprit of food contamination, manslaughter, or any of the other unsubstantiated claims. Furthermore, sewing the vagina closed does not guarantee marital fidelity, as a woman can be opened and closed again.
Yet, due to these cultural traditions, many women actually voluntarily choose to undergo the procedure. Subliminally, these practices are not voluntary, but rather mandatory actions which define the group and represent the gateway for a girl to gain full acceptance in her society. Many claim that Western views of FGM, including those stated by Amnesty International, the United Nations, and the World Health Organization, are ethnocentric and could destroy entire tribes. Despite that claim, I side with Nahld Toubi, a Sudanese physician, who believes that if women are to be equal and productive members in society, “no aspects of their physical, psychological, or sexual integrity can be compromised” (Althaus 133). To help save the two million girls at risk of circumcision every year, more than the lack of policy and enforcement need to be addressed; attitudes regarding economic and social injustice towards women needs to be challenged. There is something very wrong with allowing a society to take a girl, like young Hannah, and brutally cut her genitals. An eight year old does not have the capacity to understand that such a procedure, although a gateway to social acceptance, could in fact end her life.