Caitlin Roe - October 09 2020
Female Genital Mutilation | What is FGM?
Globally, more than 200 million girls have been the victim of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and a further 3 million girls are at risk of undergoing the procedure every year. FGM comprises of all procedures that involve partial or total removal of female genitalia for non-medical reasons. FGM is recognised internationally as a human rights violation and reflects the deep-rooted inequalities between men and women. The procedure is usually performed on girls aged 4 to 8 but can be performed on babies just a few days old.
Female genital mutilation can be classified into 4 major types
Type 1: (clitoridectomy) Partial or total removal of the clitoral glans.
Type 2: (excision) Partial or total removal of the clitoral glands and the labia minora.
Type 3: (infibulation) Is the narrowing of the vaginal opening through creating a covering seal, this seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the labia or sometimes through stitching.
Type 4: This includes all other harmful procedures to female genitalia for non-medical purposes.
FGM is often performed in the attempt to lower a woman’s libido and help her resist premarital sex, when type 3 is performed women fear the pain of sex, again attempting to discourage sexual activity. FGM is associated with cultural ideas of femineity and modesty, believing that the female genitalia are ‘dirty’ and ‘ugly’. Some communities argue that the practise is considered a cultural tradition, in communities where the procedure is considered the social norm, people fear rejection if they do not participate. Practitioners often believe the practise has religious support though no religious scripts prescribe the practise. Some communities argue that women willingly choose FGM for their daughters, however, UNICEF states that the practise is a “self-enforcing social convention.” Women often feel they must do this to ensure their daughters will not be socially excluded from the communities and safeguard marriage prospects.
FGM has zero health benefits but has serious health consequences including haemorrhaging, tetanus, shock and death. Victims of FGM can have severe urinary, vaginal and menstrual problems and are at risk of needing later surgeries to fix these issues. There are also serious psychological effects including anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Women who have undergone infibulation (type 3) sometimes have the seal cut open for childbirth and is then sealed again, forcing the women to go through the procedure multiple times which increases health risks. Women who do not have to seal cut open sometimes eat less during pregnancy to reduce the size of the baby.
FGM is often associated with poorer countries but its prevalence within Australia is on the rise. A recent study conducted at the Australian paediatric surveillance unit found that since 2010, almost 60 girls had been seen by paediatricians within Australia who had undergone FGM and this is expected to be a gross underestimation. Professor in paediatrics and child health Elizabeth Elliot states “there needs to be a revision of the policies so paediatricians are well aware of who is at risk, what they should be looking for, how they should be reporting these children to child protection authorities, and what are the legal imperatives involved.”
When Khadija Glba was just three years old, war broke out in her home country of Sierra Leone, her family applied for refugee status and were accepted into Australia in 2001. Not long before their move to Australia, Khadija was taken to undergo FGM, she was pinned to the floor and her clitoris by cut away with a rusty knife. Khadija was left confused, crying and bleeding, her family never spoke of this again.
She later started to volunteer for the organisation Women’s Health State-wide and by chance joined the groups FGM program with littler knowledge of what this was. Shock and trauma had repressed her memories but her work with the organisation triggered those once formant memories. When Khadija confronted her mother about this, she said it was for her own good, it was to ‘empower her’ and protect the family honour. Khadija experienced heavy, long and very painful periods at 14 which landed her in hospital, she was told she had fibroids and cysts. She now channels her anger and pain to campaign against FGM with local communities and organisations. According to the organisation No FGM Australia, 11 girls a day in Australia are at risk of undergoing FGM. Khadija says, “this is not an “African” or “Asian or “Middle Eastern” problem, this is an Australian problem too.” She is now married with a child; she says she’s one of the lucky ones and many women who have undergone FGM are infertile.
As a global society, we're often silent when it comes to issues of gendered violence, deeming them too distressing or uncomfortable to acknowledge.
But a new art project is confronting the silence around one of the most harrowing examples of gender-based violence — female genital mutilation, or FGM.
London-based artist Aida Silvestri has created a jarring series of "sculptural photo-works" to raise awareness of female genital mutilation — any procedure that "intentionally alters or causes injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons," according to the World Health Organization. She was inspired to tackle the issue due to her personal experience with FGM as a girl.
There have been international efforts to stop FGM since the 1970’s and whilst illegal is most countries, the practise continues behind closed doors. The United Nations are aiming to eradicate FGM by 2030 but cuts to funding are making this goal difficult to reach.
According to the United Nations Population Fund, due to the COVID-19 lockdowns, 2 million FGM cases will be performed that could have been averted. For every three months the pandemic lockdowns continue, 15 million additional cases of violence against women will occur. In countries like Somalia, humanitarian’s ad healthcare workers intervene in schools to stop FGM but with schools being closed there is expected to be a spike in cases. Somalia’s head of mission at Even Plan International experienced a female cutter knocking on her door offering to cut her five- and nine-year-old daughters. COVID-19 has cut off the safety net for at risk girls in Australia and there is little FGM organisations can do.
FGM is violence against women, its child abuse, it is physically and mentally harmful and must be stopped. If you would like to know more or donate, please visit the Desert Flower Foundation website.