The Human Impact

U.N. considers ban on female genital cutting

October 22, 2012

At seven years old, Khady Koita’s childhood was torn apart when she was pinned down and attacked by two women wielding a razor blade. The violence inflicted on her that day would change her life forever.

Last week the global campaign to end female genital mutilation (FGM) took a major step forward when a draft resolution on eliminating the practice was submitted to the United Nations General Assembly.

“FGM is horrific, brutal, degrading and indefensible,” said Koita, a leading figure in the campaign against FGM. “My big hope is that one day no girl will have to go through what I have been through.”

Up to 140 million girls and women are thought to have undergone FGM, which is widespread in parts of Africa and pockets of the Middle East and Asia.

The procedure involves the partial or total removal of the external genitalia. The vaginal opening may also be stitched closed.

Many believe FGM preserves a girl’s virginity and see it is an important rite of passage and prerequisite for marriage. But it can cause serious physical and emotional damage.

Campaigners say it is child abuse and some liken the psychological effects to those of rape.

“It is important that women like me who have suffered so much from this humiliation … and who have the privilege to be able to shout our rage, that we do so for those who can’t,” said Koita, who grew up in Senegal and now lives in Brussels.

The move to stamp out the practice is being driven by African member states of the United Nations, led by Burkina Faso and Benin. They hope the resolution will be adopted in December.

LIVING HELL

In Africa, FGM is found in 28 countries from Senegal in the west to Somalia in the east. Other places where it is prevalent include Yemen, Iraqi Kurdistan and Indonesia.

Cutting is practised by both Muslim and Christian communities. Parents say it purifies the girl and brings her status. Many also believe it is a religious requirement, although it is not mentioned in the Koran or any other religious text.

It is usually arranged by the women in the family and performed by traditional cutters who use anything from razor blades to scissors, broken glass or tin can lids.

FGM can cause haemorrhaging, shock, chronic pain, recurrent urinary tract infections, cysts, menstrual problems and infertility. It increases the risk of labour complications and newborn deaths. The procedure itself can prove fatal.

Recent research in northern Iraq also suggests girls who undergo cutting are more prone to mental disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

One Eritrean woman described how FGM had left her in pain for 20 years and turned her marriage into “a living hell”.

“FGM scars you for life – physically, mentally and emotionally. It doesn’t go away after a year or so. It stays with you forever,” she told me in an interview.

Although 20 of the African countries where FGM is found have banned it, laws are often poorly enforced. Others like Mali, Liberia and Sudan have no law.

Koita believes a resolution will help activists “put governments up against the wall”.

“It will be an extraordinary tool for people to get the laws that exist implemented, and it will also help people who don’t yet have laws in their country,” she said.

Picture caption: A Ugandan traditional cutter holds razor blades before carrying out female genital mutilation on teenage girls from the Sebei tribe in Bukwa district, about 350 kms (210 miles) northeast of Kampala, December 15, 2008. REUTERS/James Akena

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