The Medicalization of FGM: Why We Should Be Worried

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Miriam Stats

Miriam Stats

Miriam Stats is a fourth year student at Northeastern University in Boston. She will be graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Health Sciences and plans to attend medical school with the hopes of becoming a pediatrician. She currently works at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in the Newborn Medicine department and has completed global health work in Panama. Her particular areas of interest in global health are in the fields of maternal and reproductive health.

Across the globe, a growing battle is being fought against a practice that has deprived women and girls from realizing their rights to reproductive and sexual health. Female circumcision, more appropriately known as female genital mutilation (FGM), violates several of the most fundamental human rights of women and girls, while also representing a deeply rooted form of gender inequality and discrimination. The practice disregards the right to health, the right to be free from violence, the right to life and physical integrity, the right to non-discrimination, and right to be free from cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.1 FGM encompasses all procedures that involve the partial or complete removal of the external female genitalia, or any other injury to the female genital organs for reasons that are not medical. Despite being internationally recognized as a severe human rights violation as well as an extreme form of discrimination against women and girls, the World Health Organization predicts that over 200 million women and girls alive today and distributed over 30 countries have be affected by FGM.2

The practice, which is most often performed on girls between infancy and adolescence, ranges from clitoridectomies, which is the removal of the clitoris, to infibulation, which involves surgically sealing the vaginal opening. In several countries, licensed clinicians perform the procedure. This has been found to be particularly true in communities that consider FGM a common practice.3 For example, in Somalia approximately 96% of girls are violated by FGM.4 However, medical professionals that perform this act are in violation of the most fundamental medical ethics, as not only does FGM have absolutely no known health benefits, it also causes profound and permanent harm.5 Additionally, healthcare providers that perform, or even condone, FGM legitimize it as medically sound and beneficial to women’s health.3

Contrary to common belief, FGM has no religious significance. In fact, the practice predates religion.5 However, while there is no religion that endorses FGM outright, religious reasons are often used as justification for the practice. There are those that believe that FGM will purify a young girl and ensure that her chastity remains unblemished before marriage.3 There are also regions where FGM is an immensely deep-rooted cultural custom and because of this, FGM is considered a rite of passage into womanhood. This is especially true in communities that are convinced that FGM strengthens women’s ability to conceive.3 In regions where FGM is nearly universal, the operation has become a troublesome prerequisite to marriage. Men want to ensure they are to marry a virgin wife that will always be faithful. Men have this powerful to control women’s sexuality because often in areas where FGM is popular, marriage is essential for a woman’s economic survival.3

Flickr: MONUSCO Photos. Licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0.

Despite the perseverance of FGM throughout history, increased scrutiny has caused many countries to renounce the practice. For example, Egypt is often called the FGM capital of the world, with 91% of girls undergoing FGM.4 However, since 2008, FGM in Egypt has gone from a celebrated tradition to an illegal activity.6 For the first time in 2015, an Egyptian physician was sentenced to two years in prison for mutilating a young girl that died as a result of the operation.5 As immigration, especially from Africa, has increased dramatically to the United States and Europe, the threat of FGM has migrated too. As estimated by the African Women’s Health Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, over 227,000 American women are at risk for or have already succumbed to FGM.5 While it is most common for young girls to be sent back to their country of origin to undergo what is often referred to as “vacation cutting”, the Western nations are not immune to FGM occurring on their soil. In 2006, the first case of FGM was uncovered in the U.S. when an Ethiopian immigrant living in Georgia used scissors to remove his two-year-old daughter’s clitoris; he was sentenced to ten years in prison for the act.7 Similarly, one hospital in the U.K has already reported encountering nearly 1,500 cases of FGM in just the past 5 years.5

As aspiring or experienced global health practitioners, the medicalization of FGM is extremely troubling. Some may argue that eradicating a deep-seated tradition is nearly impossible, especially when young girls are brought by their own families to trusted physicians to perform the act. Bringing an end to FGM will require a sustained effort from all parts of society and medical professionals should understand the Global Strategy to Stop Health-Care Providers from Performing FGM as well as the guidelines for managing the health complications of FGM in case they encounter it. With wider international involvement and understanding, along with resolutions by health care professionals to condemn the practice, it is not impossible to eliminate FGM within a generation.

  1. Q&A on Female Genital Mutilation. Human Rights Watch. https://www.hrw.org/news/2010/06/16/qa-female-genital-mutilation
    Published June 16th, 2010. Accessed March 30, 2017.
  2. Female genital mutilation. World Health Organization. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs241/en/
    Last Updated February 2017. Accessed April 4, 2017.
  3.  Female genital mutilation (FGM) frequently asked questions. United Nations Population Fund. http://www.unfpa.org/resources/female-genital-mutilation-fgm-frequently-asked-questions#where_practiced
    Published December 2015. Last Updated January 27, 2017. Accessed April 4, 2017.
  4. Female genital mutilation (FGM). World Health Organization. http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/topics/fgm/prevalence/en/
    Published 2017. Accessed April 4, 2017.
  5. Westcott L. Female Genital Mutilation on the Rise in the U.S. Newsweek. February 6, 2015. http://www.newsweek.com/fgm-rates-have-doubled-us-2004-304773. Accessed April 4, 2017.
  6. Thompson N. Female genital mutilation: Why Egyptian girls fear the summer. CNN. http://www.cnn.com/2015/06/25/middleeast/egypt-female-genital-mutilation/. Last Updated June 25, 2015. Accessed April 4, 2015.
  7. Father jailed for US mutilation. BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/6108516.stm. Last Updated November 2, 2006. Accessed April 4, 2017.