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Female Genital Mutilation (FGM/C) in
Africa, the Middle East & Far East

Why is it done? Terminology.
Trends. Current status

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Why it is Done?

The justification for the operation appears to be largely grounded in a desire to terminate or reduce feelings of sexual arousal in women so that they will be much less likely to engage in pre-marital intercourse or adultery. The clitoris holds a massive number of nerve endings, and generates strong feelings of sexual arousal when stimulated.

Many parents in those cultures where FGM/C is common often feel that it is the only way to guarantee that their girl children will remain "pure" until marriage. This belief is so strong that it can overcome the dangers to the girls: some do not survive the blood loss during the operation; others die from infection; most suffer life-long complications.

Unmutilated women in countries where FGM/C is normally performed often have difficulty finding a marriage partner. Men typically prefer a mutilated wife because they are considered more likely to remain faithful. Other claims in support of FGM/C are:

bulletThe clitoris is dangerous and must be removed for health reasons. Some believe that it is a poisonous organ, that can cause a man to sicken or die if contacted by a man's penis. Others believe that men can become impotent by contacting a clitoris, or that a baby will be hydrocephalic (born with excess cranial fluid) if its head contacts the clitoris during birth. Some believe that the milk of the mother will become poisonous if her clitoris touches the baby during childbirth.

bulletBad genital odors can only be eliminated by removing the clitoris and labia minora.

bulletFGM/C prevents vaginal cancer.

bulletAn unmodified clitoris can lead to masturbation or lesbianism.

bulletFGM/C prevents nervousness from developing in girls and women.

bulletFGM/C prevents the face from turning yellow.

bulletFGM/C makes a woman's face more beautiful.

bulletIf FGM/C is not done, older men may not be able to match their wives' sex drive and may have to resort to illegal stimulating drugs.

bulletAn intact clitoris generates sexual arousal in women which can cause neuroses if repressed.

These claims appear to have no support within the medical community and no support from the public except in the countries where FGM/C is common.

The fear of AIDS has been used by both sides of this issue. Shiek Badri stated in 1997-JUN: "Those who are not circumcised get AIDS easily" But opponents to the practice note that AIDS is sometimes spread by unhygienic practices normally present during the FGM/C procedure itself.

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Terminology:

Various terms have been used to refer to this procedure. The most commonly used terms are female genital mutilation, FGM, female genital mutilation/cutting, FGM/C, female circumcision, female genital cutting, and cutting.

When the awareness of FGM/C became known widely outside of the countries where it is practiced, it was originally referred to as "female circumcision." This creates confusion with male circumcision, a practice widespread -- particularly in North America. It is currently being promoted in Africa as a partial preventative against HIV infection and AIDS.

We recommend against the use of the term "female circumcision" because the motivations for the surgery and the effects that it has on people are very different:

  • FGM/C is performed on female babies or children. It often creates serious medical problems later in life, is very invasive, and reduces or eliminates sexual feelings.

  • Circumcision is typically performed on male newborns, often for religious reasons -- particularly among Jews and Muslims where it is nearly universal. BabyCentre reports:

    "The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says that although the benefits of circumcision outweigh the risks, these benefits aren't significant enough to recommend that all children have the procedure. Circumcised men have lower rates of urinary tract infections, sexually transmitted infections (including HIV), and penile cancer. But the AAP leaves it up to parents to decide whether circumcision is in the best interests of their child." 1

The term "female genital mutilation" and its acronym "FGM" started to be used in the 1970s. According to a UNICEF report:

"In 1990, this term was adopted at the third conference of the Inter African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (IAC) in Addis Ababa. In 1991, WHO recommended that the United Nations adopt this terminology and subsequently, it has been widely used in UN documents."

"The use of the word 'mutilation' reinforces the idea that this practice is a violation of girls’ and women’s human rights, and thereby helps promote national and international advocacy towards its abandonment. At the community level, however, the term can be problematic. Local languages generally use the less judgmental 'cutting' to describe the practice; parents understandably resent the suggestion that they are 'mutilating' their daughters. In this spirit, in 1999, the UN Special Rapporteur on Traditional Practices called for tact and patience regarding activities in this area and drew attention to the risk of 'demonizing' certain cultures, religions and communities. As a result, the term 'cutting' has increasingly come to be used to avoid alienating communities." 2

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2010: Support for female genital mutilation is in decline in Africa:

Geoffrey York of the Globe and Mail Newspaper in Toronto ON reported in 2010:

"Some experts thought it was so embedded in traditional culture that it would never change. But new evidence shows that African countries have made surprising progress in reducing the rate of female genital cutting, a controversial and often illegal practice that can cause lifelong injury and illness to girls and women."

"In countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya, female genital cutting has become less common in the past decade. And in other countries such as Sudan and Egypt, surveys are finding that the practice has declining support from ordinary people in many communities, thanks to intense educational campaigns."

"A new study ... by the UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, 3 explains how these educational campaigns have succeeded in weakening the popularity of a practice that is considered a violation of human rights and a severe health risk." 4

The study shows prevalence data from 2005 to 2008 in various countries: 91% prevalence of FGM/C in Egypt, 89% in Sudan, 74% in Ethiopia, 28% in Senegal and 27% in Kenya.

Support among girls and women aged 15 to 49, has dropped:

Egypt: From 82% in 1995 to 63% in 2008.
Sudan: From 79% in 1989/1990 to 51% in 2006.
Ethiopia: 60% in 2000 to 31% in 2005.
Kenya: 20% in 1998 to 9% in 2008/2009. 4

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This topic continues in the next essay

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References used:

The following information source was used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlink is not necessarily still active today.

  1. Editorial team, "How many baby boys get circumcised?," The Baby Center, 2013-FEB, at: http://www.babycenter.com/
  2. "Changing a harmful social convention: Female Genital Mutilation/cutting," UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, Page 2, at: http://www.unicef-irc.org/publications This is a PDF file.
  3. "Changing a harmful social convention: Female Genital Mutilation/cutting," UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, at: http://www.unicef-irc.org/publications
  4. Geoffrey York, "Support for female circumcision declining in Africa, study shows ," The Globe and Mail, 2010-NOV-18, at: http://www.theglobeandmail.com

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Copyright © 1998 to 2014 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1998-MAR-13
Last update: 2014-APR-16

Author: B.A. Robinson
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