An Ancient Tradition Resists Reform

Updated September 9, 2022 | Infoplease Staff

The abolition of female genital mutilation has become a worldwide human rights cause

-Borgna Brunner

In 1994, when a 17-year-old girl from Togo sought asylum in the United States to escape genital mutilation, few Americans understood the brutal nature of this ancient and widespread African ritual. Fauziya Kassindja ran away from home the day she would have been forced to undergo ritual genital cutting in preparation for an arranged marriage. She eventually made her way to the United States, but instead of granting her asylum, immigration officials arrested her for illegal entry and sent her to prison for a year and a half, where she was sometimes shackled and placed in solitary confinement. Although human rights advocates sought her release, the courts found her story “not credible.“ Only when the media exposed her plight was she freed.

Kassindja's case became a lightning rod for growing legislative and media attention, awakening the nation to a dangerous and painful practice that is the social norm for women in many central African countries. Representative Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), now retired, advocated banning the practice for twenty years before getting a bill through Congress, and remarked that some members of Congress simply could not believe such a practice actually existed. Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev.) fought for a ban although “all my staff advised me to stay away from it,“ considering it a squeamish subject for a male politician. When Stephanie Walsh was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for her photographs of a genital mutilation rite in Kenya, the inhumanity of the procedure was exposed to the general public, helping to legitimize a subject that many found uncomfortable to discuss.

Genital mutilation, also referred to as female circumcision, genital cutting, or excision, is a coming-of-age ritual that signifies a girl's entry into womanhood. It is accompanied by public celebrations and is often a source of pride for the girl. For some it also carries religious significance. Usually performed on girls between the ages of 4 and 12, but also on teenagers, it involves the partial or total excision of the external female genitalia. It is performed by a female elder using a razor, knife, or piece of glass, usually without anesthetic, while several women hold the girl down. Agonizingly painful, it robs her of sexual pleasure and frequently causes medical problems, including hemorrhaging, infection, urinary incontinence, infertility, and complications in childbirth.

Countries Practicing Genital Mutilation

  • Benin
  • Burkina Faso
  • Cameroon
  • Central African Republic
  • Chad
  • Djibouti
  • Egypt
  • Ethiopia
  • Gambia
  • Guinea
  • Guinea-Bissau
  • Ghana
  • Ivory Coast
  • Kenya
  • Liberia
  • Mali
  • Mauritania
  • Niger
  • Nigeria
  • Senegal
  • Sierra Leone
  • Somalia
  • Sudan
  • Tanzania
  • Togo

Genital mutilation is practiced in 25 countries in central Africa, ranging from Somalia in the east coast and stretching westward to Senegal on the Atlantic. The rite is believed to have originated more than two thousand years ago in Egypt or the Horn of Africa (what is now Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Somalia). The World Health Organization estimates that more than 130 million women have undergone the procedure. Although it is most often associated with Islam, it is also practiced by Christians, adherents to traditional African religions, and one Jewish sect.

Three Types, Varying in Severity

There are generally three different types of circumcision: clitoridectomy, the amputation of the clitoris; excision of the labia minora as well as the clitoris; and infibulation, the removal all external genitalia including the labia majora, after which the edges of the wound are stitched together, allowing for only a tiny opening. The risk of infection and problematic childbirth are naturally greatly exacerbated by infibulation, and it is estimated that 20% to 25% of sterility cases in the Sudan have resulted from the procedure. The prevalence of circumcision and the type of procedure vary enormously from country to country. According to a study by Demographic and Health Survey, 93% of women in Mali and 98% in Djibouti and Somalia undergo genital cutting, whereas in Uganda and the Congo the number drops to 5%. Clitoridectomy is the most common procedure. Infibulation accounts for about 15% of women, with an estimated 80% to 90% of all infibulations occurring in Djibouti, Somalia, and the Sudan. The only country where the genital mutilation is noticeably decreasing is the Central African Republic, where the practice was not widespread to begin with.

“We have done it, we do it, and we will continue to do it.“

Genital cutting is seen as a way of ensuring that a woman is clean, chaste, and ready for marriage; uncut women are associated with promiscuity and lack of social respectability. Deadening the woman's sexual pleasure is a way of guaranteeing her virginity and fidelity. Because it is a valued social rite, most girls are willing to succumb to the pain and the subsequent health problems. But whether they wish to be excised or not, the choice is not theirs. Living in a staunchly patriarchal world, they are dependent on men for social and economic survival. As a father from the Ivory Coast told the New York Times,“ If your daughter has not been excised. . . . No man in the village will marry her. It is an obligation. We have done it, we do it, and we will continue to do it. . . . She has no choice. I decide. Her viewpoint is not important.“

An Ancient Tradition Resists Reform

For the past ten to fifteen years, France has criminally prosecuted immigrant parents who have had their daughters excised, and in October 1996 the U.S. Congress outlawed female genital mutilation in this country. The U.N. announced a global campaign in 1997 to eradicate the practice, and a growing number of refugee, women's, and human rights organizations in Africa and around the world have called for its prohibition. But progress has been slow. Western reform movements are sometimes counterproductive, with Africans resisting the dictates of patronizing outsiders. Outlawing the practice had already been attempted by colonial governments in Africa during the first half of the century, provoking only resistance and protests. African governments have also been ineffective. Kenya, Sudan, Burkina Faso, the Ivory Coast, and Egypt have passed laws limiting the practice, but they are not enforced.

The World Health Organization estimates it will take a minimum of ten years to reduce the prevalence of genital mutilation, and three generations to eradicate it. It will take time to transform awareness of a firmly entrenched ritual that is valued by the local culture but considered dangerous and demeaning by outsiders.

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