How Female Genital Mutilation is Robbing African Women of their Fundamental Human Rights

How Female Genital Mutilation is Robbing African Women of their Fundamental Human Rights

Note: this article was originally published in April, 2023

A video of Somali woman Shamsa Araweelo sharing her horrific Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) story went viral on social media earlier this week.

She started, “I was born in 1993 in Somalia. At the age of 6 years old, along with my 5 year-old cousin and my 7 year-old sister, we were told we were gonna have a procedure called Gudetan. We didn’t know what it was but we were told that it was something to look forward to… You were gonna become a woman, more respected, cleaner.”

Araweelo then went on to narrate the social exclusion and name-calling girls and women who did not have the procedure experienced, because “the clitoris was just considered dirty”.

Because they did not want to face such ostracism, Araweelo and her sister and cousin were actually excited to undergo the procedure.

They were taken to their grandma’s house, where a “strange looking woman” restrained Araweelo’s cousin, who went first, and used a double-edged razor blade to cut her clitoris, labia minora and labia majora.

After cutting up parts of the girl’s privates, the woman sewed her up.

A horrified Araweelo tried to run away but was quickly held back and forced to undergo the mutilation, all of which was done without any form of anaesthesia or pain relief.

“The feeling of being so alive, so awake, is something I’ll never be able to describe. As a 6 year-old child with no anaesthetics or painkillers, I can’t even begin to explain, but that is female genital mutilation”

In the video, Araweelo used a rose and razor blade to illustrate how the procedure went.

What is FGM?

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), FGM “comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons”.

FGM has no health benefits; on the contrary, it is a common cause of urinary problems, cysts, infections and childbirth complications for women who have undergone the procedures.

Internationally, FGM is considered a violation of human rights of girls and women.

“The practice also violates a person’s rights to health, security and physical integrity; the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; and the right to life, in instances when the procedure results in death,” WHO states.

WHO has classified FGM into 4 major types, namely:

·         Type 1 (clitoridectomy): the partial or total removal of the clitoral glans and/or the clitoral hood.

·         Type 2 (excision): the partial or total removal of the clitoral glans and labia minora, with or without removal of the labia majora.

·         Type 3 (infibulation): the narrowing of the vaginal opening by cutting and repositioning the labia minora or labia majora, with or without removal of the clitoral hood and glans.

·         Type 4: all other needless, harmful procedures to female genitalia such as pricking, piercing, cauterising the genital area and so on.

The “Gudetan” procedure —the most common form in Somalia—described by Araweelo is most similar to the Type 3 FGM, which is said to be the most brutal form.

All the types of FGM involve removing and damaging healthy female genital tissue and consequently, interfering with the natural rhythms of girls’ and women’s bodies.

Moreso, the clitoris, which usually suffers damage in the procedures, is primarily responsible for stimulating sexual pleasure in women.

The physical complications of FGM range from short term to long-lasting and it even tends to take a toll on the mental health of some victims.

Over the years, health professionals have seen the clear link between the prevalence of FGM practices and high maternal mortality ratios.

The unclean practices, such as the one Araweelo practiced, where the same razor blade is used to cut several girls at a stretch have also posed a significant factor in the spread of HIV in such regions.

Why is FGM so Widely Practised in Africa?

In another TikTok video, Araweelo gave statistics on African countries where FGM was still a prevalent practice, most of which were in East and West Africa, however Central African Republic (CAR) and North Africa’s Egypt were also mentioned.

At 98%, Somalia, an East African country, has the highest FGM rate in the world.

As of January this year, WHO data revealed that over 200 million girls and women alive in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, are victims of the inhumane practice. Additionally, 3 million girls are estimated to be at risk of FGM every year.

In many conservative African societies, the primary reason for the prevalence of FGM is the desire to control women’s sexualities.

Type 3 FGM blocks the pathway for sexual intercourse or childbirth to occur. Thus, with such a procedure, it is physically impossible to have penetrative sex and a way of enforcing virginity or fidelity.

In some communities, the stitch in the woman’s genitalia is removed shortly before or after marriage to allow for consummation—another jarringly painful procedure.

Additionally, when it is time for childbirth, the women are cut open again to allow for passage of the baby.

FGM practices may be backed by certain religious sentiments, the desire to improve the aesthetic appeal of female genitalia to men and/or social pressure to conform to traditional conventions.

The United Nations and several smaller NGOs have made strides towards eliminating FGM in vulnerable communities, however the pandemic was said to be a major setback to progress that had been made.

In 2022, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimated that as a result of COVID-19, 2 million cases of FGM—which could otherwise have been prevented—could occur over the next decade.

Nonetheless, with increased awareness against FGM and pushes for government/legal intervention, the progress that has been made is far from insignificant.

According to the World Bank’s 2022 edition of the “Compendium of International and National Legal Frameworks on Female Genital Mutilation”, there are constitutional provisions and laws against FGM or similar practices in several African countries, including Sudan, Tanzania, South Africa and Nigeria.

In June 2021, a bill forbidding FGM practices was passed in Puntland, a semi-autonomous state in Somalia.

However, while establishing laws is a step in the right direction, it is simply not enough. The laws also have to be enforced in order to put an end to such barbaric practices.

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