Today approximately 8,219 girls will face the risk of having their clitoris and labia removed and their vaginas infibulated with the use of primitive tools in unsanitary conditions. A majority of them will undergo this procedure against their will. While I am lucky enough to have avoided undergoing Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), in the fall of 2011, I had the pleasure of getting to know several women who were not as fortunate.
In the Sebei region of Uganda, where the prevalence rate of FGM hovers at a low 5%, teenage girls who undergo this procedure will spend several months living in their “mentor’s” hut with a number of other girls who will be cut on the same day. They have taken this time off of school and are preparing for the monumental event by brewing homemade beer, traveling to invite relatives to observe the ceremony, and preparing for life as a married “woman” (many of the girls are still in their early teens).
At dawn, a crowd of friends and relatives gather as the girls lie in a line in the dirt, and wait to be circumcised. Shoulder to shoulder, one by one, they open their legs, and are cut by the mutilators with either the special sickle shaped knife, a razor blade or sometimes even a shard of glass. After they are cut, the mentor puts a mixture of flour and yeast on the wound to stop the bleeding. The entire process of mutilation takes about a minute. The girls are permitted to lie there until the bleeding slows, and then they are ordered to crouch to “shake off some of the blood.” At this point they stand, and walk to their predetermined healing place. Once they reach this camp, their legs and toes are often tied together to prevent them from opening the wound and delaying the healing process. It is traditional belief that urination causes the wound to heal faster, so despite the burning pain they experience, girls often stand or sit with their legs together while urinating on their wounds. They do not bathe for four to five days. After undergoing the month-long healing process, many girls are immediately married, and for this reason, often do not re-enroll in school.
FGM began as a method for controlling female sexuality, and continued as a rite of passage and prerequisite to marriage in many societies. Many girls are forced to undergo the procedure in their teens, and the mutilation can cause a number of long-term health consequences, such as repeated urinary tract infections, chronic pelvic infections (which may damage reproductive organs and result in infertility), stones in the urethra or bladder, excessive growth of scar tissue or cysts at the site of the cutting, and fistulae (holes or tunnels) between the bladder and the vagina or between the rectum and the vagina. Some women experience paralysis and even death. Additionally, FGM has been linked with an increased HIV/AIDS contraction rate, as many times the tools used to cut the girls are used multiple times on multiple girls. The stigmatization of girls who refuse to undergo FGM is historically harsh, and they are often shunned from their communities if they refuse the procedure.
I spent two months traveling through the Sebei region interviewing mutilators, victims, local law enforcement, government officials, lawyers, and elders. It wasn’t until after I completed my research that a member of the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (IAC) Uganda gave me a video that fully documented the process of FGM. Two months of constant study and analysis did nothing to prepare me for this tape. As soon as the screen went black, I cried. I cried and committed myself to educating people on the harmful effects of FGM on girls, women and societies.
On February 6, 2003, the first lady of Nigeria, Mrs. Stella Obasanjo, declared a “Zero Tolerance to FGM” day during a conference organized by the IAC. In the past decade we have taken great strides towards eradicating FGM. Numerous studies have documented the negative mental and physical affects of FGM, and over half of the 28 practicing African countries have passed laws criminalizing the practice. However, the implementation and enforcement of these laws has proven difficult, and girls are still mutilated daily.
FGM is not the “controversial” topic that some believe it is, and it is not culturally imperialistic to fight the continuation of this practice. While the claim that FGM is a traditional cultural practice may still ring true in some societies, in many it is the economic incentive to mutilate young girls, not the tradition, that has sustained the practice for decades. FGM may have started as a way to control female sexuality (which is appalling in its own right), and continued as a traditional rite of passage, but, based on my own research, in Uganda mutilators are paid between $6 and $8 per girl cut. Because of the implementation of the anti-FGM law, the increased risk of arrest has allowed mutilators to charge even more. In the generally poor rural communities where FGM is practiced, the business of being a mutilator is therefore quite lucrative. However, when provided with alternative forms of income, like running small grain mills, mutilators quit practicing FGM more often than not.
Moreover, girls who remain in school and earn a higher education rarely undergo the procedure, yet despite the stigma associated with un-cut women, they become well-respected leaders of their communities because they are able to use their education to provide for themselves, their families, and enhance their communities. For a practice that is often defended as a tradition of culture, it seems to be quite easily influenced by economic alternatives, in the case of mutilators and the mutilated alike.
Eleven years after the establishment of Zero Tolerance of FGM day, 8,000 girls still face mutilation each day. The practice is no longer a tradition. It is a business, a cry for economic development, and a clear sign that girls need to stay in school and earn an education. An educated female can provide far more for her community than this horrible, torturous practice ever can. It is imperative that we stop allowing people to profit from the forced removal of young girls’ vaginal parts. Let them grow vegetables, grind grain, or sew clothing for a living, but for the sake of girls and women everywhere, let’s draw the line at harvesting labia.
About the Author: Anna Crosby developed an interest in women’s rights while studying abroad in Uganda, where she spent two months researching the stigmatization of female genital mutilation in the Sebei region. She continued to pursue this interest at Colorado College, where she studied Political Science and African Studies. In her spare time, Anna loves to travel, hike, bike, fish, swim, and scuba dive (basically any activity that involves water), though she’s found that neither the Hudson or the East River are conducive to such activities. Follow Anna on Twitter at @CrosbyAnna3.