Female Genital Mutilation: Cultural Trauma

Talking about culture can take a long time, even a lifetime. We constantly express and expose different patterns, signs, symbols, attitudes and beliefs that correspond to a series of customs and values associated with the way of perceiving the world, from the perspective of an individual belonging to a society or group with specific characteristics.

This association of elements make up the identity or the so-called culture of the different communities that exist in the world. The term culture has been defined from different fields and sciences, with different purposes, therefore there is a wide variety of definitions that are attributed to it and that goes beyond a set of customs, beliefs and values, since at the same time it allows us to know, understand and learn from what makes us different from other people.

Mahatma Gandhi said once that “a nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people”, implying that the essence of a society resides in each of the people who make it up and it depends on them that their culture transcends time and continues from generation to generation.

Also Albert Camus proposed that “without culture, and the relative freedom it implies, society, even when perfect, is but a jungle. This is why any authentic creation is a gift to the future”. Everything we are, however minimal it may seem, represents our identity and it is part of a culture that is enriched every day and builds on the past and future of a society.

Taking into account the above, the human being is born as a participant and exponent of a culture that is learned throughout life and becomes his day to day. Thanks to this it can be said that there are differences between us due not only to the beliefs and traditions we share with a group of people similar to us, but to the same language we speak, the religion we profess and the clothes we wear. But there are much larger differences than those, there are even customs within a culture that are not accepted by others because they contribute to gender inequality or undermine the integrity of a person.

Putting a more concrete example, in some countries of Africa they practice what is known as female genital mutilation and is defined as “procedures involving partial or total removal of female genitalia or other injury to female genital organs”.

This practice has been severely criticized because it does not have any medical benefit in its procedure, generates problems in health, in the short and long term and is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. It is part of a culture that justifies its practice through different arguments such as a rite of initiation of maturity or a way to control the sexuality of women. Other communities specify that female genital mutilation guarantees the correct development of the girl, in addition to providing for a good marriage and honor to her family.

FGM is almost universally performed and unquestioned, because most of the time it is practiced just as a “social pressure to conform to what others do and have been doing, as well as the need to be accepted socially and the fear of being rejected by the community”. But it is generally due to a social norm rooted in gender inequality in those countries and communities and “constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women”. It aims to ensure premarital virginity and marital fidelity.

Female genital mutilation is part of a social ritual that is performed in remote rural areas under insane conditions, by people who are not trained and who use knives, razors or even broken glass, that are not normally sterilized.

There are mainly four types of female genital mutilation ranging from partial or total removal of the clitoral glans to infibulation:

  • Type 1:  this is the partial or total removal of the clitoral glans (the external and visible part of the clitoris, which is a sensitive part of the female genitals), and/or the prepuce/ clitoral hood (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoral glans).
  • Type 2:  this is the partial or total removal of the clitoral glans and the labia minora (the inner folds of the vulva), with or without removal of the labia majora (the outer folds of skin of the vulva).
  • Type 3: Also known as infibulation, this is the narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the labia minora, or labia majora, sometimes through stitching, with or without removal of the clitoral prepuce/clitoral hood and glans (Type I FGM).
  • Type 4: This includes all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area.

Taking into account the characteristics that this practice presents, it can be affirmed that there is no physical or mental health benefit in a girl or woman, instead they present too many risks that undermine their integrity since they generate medical complications and psychological affectations.

Female genital mutilation may include immediate complications such as:

  • severe pain
  • excessive bleeding (hemorrhage)
  • genital tissue swelling
  • fever
  • infections e.g., tetanus
  • urinary problems
  • wound healing problems
  • injury to surrounding genital tissue
  • shock
  • death

And long-term complications that can be:

  • urinary problems (painful urination, urinary tract infections);
  • vaginal problems (discharge, itching, bacterial vaginosis and other infections);
  • menstrual problems (painful menstruations, difficulty in passing menstrual blood, etc.);
  • scar tissue and keloid;
  • sexual problems (pain during intercourse, decreased satisfaction, etc.);
  • increased risk of childbirth complications (difficult delivery, excessive bleeding, caesarean section, need to resuscitate the baby, etc.) and newborn deaths;
  • psychological problems (depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, low self-esteem, etc.).

Although FGM has been practiced for thousands of years, it may be filed if a generation becomes aware of the complications and risks that this entails. There are too many testimonies of girls and women who have told their experience before, during and after the medical procedure has been performed and report that it has been a traumatic experience, full of pain and anguish.

“They held me at my shoulders and at the knees, and I started crying and trying to close my legs. It was very terrible. I can never forget that” says Fatima, a girl who was six years old when she was circumcised and since that day was against FGM but comments that it is more frightening that society does not accept it, including her community: “My mother knows there are problems, but she believes it is a rule. She thinks it is shameful to live with the genital area open. She will always insist that we have to close it”.

There are currently dialogues with communities and presentation of programs that help raise awareness and education about fundamental rights and values aimed at parents and social leaders in order to create debates aimed at finding new alternatives to improve the quality of life of his daughters. Thanks to these initiatives, several communities have agreed to public policies that prohibit the practice of female genital mutilation, while providing access to prevention, protection and treatment services for girls and women affected by this tradition without any appropriate purpose.

16 December 2021
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