Imagine if every year three million boys had their penises cut off. Sound outrageous?
Well, every year three million girls have parts or all of their clitorises cut off in a procedure known as female genital mutilation (FGM). The clitoris has double the nerve endings that a penis has, so my analogy to chopping off little boys’ organs isn’t too far off.
There are four types of FGM ranging from the most “minor” — known as clitoridectomy, which involves the partial or total removal of the clitoris — to the most severe, known as infibulation, which involves removal of parts of the external genitalia followed by stitching together of what remains. The girl subjected to this then has her legs bound for about two weeks to create a seal over her genitals.
Have I been graphic enough?
And yet the world is mostly silent about the mutilation carried out on girls from infancy to about the age of 15 in at least 28 countries, mostly in Africa and the Middle East. Some immigrants have taken the practice with them to communities throughout the world. It is carried out for several reasons, including control of women’s sexuality and initiation into womanhood.
FGM has no health benefits. Doctors say it causes lasting psychological trauma, extreme pain, chronic infections, bleeding, abscesses, tumours, urinary tract infections and infertility.
As you read this, British activist Julia Lalla-Maharajh will be at the World Economic Forum in Davos to shake the suits and wallets there into paying more attention to FGM. Her video appeal won the Davos Debates 2010 on YouTube, and on Jan. 30 she will be speaking on a panel about FGM.
It’s important to remember FGM is not exclusive to one religion or social class. It is older than Christianity and Islam. Egyptian mummies are said to display characteristics of mutilation. And as recent as the 1950s, partial or total removal of the clitoris was prescribed in western Europe and the United States in response to hysteria, epilepsy, mental disorders, masturbation, nymphomania, melancholia and lesbianism.
The international community must speak out on behalf of girls and women and pour more support into campaigns that have worked to end FGM in some communities. Campaigners say the most effective ways involve a mix of human rights, education, community development, health care, and alternative rites of passage. Here’s hoping Julia Lalla-Maharajh can persuade the suits and wallets.