Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) or female circumcision as it is sometimes known is an umbrella term for a variety of procedures, including the removal of the clitoris and labia, and the narrowing of the vaginal opening. The practice is most commonly carried out in western, eastern and north-eastern Africa, but there are also cases in the Middle-East, South East Asia and increasingly among migrants from these areas in Europe. Why is this important? Well the procedure has no health benefit – that’s not just my opinion, that’s what the World Health Organisation says. Not only this but the list of negative repercussions is pretty long. It can lead to recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections, cysts, an increased risk of childbirth complications and even infertility. It is estimated 140 million girls and women are living with the consequences of FGM worldwide. What makes this even worse is the fact the procedure is normally carried out on children (normally in infancy but sometimes up to the age of 15), this is basically child abuse, and has been called such by the Royal Colleges of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists, Nurses and Midwives in their collective report presented to the House of Commons last year. You might be wondering why, in face of such obvious downsides, anyone would be doing this procedure. Firstly its important to note that there is no religious aspect to this, its purely cultural. The logic is basically to dis-incentivise females from having sex (by making it less pleasurable, or outright painful). This is primarily to encourage ‘proper sexual behaviour’ (premarital virginity and marital fidelity), but there is also the view that ‘unclean’ or ‘masculine’ body parts should be removed to ensure ‘clean’ women.
So why should you care? Well the World Health Organisation and UNICEF have been actively trying to tackle this since 1997, and yet the practice shows little sign of being wiped out. In the UK the practice is unsurprisingly illegal, and yet reports estimate more than 66,000 victims in this country, and there has never been a single conviction for carrying out the offence. After pressure from campaigners a government enquiry has recently been launched to investigate why our system has not been successful in stopping this. This is really the key point. FGM is not nice, its not a nice thing to talk about, those who have actually suffered it often keep quiet about it for this very reason, and yet talk about it we must. There needs to be more awareness, more campaigning, more people caring about the fact this is happening. Currently people shy away from the topic, due to its unpleasant nature. British culture has long struggled with a taboo around sex, which has seen negative repercussions in connected areas. It took the high profile news story of Jimmy Savile, to make thousands of people feel comfortable and confident enough to tell the police that they too had been abused as children. A news story of a similar magnitude is of course unlikely to happen about FGM (and we shouldn’t wish that one did), so instead we must do our own small part. Most people don’t know what FGM is, those that do think its something that happens far away and they can do nothing about it, both of these views are wrong. Awareness is the key to stamping it out in the UK, and pressure needs to be put onto organisations to try harder on the international stage as well. So sign a petition, start up a conversation about it, write to your MP. We must each play our part.
If you would like to get more involved there are a variety of charities that work overseas trying to stop FGM and helping those that suffer it. One of these charities, the Orchid Project, is coming to the University of York as part of the York International Development Conference 2014 taking place on the 1st and 2nd of March in Alcuin. Follow @YorkIntDevConf on twitter to stay informed.