Genital cutting is widespread within some African cultures and ethnic groups. It is seen as the climax of initiation, something that both boys and girls have to take part in before they are accepted as adults in the community. Those opposed to genital cutting prefer to use the term female genital mutilation.
Female circumcision usually involves the cutting or removal of the clitoris. This area of the genitals is very sensitive because it contains the most nerve endings.
Genital cutting is a painful practice that is often poorly carried out, and endangers the health and lives of millions of girls, particularly in Africa.
In some communities the controversial practice is a female rite of passage and remains an important religious and cultural tradition. In regions where a new religion has become dominant, the tradition of genital cutting does not necessarily die out.
In the Middle East, female circumcision is practised in the Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan and Syria. Even in the United States, 10,000 girls are believed to be at risk from illegal operations within their own communities. It has also been reported that young women in Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK have also undergone similar operations.
Genital cutting is widespread within some African cultures and ethnic groups. It is seen as the climax of initiation, something that both boys and girls have to take part in before they are accepted as adults in the community.
Young people leave home to be trained in the ways of adult life. For girls this means learning practical skills before returning to their homes as women.
According to supporters, the process of female genital cutting has practical merits in a physically harsh society. It is proof that the woman is mentally strong and able to deal with the difficult responsibilities of adult life.
It also has religious and social significance. The shedding of blood is seen symbolically as a stream connecting the woman to the rest of her close-knit community. In a small community oneness is very important.
The ritual is also seen as an essential preparation for marriage. After the initiation rituals women begin looking for a husband and hope to start a family.
Those opposed to genital cutting prefer to use the term female genital mutilation. They argue that it is a barbaric and needless practice inflicted on innocent young women. It is certainly a painful process. It is sometimes carried out by a midwife with anaesthetics, but more often than not there is nothing to ease the pain.
The operation involved varies widely from culture to culture. In its most extreme form (infibulation) it can involve the removal of all external genitalia and the stitching up of the labia leaving only a very small opening for sex, urination, menstruation and giving birth. This often makes a later operation necessary to create a larger opening.
Many objections to the practice of genital cutting are concerned with the particular circumstances in which it is done. Amnesty International, a human rights organisation, reports that the operation is often carried out using blunt tools (penknives, fragments of glass or tin cans). A particularly brutal operation can leave a woman with haemorrhaging, infections, abscesses and sometimes a lifelong loss of sensation during sex. The Pan-African Committee on Traditional Practices estimates that two million girls in Africa each year undergo some kind of genital cutting which endangers both their health and their lives.
Another objection concerns the inability of some young women to make a choice. Cutting takes place when a girl is young (aged between three and ten), vulnerable and unable to make an informed decision. In a small village community pressure to take part is enormous.
Female genital cutting is currently practised among ethnic groups in 28 countries in central Africa. Representatives from many of these countries meet each year to discuss ways to end the practice.
“Female genital mutilation and cutting is a violation of the basic rights of women and girls,” said Carol Bellamy, executive director of the UN’s Children’s Agency (UNICEF), on February 7 2005, the International Day of Zero Tolerance of FGM. “It is a dangerous and irreversible procedure that negatively impacts the general health, child bearing capabilities and educational opportunities of girls and women.”
The Kenyan Government, for example, estimates that 32 per cent of women aged between 15 and 49 have undergone the procedure in more than half of the country’s districts. In 1998, the Ministry of Health conducted a demographic survey which revealed that genital cutting was more widespread amongst certain ethnic groups. These included Kisii (97 per cent); Maasai (89 per cent); Kalenjin (62 per cent); Taita/Taveta (58 per cent); Meru/Embu (54 per cent); Kikuyu (43 per cent); Kamba (33 per cent); Miji Kenda/Swahili (12 per cent).
In north eastern Kenya, an area not covered in the survey, the UN office for the co-ordination of humanitarian affairs estimates that at least 98 per cent of girls are subjected to infibulation.
Banning female genital cutting is not a simple solution. Countries have to be wary about forcing the practice underground. This may result in high mortality rates, as in the case of abortion.
They will also have to consider the effect on women who have already had the operation. Such women will have taken part in this rite for religious and cultural reasons. Imposing a ban may appear, on the surface, to be the best way forward. But it is unlikely to be observed in communities where the practice is already deeply ingrained.
Nevertheless, opponents still insist that failure to act is not an option. They argue that female circumcision is not a cultural issue and that women and children should not be coerced into painful operations against their will.
In June 2005, new figures showed that up to 76,000 women living in the UK may have undergone illegal operations. An estimated 7,000 girls are still thought to be at risk. Health professionals claim that girls living in Britain have been circumcised in operations overseas organised by family members.
In 2004, the UK government closed a loophole to prevent young women from being taken abroad for circumcision. The then home secretary, David Blunkett, condemned genital cutting as “very harmful” and warned that parents would face imprisonment if they broke the law.
Female Genital Mutilation: Treating the Tears, Haseena Lockhat, Middlesex University Press, January 2004, Middlesex University Press
Female Circumcision and Gender Identity: A Questionable Alliance? Van Der Kwaak, Anke, Social Science and Medicine 35(6):777-787, 1992
Women Heal Women: Spirit Possession and Sexual Segregation in a Muslim Society, Constantinides, Pamela, Social Science and Medicine 21(6):685-692, 1985
Female Circumcision in Africa: an Overview. Kouba, Leonard and Judith Muasher, African Studies Review, 28:95-110, 1985
Special Needs of Ritually Circumcised Women Patients, Lightfoot-Klein, Hanny and Evelyn Shaw, Journal of Obstetric, Gynecology and Neonatal Nursing 20:102-107, 1991
Introduction to African Religion, John S. Mbiti, Heinemann; 2nd edition (December 1, 1991)