By: Carrie Eckles
Female genital mutilation (FGM) or female genital cutting (FGC) is the partial or complete removal of the outer female genitalia. There are various forms of female genital mutilation, and they run the gamut from cutting of the clitoris to completely scraping out and gutting the vulva, and, in many cases, sewing it shut.
FGM and FGC are usually carried out between toddlerhood and the age of fifteen. According to the World Health Organization, roughly three million African girls are at risk for undergoing female genital mutilation each year.
Reasons why families practice female genital mutilation
Female genital mutilation is most common in Africa, though it is practiced to a lesser extent in the Middle East and Asia. It is a cultural practice with no basis in Christianity or Islam—the two most common religions of practitioners.
Precise reasons for practicing FGM vary from culture to culture, but there are some across-the-board common threads, the most prominent of which is a notion of purity. Supporters of FGM believe that it makes a young girl pure. This leads to some extreme forms of mutilation where, after the procedure, a girl’s entire genital area is sewn up. When she is sewn, the girl will not be reopened until it is time for her to marry and have children.
Even less invasive forms of mutilation are still aimed at keeping a girl’s “purity” intact. Removal of the clitoris—the most sensitive of all human organs—causes extreme pain not only when the procedure is done, but forever after, anytime the girl engages in sex. Certain societies view this as a way to keep the young woman’s mind clean from impure and lustful thoughts about sex. In this way, sex is so painful, she literally can find no pleasure in it, and will be forced to see it as a duty, which goes along with their feminine cultural ideals.
Many families who practice this custom believe they are doing what’s best for their daughters by ensuring their future marriage prospects.
FGM’s immediate physical consequences
According to the World Health Organization, only harm can come of FGM; there are no health benefits.
Female genital mutilation involves the removal or cutting of the human body’s most sensitive tissue. The clitoris contains an estimated 8,000 nerve endings—twice the amount of its male counterpart, the penis. With more nerve endings there comes a heightened sensation for both pleasure and pain. The pain of clitoral removal or cutting is so great that girls might faint or go into shock. Shock is a life-threatening condition, marked by a decrease in blood pressure. There is a significant mortality rate from shock even with proper medical treatment; most girls who undergo FGM receive no medical treatment.
Hemorrhaging is another immediate concern. If a girl loses enough blood, she can develop hypovolemic shock and die.
Long term consequences of FGM
The effects of female genital modification can be lifelong. Women who undergo this procedure are at higher risk for infertility and complicated pregnancies (including infant mortality). They are usually prone to chronic urinary tract infections (which in itself can have dire consequences).
In cases where women are sewn shut and opened for childbearing, they might be closed again after the birth of the child. This leads to perpetual pain and repeated risk of bacterial infection to the wounds.
The long term consequences of FGM aren’t just physical. Women who have endured the procedure have higher rates of anxiety disorders; many develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Negative body image has also been associated with FGM.
It is nearly impossible to find sexual pleasure after FGM; for these women, it becomes a frightening, painful act to be endured. And the prospect of getting pregnant can be just as frightening.
One of the most striking long term consequences of female genital mutilation is the fact that the practice is self-perpetuating. The same women who were mutilated as girls will likely do it to their own daughters.
If you would like to help spread the word about FGM and bring this practice to an end, please consider adding your name to one of the petitions available online.
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