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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Female Genital Mutilation: A vice or Virtue to Ladies?

August 18, 2009
By Clive Siachiyako

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a cultural practice that started in Africa about 2000 years ago. It is primarily a cultural practice, not a religious custom. But some religions include it as part of their practice. FGM is so deep-rooted into these cultural practices that it defines members of such cultures. And people in such cultures believe that a girl would never become a woman without undergoing such a procedure.

Female genital mutilation is also known as female circumcision (FC) or female genital cutting (FGC). But whatever name it may be called, the World Health Organisation (WHO) defines it as all procedures of partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. The practice is mostly carried out by traditional circumcisers, who often play other central roles in communities, such as attending childbirths. Increasingly however, the practice is being performed by medically trained personnel.

Female genital mutilation has been practiced for centuries. Egyptian mummies, for instance were found to have been circumcised as far back as 200 BC (before Christ). In the 19th Century, FGM was practiced in Europe and North America as a remedy for ailments like epilepsy, hysteria, and masturbation. The practice is most prevalent in African countries such as Nigeria, Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, Egypt, Ghana and some area of the Middle East. It is however not restricted to any ethnic, religious or socioeconomic class of society. On the religiosity side, followers of different religions that practice female genital mutilation include Muslims, Christians (Catholics, Protestants and Copts) and Animists.

Although FGM is mostly associated with Africans, it is also practiced in some Middle East countries. For example, it is practiced in Egypt, Yemen, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Israel. It is also carried out by Muslim groups in Indonesia where the most common form is a symbolic pricking, scraping or touching of the clitoris. In Malaysia, FGM is performed by a very small number of Malay Muslims in rural areas where it resembles a symbolic prick, a tiny ritual cut to the clitoris or where the blade is simply brought close to the clitoris. To a very small extent, Bohra Muslims in Pakistan also practice female genital mutilation.

The World Health Organisation states that FGM is classified into four major types. The first type is known as clitoridectomy, which is the partial or total removal of the clitoris (a small, sensitive and erectile part of the female genitals) and rarely, the removal of prepuce (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoris) as well. The second type is called excision. This involves partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora (the labia are "the lips" that surround the vagina).Infibulation is the third type of FGM. This involves the narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the inner and sometimes outer labia, with or without removal of the clitoris. The fourth and last type is unclassified. This type includes procedures like pricking, piercing or incision of the clitoris and/or labia. It also involves stretching the clitoris and/or labia and cauterization by burning of the clitoris and surrounding tissues. In some cases, it involves scraping of the vaginal ‘lips.’ In addition, it involves the introduction of corrosive substances into the vagina to cause bleeding, or introduction of herbs into the vagina to tighten or narrow the vagina.

The practice is generally performed on girls between the ages of four and twelve, although in some cultures it is practiced a few days after the baby is born or prior to marriage, during pregnancy or after the first birth. There is a progressive decrease in the age at which girls are undergoing the practice. However, depending on who is practicing it, FGM is not limited to a specific age group. For example, clitoridectomy (first type of FGM) was promoted among teen girls in the United States and Britain during the 19th and early 20th centuries as a cure for lesbian practices or suspected masturbation, hysteria, epilepsy, and nervousness. It is estimated that more than one hundred and thirty million females have been exposed to FGM worldwide and about two million girls are circumcised every year. Accurate figures on the number of women and girls who have undergone this procedure are however not available, largely because the cultural role of women inhibits public discussion or opposition to the practice. The practice and its records have remained in the secretive archives of women, (mostly old women who claim that it is a taboo to talk about the practice in public or make publications about it).

There are many reasons for the perpetuation of this practice; the most common ones being cultural and religious beliefs. Although it is often associated with Islam, it is also practiced by other religious groups, including Christians. Even if there is no mention of FGM in the Koran, an overwhelming factor for its justification is the cultural influence and traditions, social acceptance within the community, and ensuring chastity and fidelity by attenuating sexual desire. A study in Nigeria by the World Health Organisation on the Igbos tribe found that women believe that FGM makes them more feminine and thus more attractive to men. The organisation’s (WHO) social study in other African communities established that the practice is believed to raise the social status of families and generates income when the daughters get married and the dowry is paid.

Societies that practice FGM attach a number of economic factors to the practice. One of these factors is the ritual that surrounds the practice. Often this ritual involves gifts given to the girls in a ceremony and honours their families receive. More importantly, is the fact that it is much easier for the parents of a circumcised daughter to find a mate for their child, than it is for the parents of an uncircumcised daughter. Being able to "marry off" daughters is an important economic consideration in some of the poorer countries that practice FGM.

