Female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as female genital cutting and female circumcision, is the ritual cutting or removal of some or all of the external female genitalia.
It involves the removal of the clitoris, inner-and-outer lips of the vagina, and the sewing or stapling together of the two sides of the vulva leaving only a small hole to pass urine and menstruate – depending on the type.
According to experts at the United Nations Population Fund, the act of circumcising female children is borne out of the cultural practices that aim to control the victims’ sexual desire.
The UNFPA made this known in its State of World Population report released on Thursday, titled, My Body Is My Own.
It’s the first UN report on bodily autonomy; the power and agency to make choices about your body without fear, violence or coercion, says Dr. Natalia Kanem, the UNFPA Executive Director, Universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights to family planning, safe birth and freedom from gender-based violence.
The UN sexual and reproductive health agency notes that culture, tradition and religion are among the most commonly cited motivations for performing female genital mutilation.
Yet, curtailed sexual desire is almost universally understood to be an outcome of the practice and, in fact, it is also a key motivator.
The agency notes that many proponents of female genital mutilation have argued that unbridled female sexuality is somehow a threat to chastity, honour and virtue; noting that frank conversations about female sexuality, bodily integrity and bodily autonomy may offer an unexpected antidote to the practice, experts say.
Efforts to end female genital mutilation have historically underscored the physical harms caused by the practice, which can include haemorrhage, sepsis, future childbirth complications and even death, UNFPA says.
It notes that though emphasis on the physical consequences is more easily received in conservative communities, where discussing female sexuality is often taboo, a sole focus on physical harms may risk inadvertently leading to the medicalization of the practice, or the practice of alternative types of cutting, rather than its abandonment altogether.
Speaking on the issue, Egyptian obstetrician and gynaecologist, Dr. Wafaa Benjamin Basta, says,
“This may affect [a woman’s] mental health, social well-being and her relation with her partner, which may affect deeply the concept of the family itself.”
Dr. Basta says that, in order to end female genital mutilation and promote women’s sexual health and well-being, there should be no shame talking about it.
“Female genital mutilation is not simply a health issue. It is a sexuality issue,” she says.
According to the World Health Organisation, female genital mutilation comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.
“Female genital mutilation is a violation of women’s and girls’ human rights and an extreme form of discrimination and violence directed exclusively at girls and women. It is also a part of wider patriarchal practices, rooted in gender inequality and aimed at controlling women’s and girls’ sexuality, their bodies and their sexual and reproductive rights.
“The practice denies women and girls their rights to: physical and mental integrity; freedom from violence; the highest attainable standard of health; freedom from gender discrimination; and freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, among others,”
The United Nations notes that more than 200 million girls and women live with the consequences of female genital mutilation, while at least four million girls are at risk of undergoing the practice each year.
“Female genital mutilation deprives women and girls of their right to make autonomous decisions about an intervention that has a lasting effect on their bodies and infringes on their autonomy and control over their lives.
“Female genital mutilation is a deprivation of capabilities, affecting the ability of women and girls to achieve full functioning in the world because of the physical, sexual and emotional consequences of the practice.
“These consequences, in turn, may adversely affect their individual well-being, including opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction,”
the SoWP report states.
The report adds that women living in communities that practise female genital mutilation are subject to a strong patriarchal social and economic regime with very few options for choices in livelihood, which leaves them little opportunity for negotiating a limited amount of power.
“The lack of choice over their own lives means that having their daughters undergo female genital mutilation, and complying with other social norms, especially those linked to sexuality and the economics of reproduction, is an essential requirement for ‘silent power negotiations’”,
the report adds.