By Madelaine Trudgian
How much do you know about FGM? How much does your closest friend know? Would you feel comfortable talking to them about it? How much do your school friends or work colleagues know? Would you feel comfortable talking to them about it? If you’re like most British citizens, the answers will reflect the deep-rooted stigmatisation of the female anatomy, and anything associated with it. This has disastrous affects for the women and girls who have undergone, or are at risk of undergoing, FGM in the UK.
FGM stands for Female Genital Mutilation and refers to the process of deliberate altering of the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. There are four types: Clitoridectomy (partial or total removal of the clitoris); Excision (clitoridectomy and partial or total removal of the labia minora); Infibulation (creating a covering or seal from the skin of the labia minora to leave a narrow vaginal opening); and Other (any other alterations). All these operations result in severe, negative, long term physical and mental impacts for those that undergo them. This includes chronic pain, sexual problems, recurrent UTIs, incontinence and bleeding. The WHO estimates that 130 million women and girls in the world today live with the effects of FGM. Although it is most prevalent in countries in Asia; the Middle East, North-Eastern, and Western regions of Africa, as globalisation has facilitated increased migration, there is now no country that is not affected by FGM. A report by City University London (2014) estimated 137,000 women and girls affected by FGM live in the UK.
Channelling the self-proclaimed liberal and equality driven ideologies upheld by the constitution in the UK, FGM was, rightly, criminalised in 1985 with varying revisions since. However, this has not been effective at eradicating the practise. By criminalising FGM the British government is acting as if the job is done, like a tick box policy. However, this is only the first of many crucial steps needed to protect women and girls. The next and most important step is education. In order to carry this out effectively we need to understand why these practices continue to occur and why we struggle to communicate with each other about women’s bodies.
Firstly, we need to understand the motivations behind those who perform or enforce FGM. It is crucial to recognise that there is often no malicious agenda behind this practice, it is considered by those who perform it as justifiable and necessary. This is based on entrenched social, religious and psychological beliefs in practising communities, often linked to patriarchal origins. These include FGM to be seen as an important rite of passage for girls, to maintain their chastity and family honour, and to make them spiritually ‘clean’ or marriageable. Therefore, girls and women who do not undergo FGM in religious or ethnic communities or groups where it is considered to be necessary for these reasons, would fear that they themselves and their families would be ridiculed. This would result in potential exclusion and high social costs; this is especially salient for those who already feel marginalised in British society. Despite this there is no recorded religious text that requires women to undergo FGM. So those performing it are doing so under misinformation or lack of information. Therefore, the association between FGM and these factors needs to be broken to address this issue.
Secondly, we need to understand why we, even as a society that prides itself on development, cannot talk openly about women’s bodies and sexual health. This, just like FGM can be traced back to the persistent patriarchal structure of society. The concept of women enjoying sex and talking freely and openly about issues confined to their gender is still relatively new and highly stigmatized with the consistent justification of preventing the discomfort of others. This has to stop, by shrouding these topics in embarrassment, we are neglecting to address the root of the issues women face and we are hindering ourselves from combating them effectively. Millions of women have to deal with the consequences of FGM every day of their lives, and so many people cannot even bring themselves to talk about it.
For these reasons, criminalisation on its own is not the answer. It is necessary to legally justify eradication, challenge the norm and legitimise an alternative course of action but it ignores the broader context with many negative consequences. These include further marginalisation of societal groups, potential for ethnic and racial profiling and a field day for far-right nationalists who use it to spread hate and suspicion. Furthermore, the language often used is directed at women and further stigmatises survivors. It also ignores the influence of men who are often fundamental in facilitating this process, often described as ‘gatekeepers’ with significant control and influence in FGM practicing communities. Therefore, criminalising does nothing to change beliefs. Direct work in education and with practising communities is essential. This must involve multidisciplinary action, educating at all levels: professionals, organisations and departments in a culturally sensitive way that pays attention to social justice and equality. Dialogues need to bring together communities and professionals including ‘gatekeepers’ with more emphasis on education and support for survivors than on prosecution. This needs to address the sexual and reproductive health consequences, the misinformation regarding the necessity of the procedure and the long-term psychological impacts.
What can you do? The simplest answer is talk. Talk and educate people about this issue, open dialogues that are culturally sensitive, using the right language and information to motivate people to learn more. This is not an ethnic minority women’s issue, this is not an ethnic minority issue, this is not a women’s issue, it’s an issue for us all and we all have the responsibility to do what we can by educating those around us. Smash down the walls of stigmatisation and talk to someone about FGM.
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