By Kimberly Mackinnon
“As part of my volunteering role I was involved in a team of 5 to arrange a Global Citizenship Day (GCD), our topic was Gender Equality. We held our GCD today, with particular reference to the date being International Women’s Day. We held an educational morning for the other VSOs in our team discussing Gender Issues globally, and then bringing it down to the area of Ethiopia we are in. For the latter part of the event we had segregated male and female coffee ceremonies to enable confidential discussion on topics affected by gender equality.
I have been prompted me to write this blog post by something I came across whilst doing my research for the GCD, it is a global issue but some of the things I will mention are specific to Ethiopia. I knew about it vaguely, but was unaware of the realities of it and how globally spread it was. Particularly that is happens ‘under the radar’ in the UK.
Female Genital Mutilation or FGM for short is one of the main Harmful Traditional Practices (HTP) in Ethiopia. It is now illegal, but of course is still present due to ‘tradition’ – when I asked if anyone knew why it had been started, and thus become a tradition, no one could answer me. It is just ‘the done thing’ for many communities.
So, what is FGM? Well as the name suggests, mutilation means to ‘cut off’ or ‘amputate’ parts of the body. There are four types of FGM, although many of the practitioners do not differentiate between them and just do whatever is customary for their area.
Circumcision, is the cutting of the hood of the clitoris, it is also referred to as ‘Sunna’ in Muslim countries. I will note here that generally the men of Ethiopia are circumcised, as dictated in the Bible, within 7 days of birth.
Clitoridectomy, is the removal of the clitoris, scientifically known to be the most sensitive part of the female body. It is also responsible for the pleasure sensation felt during intercourse – something they will never experience.
Excision, involved the cutting of the clitoris and all or part of the labia minora.
Infibulation, is the most severe form of FGM. It involves the cutting of the clitoris, labia minora and the whole of the labia majora. The two sides of the remaining skin of the vulva are then pinned together by thorns and thread, thus sealing the vaginal opening except for a very small hole. The small hole is to allow for the passage of urine and menstrual blood. The girls’ legs are then bound from hip to ankle and she will be kept immobile for weeks to ensure the formation of scar tissue.
All of the above ‘procedures’ are often performed by medically incompetent people, without the use of anaesthetic or pain relief – if they are lucky they will get to sit on a stone for a little while beforehand to ‘numb’ the area. It is said that the ‘cutting’ is usually done by a broken piece of glass, a razor blade or a thorn. There is no sterilisation of any of the items used or the area in which it is done.
Not only is this practice excruciatingly painful for the victim, it brings about many other health issues; bleeding (which is often fatal), shock, infection, urine retention (the burning sensation felt when urinating after the procedure often leads to this), tetanus, laceration, HIV/AIDS, urinary tract infection and pelvic infection (as a result of retention of urine, menstrual blood and vaginal secretion) – to name a few.
Girls are generally under the age of 16 when this is done to them; usually they have not had their first period when they are cut. I have read accounts of girls being subjected to this as young as 3 years old – an age where they are too young to understand.
The act itself is painful enough, but it has repercussions in the future too. It is considered that a woman should be a virgin when she marries (this is often why marriages are made so young, to ensure their virginity). For a woman who has been cut in the most brutal way, her first sexual experience will bring no pleasure, only pain from her partner tearing open her scarred tissue (if she is lucky, he may cut it for her rather than just forcing his way in). Child birth is another future issue, with fistula being prevalent for cut women, and many other complications which are a direct result of their mutilation.
Often a ceremony takes place, with music, dancing and singing to celebrate the girl reaching her cutting age. One account I have read mentions that the singing takes lace to cover up the screams of agony coming from the girls. The mothers of the girls are not allowed to be present, because they have experienced the pain of child birth and this makes them weak to seeing their own flesh and blood being subjected to such trauma. To me this is an indication that they know it is wrong, because they know the mothers would show compassion.
So, why is this still practiced when all of the above information is available? Well, it seems that tradition prevails, and of course the risks and moral issues have not reached all the communities. Even those that are educated about the outcome of FGM often disregard it for fear of being stigmatised. So much so that young girls plead with their family to be cut so that they are not outcast from the community, of course not knowing that they will regret it before it is finished being done – peer pressure is just as direct as the pressure from the girls’ parents to be ‘accepted’. An uncut girl is considered to be unclean, and ‘free’ which is why she will remain unmarried in a community with the cutting culture.
There are many campaigns in place, not only in Africa but all over the world to stop this act; from educational information being shared, to young men campaigning that they want to marry uncut girls. Opinion is slowly being changed, I have been reading FGM Network Update and have read a few articles about the women who would carry out the procedure being turned from the profession and now educate people of the risks of the very thing they used to make money from. Of course, they still have people trying to bribe them to do it for them in secret, but the reiterate the fine and prosecution they will face if they are found out.
The catch twenty two of FGM being formally recognised as illegal is that people turn to ‘back street’ options to fulfil their intentions, often causing more complications than necessary. If a girl then begins to bleed profusely or suffer they will take her to hospital. To any medical professional it is obvious what has been done to the girl, but they cannot go to the police or any authority because once word gets out that the hospital are whistleblowing people will stop taking the girls there when they need it – essentially increasing the mortality rate.
The main reason for this coming up in our gender equality discussions is that it is often the fathers that make the choice for their daughters to be cut, even if it is against the wishes of their mother. These young girls are not getting to choose what happens to their own bodies, they are made to be submissive to men. It is said that they do this to girls when they are young to stop them behaving inappropriately by playing or behaving in a free and happy way. They suffer this pain to be reminded who is boss, and will have this reminder regularly throughout their married life. It is supposed to make them strong, and prepare them for the struggle they face in their life, but essentially it is they struggle they face in life.