Lately, the term “female genital mutilation”, or FGM, has been popping up in the media quite a bit. You may have seen it referenced in conjunction with the new series Handmaid’s Tale or in recent news about two Detroit doctors and wondered, “Is FGM as horrible as it sounds? And does it really even happen anymore?”
In short – yes, and yes. FGM is a horrific practice and, while it dates back over 2,000 years, millions of girls and women are still subjected to it every year.
FGM is when a girl, most often between the ages of 0 and 15 years old, undergoes a procedure in which her clitoris and sometimes labia are either partially or totally removed. In some cases, the vaginal opening is also surgically narrowed. Today, there are more than 200 million girls and women living world-wide who have undergone FGM, with over 3 million girls at risk of this procedure annually.
The reasons behind this gruesome operation differ depending on the community performing it. Some believe that it will diminish sexual urges and ensure premarital virginity and marital fidelity, while others use it as an initiation into womanhood or a prerequisite for marriage or inheritance. Additionally, while FGM is not condoned by any religion, supposed doctrine is often used to justify its practice.
Whatever the reason may be, doctors have found absolutely no health benefits to such a procedure, only immense harm. Immediate complications include severe pain, excessive bleeding, infection, and even death. While long-term consequences include problems with urination, menstruation, and sex, as well as an increased risk of HIV transmission and psychological problems like PTSD and depression.
Additionally, women subjected to FGM are at risk for complications during childbirth. A study found that they have a significantly greater risk of requiring a Cesarean section, having prolonged or obstructed labor, needing an extended hospital stay, and suffering post-partum hemorrhage.
In 1997, the World Health Organization (WHO) partnered with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA) to counteract FGM practices. Together, they have been working to create international monitoring bodies, revise legal frameworks, and gain political support to end FGM. In 2016, they created the first evidence-based guidelines to manage FGM related health complications.
While their work has done much to curb this harmful practice, girls continue to be subjected to FGM.
Traditionally, the surgery is performed by an elderly female community member, however, more recently, one in five girls undergo FGM by a trained medical professional, a practice commonly referred to as the “medicalization” of FGM.
“When medical personnel perform FGM, they wrongly legitimize the practice as medically sound or beneficial for girls and women’s health. And because medical personnel often hold power, authority and respect in society, it can also further institutionalize the procedure,” states the UNFPA on their website. “Trained health professionals who perform female genital mutilation are violating girls’ and women’s rights to life, physical integrity and health. They are also violating the fundamental medical ethic to ‘do no harm.'”
FGM is most often performed in African countries, though it occurs world-wide, even in the United States where it has been illegal since 1997.
In 2012, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that over 500,000 women and girls in the United States are at risk of FGM. However, since this practice is traditionally kept quiet by the families, it is impossible to determine exactly how many girls have experienced FGM. While there have been several cases in the US where parents were punished for harming their daughters in this way, the recent arrest of the Detroit doctors, charged with performing FGM on two 7-year-old girls, marks the first federal FGM case.
In response, several survivors decided to speak out and share their horror stories with CNN in an attempt to end the practice for good. See the video below.
“This was done in white America by a fundamentalist Christian doctor who practiced his religion with a scalpel,” said Renee Bergstrom, whose mother later regretted her decision. “Even when I was very little, she told me it was a mistake, but I was to never talk about it.”
“If [the clitoris] wasn’t necessary, God wouldn’t have put it there,” said Rahel Musa Aron, another survivor. “If it was not important, it would have not been there. It’s part of our body. It is there for a reason.”
Ashleen Knutsen is a science writer and editor in Los Angeles. After a decade of experience in engineering and research, she decided to pursue a career in science communications to not only spark women and girls’ interest in STEM, but to let them know that they too can change the world.