The 6th of February is a day to commemorate Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation. When we learned that this practice is still occurring in over 45 countries including Australia we knew it was a topic that needed more awareness. 

This article covers everything we have learned about Female Genital Cutting (FGC) from interviewing three advocates in two countries. We cover the different stages of cutting, the risks involved and how we can work together to educate communities on the subject and put an end to this practice.

So, what is FGC?

FGC (Female Genital Cutting) is a procedure that involves removing parts of or the entire female genitalia. In some cases, the vagina is sewn together and a small hole is left for the purpose of urination and menstruation blood. FGC usually occurs in young girls around the age of 5.

The UN has stated that FGC is still practised in 30 countries, however, the Orchid Project believes there are over 40 countries still practising FGC to this day.

What is the biggest misconception on FGC?

People don’t think that this practice happens outside of Africa, however, forms of FGC occurs in every race and religion and is currently reported in over 45 countries globally.

People often refer to FGC as FGM (Female Genital Mutilation). Organisations such as the Orchid Project and US End FGM Network prefer to use the term Female Genital Cutting as the word ‘mutilation’ is seen as judgmental and eludes to a violent and hateful act. 

FGC is not widely spoken about in the media. It is a subject that is often referred to as a mysterious, taboo topic. Many people refuse to talk about it as they believe it is a form of violence towards children and therefore wants to avoid the conversation altogether.

What people don’t understand is that FGC has been around for centuries. It is traditional for participating communities to practice FGC with a belief that the practice will reduce sexual promiscuity and protect their daughters from traumatic experiences such as rape.

What are the different types of FGC?

There are several different categories of FGC. There’s the forcible removal of the clitoris, removal of the labia and removal of both clitoris and labia and the most traumatic type of FGC is the removal of all external genitalia.

When the external genitalia is removed, the wound is sewn closed and a small hole is left for the purpose of urination and menstruation. The reason this is the most traumatic type of FGC is that at some point in that female’s life she will have to be cut open again for when she’s ready to fall pregnant. Once the child is born, the female’s genitalia is sewn back up. This type of FGC leaves women open to continuous forms of violation throughout their lives, and each time a woman is cut and sewn, scar tissue is formed which can lead to keloid scarring and health implications.

Despite varying forms of FGC and resulting physical changes to the woman’s genitalia, it is important to note that all forms of FGC are traumatic. As well as causing psychological distress the procedure is often performed in rudimentary settings where the instruments are shared and not appropriately sterilized between procedures.

Who’s at risk of FGC?

Although there are various different statistics on how many females undergo FGC, Unicef says at least 3.9 million girls at risk every year with those figures increasing dramatically each year.

Julia Lalla-Maharajh from the Orchid Project believes 3.9 million is an underestimated number due to the fact that ⅓ of females in the world will be affected by FGC. 

It is also said that there are 200 million women living with the impacts of being cut today.

What are the physiological impacts of FGC?

Most procedures are being performed at a young age. No anesthetic is used and women are cut around the age of 5.

The most devastating risk that may happen when performing this procedure is a girl may hemorrhage or get sepsis which can both be fatal. These outcomes don’t often occur immediately but can happen weeks later. Families will often be led to believe that the fatality is due to evil spirits and not linked to the mismanaged procedure.

Long term effects of FGC consist of constant infections, UTI’s, kidney infections, difficulty passing period blood and compromise reproductive health. A study showed an increase in postpartum hemorrhage as a result of being cut.

The effects of FGC has made life incredibly difficult for these women. The rights for these women to experience sexual pleasure has been taken away from them and has made them vulnerable to conditions such as trauma, anxiety, and PTSD.

Is reconstructive surgery possible?

The clinical guidelines say there is not enough evidence that surgery is beneficial or has enough effectiveness in order for it to be mandated by the UK’s health service. Once the tissue has been cut away there are huge issues about what reconstruction actually is. No matter what happens around that, how do we deal with the trauma of that original intervention?

Organisations try to work towards ending the practice of FGC rather than focus on reconstruction.

Up until recently, little to no support was given by the government to end this practice. However, last year (2019), the UK announced it would contribute 100 million pounds to help put an end to FGC

How organisations are helping to end FGC

Some organisations such as The Orchid Project and US End FGMC Network work for hand in glove with practising communities by using respectful dialogue. The local facilitators often meet with the communities and spend around 6 months to 2 years discussing the community’s future and providing resources to teach about human rights and increasing academic education in the community. The end goal being peace, security, and well-being.

When communities start understanding human rights their minds shift, especially around gender equality. Women become more confident verbally and start conversations around FGC. They ask questions such as ‘why am I doing this to my daughter?’ and ‘do men understand the pain we’re going through?’

A majority of the communities that complete work with these organisations is making the change to stop female cutting. Some communities are even putting an end to other traditions such as arranged child marriages.

How will FGC end?

Social change is multifactorial. Raising awareness about the problem and using mediums such as Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, can help awareness surrounding FGC can accelerate much quicker than anyone could imagine. As well as starting conversations about this practice in the broader community, supporting grassroots organisations in your local area can help to improve awareness and increase lobbying to local governments.

It is also important for healthcare professionals to become educated about the different forms of FGC and the associated health implications.

Those working with the broader community, especially in migrant communities are also urged to become educated and provide a safe space for conversation with young girls and women.

Advocates believe that if enough focus and resources are put on education and inclusion rather than judgement and exclusion we may just see an end to FGC in our lifetime, how amazing would this be.