The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted by the United Nations in 1948, lists 30 inalienable rights guaranteed to individuals of all backgrounds, regardless of religion, race, age, or gender. Among these is the right to freedom and equality, life, liberty, security, freedom from torture, the right to health and well-being, and the right to an education. Though typically shrouded from the view of the western world, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is an international vice, affecting an estimated 200 million women and girls across 30 different countries. This patriarchal practice has deep cultural and alleged religious roots, and its entrenchment within some societies is seemingly irreversible.
The World Health Organization identifies 4 major types of Female Genital Mutilation practiced throughout the world with varying degrees of severity. Medically classified as reinfibulation, the WHO describes FGM as “comprising all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs whether for cultural, religious or other non-therapeutic reasons.” Despite having no health benefits – and actually leading to lifelong complications – some cultures across continents still promote this practice. In many instances, immediate complications of the procedure include severe pain, excessive bleeding, genital tissue swelling, fever, infection, urinary problems, and so many more. If performed haphazardly, the consequences can be fatal, with thousands of young girls facing the cultural and parental pressure to undergo the procedure. Throughout parts of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, it is estimated that FGM typically occurs on young girls, between infancy and age 15, with approximately 3 million at risk annually.
To comprehend why this practice still occurs, we must first examine the cultural constructs of femininity in relation to masculinity, that contribute to its longevity. In some regions, the procedure is considered “a necessary part of raising a girl,” and those who do not undergo the procedure are perceived as unwomanly and inadequately prepared for marriage and motherhood. Within some regions, these natural bodily organs are perceived as dirty, masculine, and impure, hence the misconstrued need to “cut” them off. When faced with her cut, Kenya’s Nice Leng’ete rebelled against the conventions of acceptability in her village, instead starting a movement centered around the practice’s extermination. Through educational programs focused on reproductive and sexual health, she was able to save 15,000 girls from enduring the lasting hardships caused by FGM. Due to initiatives like Leng’ete’s, Kenyan FGM rates have fallen by 28% in the past three decades, double the international average of decline.
As we move towards a more modern and egalitarian age, many nonprofit organizations, non-state actors, and politicians throughout these countries are seeking to change this culture and strive toward the pursuit of equality. In response to this pressure, Egypt banned genital cutting in 2008. Following suit in 2011, Kenya criminalized FGM and opened a special investigative unit for cases in 2014. In Sudan, the UN estimates that almost 90% of the country’s female population has fallen victim to the practice, with international calls for its eradication. Like Leng-ete’s project in Kenya, Sudanese activists launched the Saleema Program in 2008 with the support of UNICEF. “Saleema” – meaning “whole,” “intact,” and “in a God-given condition” – aims to educate parents on the dangers of FGM through radio broadcasts, television messages, and in-hospital counseling services. In late April of this year, the Sudanese government outlawed the practice, which is a significant step in the advancement of elementary human rights.
Despite these bold strides in the right direction, the complete elimination of this volatile practice will take time, tolerance, compassion, and comprehensive education. With the momentum we have, we must continue to push for reforms for long lasting change.