A horribly complex issue

October 10, 2007

This morning I attended a workshop on FGM (Female Genital Mutilation or “female circumcision”). We care for a lot of refugees at the health centre where I work, including a significant number from Somalia and other African countries where FGM is practised, and so although it is uncommon and illegal here it is something we do see regularly and need to know about.

Female genital mutilation (FGM), often referred to as ‘female circumcision’, comprises all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs whether for cultural, religious or other non-therapeutic reasons. (WHO)

Girls usually undergo FGM prior to puberty- the average age is 6-8.  While it is increasingly done by health professionals under local anaesthetic, in rural areas it is still carried out without anaesthetic, with scissors, razor blades or knives while the girl is held down by female relatives.  In the short term the girl may experience excrutiating pain, shock infection, haemorhage, urinary retention and fractures.  But it doesn’t end there.  Long term issues caused by FGM include difficulty passing urine, pelvic infections, scars, cysts, fistulae, difficulties with menstruation, increased risk of HIV transmission, sexual complications, childbirth complications and negative psychosocial impacts.
While the physical trauma that girls go through is horrendous and quite harrowing to contemplate, what I found most disturbing was the psycho-social issues they face, the fact that even in New Zealand women see the pain and long term complications of FGM as preferable to the socially ostracised life they and thier daughters would lead without it.

FGM is a complex multifaceted practice deeply rooted in a strong cultural and social framework. It is endorsed by the community and supported by loving parents with what is believed to be the best interests of a young girl at heart. FGM can only be understood within its cultural context, for in the societies where it is practised — despite its harmful physical affects — FGM provides women with many social and cultural benefits…

Whether the practice is shrouded in rituals and celebrations, or whether it involves a visit to the local midwife, FGM is an integral part of a girl’s social development. The practice is deeply embedded in the social norms of the community and there is immense social pressure on all young girls to conform. A girl who does not undergo FGM is likely to be severely socially penalised, and is often despised, taunted, ostracised and made the target of ridicule. No one in her community may want to marry her, and what is clearly understood to be her life’s work — marriage and childbearing — will be denied her.

For a woman living in a patriarchal society with no access to land or education and no effective power base, marriage is her main means of survival and access to resources — and FGM is her pre-requisite for marriage. With the beliefs surrounding FGM deeply embedded from childhood, the social approval associated with FGM and the sanctions women face if they don’t undergo FGM — the benefits of FGM would seem to outweigh the physical difficulties. FGM is inevitably viewed in a very positive light and this can explain why women continue to cling to the tradition, colluding in their own daughters’ circumcision.  (fgm.co.nz)

It makes me incredibly sad and angry that women and girls are faced with these kinds of realities. I have the utmost of admiration both for the women who live daily with the impacts of FGM on thier physical and psychological health, and for those who have taken the huge step of refusing to have thier daughters circumcised.


5 Responses to “A horribly complex issue”

  1. A. Says:

    I don’t know if you’ve come across Papillon’s blog which traces the thoughts of a young French woman of Senegalese descent who was excised at the age of four. She decided, when about 30, to have the excision reversed by a French surgeon who specialises in reconstruction of the clitoris after FGM. It’s all in French and very well written. It is also available in English in the early part of my own blog, in an effort to spread her message as widely as possible.

  2. benjamin ady Says:


    can I get permission to repost this post on justice and compassion this week, with a credit to you and link to your blog?

  3. Sharon Says:

    Thanks A for the link, really interesting. I know reconstruction surgery is available but I’ve not met anyone who has had it done.

    For those who are interested, this post is now re-posted on Justice and Compassion and open to comments and discussion.

  4. swisserikin Says:

    I have always been interested in this topic. It should stop.

  5. onethoughtfulwoman Says:

    An absolutely excellent article!

    You have tackled this very sensitive subject so well and have covered the very complex and difficult arguments here with great written skill.
    As a member of FOREWARD-Foundation of Women’s Health Research and Development, founded to promote campaigning against FGM and enhance women’s health I am passionate about this subject and have read widely on it.
    If you know of anyone else I can talk to or contact, in relation to this issue I would very much like to know.
    Until the wider causes of FGM are adressed which are poverty, lack of female educationare just two examples, then the pressure to circumcise will continue
    Cultural shift will only occur on this subject from within the community that practices this.Education has to occur from within to without.
    I would be perceived as an outsider, white and western and would therefore not undertstand the culture and believes of why this is practiced. It is all very well for me to say STOP as I want to very, very much but there are many reasons why the continuation of FGM is not opposed.
    You are so right when you say most women believe it is in their childs best interest if they want any future which is not grounded in utter poverty, stigma and rejection. They would see it as homourable and clean.
    The horrendous physical, emotional and sexual health consequences of FGM is not disputed.
    Workshops such as the you attended are essential if we are to communicate to people who are effected by this terrible cutting.
    The answers are difficult but we must strive to understand more, and governments need to highlight this plight of misery and tackle as a world force the reasons why this horror continues.

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