There are other complex perceived benefits of FGM. In some cultures, the practice is believed to enhance love as girls are taught how to satisfy a man sexually (improves a woman’s sexuality) and other matrimonial rituals that ‘cement’ a marriage. It is also a way a woman can achieve recognition and economic security through marriage and childbearing, and FGM is often a prerequisite for qualifying for wifehood. The practice therefore accords a woman economic and social protection. Female genital mutilation is also believed to improve on a woman’s sexuality as it brings about “dry sex,” which provides more pleasurable sex to men. This dryness is achieved by using certain herbs and ingredients that reduce vaginal fluids and increase friction during intercourse, which is attained by using the fourth type (unclassified) of FGM. Men are understood to love dry sex and if a woman is wet, they think it is not normal.

The other rationale for FGM is based on purifying, aesthetic and hygienic benefits. It is argued that the clitoris is an unhealthy, unattractive and/or lethal organ that has to be chipped off. This argument gained popularity with the coming of the concept of cunnilingus (kissing the vagina) in the equation of sex. Proponents of FGM claim that men prefer to practice cunnilingus on circumcised women than the uncircumcised because the vagina of the former is considered more hygienic. Some communities also believe that removing the external genitalia is necessary to make a girl spiritually clean and is therefore required by religion. Contrary to the highly glorified advantages of FGM, the practice can have devastating and harmful consequences throughout a woman’s life. The health problems a woman can experience mainly depends on the severity of the procedure, the sanitary conditions in which it was performed, the competence of the person who performed it and the strength of the girl’s resistance. Old women and barbers who perform FGM are medically unqualified and can do extreme damage to a woman or a girl, sometimes resulting in death. In cases where the procedure is carried out in unsanitary conditions, dangers of infection are great.

The practice may cause numerous physical complications, including hemorrhage and severe pain, which can cause shock, even death. A woman may go into immediate shock after FGM as a result of the sudden loss of blood (haemorrhagic shock) and experience severe pain and trauma (neurogenic shock), which can be fatal. This is mainly caused by the way the procedure is carried out such as the use of knives, scissors, razors, or pieces of glass. Sharp stones and finger nails are also sometimes used to pluck out the clitoris of babies in some parts of the world like Sudan and the Gambia. These instruments may be re-used without being cleaned, putting women at higher risk of HIV infection. Other than HIV infection, other infections are very common during and after FGM because of unhygienic conditions, use of unsterilized instruments and the application of substances such as herbs or ashes to the wound. These conditions provide an excellent growth medium for bacteria. Fungal bacteria accumulate around the wound, resulting into urinary tract infection, pelvic infection or tetanus. Sometimes holes (fistulae) between the bladder and the vagina or between the rectum and vagina can develop as a result of injury to the soft tissues during mutilation, opening up infibulation or re-suturing an infibulation, sexual intercourse or obstructed labour.

In addition to the above short term FGM consequences, long-term complications resulting from scarring and interference with the drainage of urine and menstrual blood, such as chronic pelvic infections, may cause pelvic and back pain, infertility, chronic urinary tract infections or kidney damage. Kidney damage is caused by recurrent urinary tract infection, which causes bladder and ureters infections. Such infections can spread to the pelvic girdle, causing chronic uterus, fallopian tube and ovary infections. The uterus, fallopian tube and ovary infections may cause irreparable damage of reproductive organs, leading to sterility. FGM also increases problems associated with childbirth. Severe forms of mutilation cause partial or total occlusion of the vaginal opening, which makes it difficult to monitor the stage of labour and foetal position and appearance. As a result, labour may be prolonged or obstructed. Prolonged or obstructed labour can lead to tearing of the walls of the womb and uterine inertia which can cause lead to stillbirth and maternal death.Considering the horrific nature of FGM and the trail of anguish it leaves in the lives of victims, the practice should not be encouraged in the Zambia. The country is currently wrestling with many health challenges that are overpowering the efficiency and effectiveness of the health system. And adding some more grievous effects to the already existing health hurdles in the name of sexual appeasement to men and cultural loyalty would worsen the already inferior health services in the country.

The already strained health personnel would have to attend to numerous complications that result from FGM operations, a thing that may worsen health service delivery in the country.
In a country where most households are struggling to access a simplest meal, death from FGM complications may be graver than can be envisioned. Worse still, women are the most poor in Zambia, least educated and most unemployed, hence most unlikely to seek medical attention when FGM complications arise. This can increase the number of orphans in the country. Furthermore, women are already the most affected by the challenges facing the health system such as maternal death and the HIV and AIDS infection in Zambia, hence encouraging FGM practices like infibulation would add more misery to their well-being. Zambia has currently recorded reductions in the HIV and AIDS infection rate, but encouraging FGM may reverse and worsen the status quo. What Zambia needs are approaches that can better women’s welfare, not worsening it. The country has a mammoth task of finding means of empowering women in all areas of human endeavour other than plunging them into retrogressive cultural and religious chaos.

There are so many ways of appeasing and satisfying a man during sex, without undergoing genital mutilation. The illusions that a man can appreciate sex more when the genitalia are mutilated are not justifiable as God who created a woman knows what can satisfy man sexually. The false impression about the genitalia in relation to sex should not be given room to ruin women’s lives in Zambia. Women should be happy with the genitalia they are born with and never yield to misleading beliefs.