Female genital mutilation is a practice that has historically victimized roughly 114 million women and girls. This procedure is practiced in 27 countries in Africa, 7 countries in the Middle East, as well as in several parts of Malaysia, India and Indonesia. Although many people are quick to dismiss this practice as an African issue or perhaps even an immigrant issue, female genital mutilation is in fact very much a Canadian issue and is one that demands our immediate attention.
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a widely practiced procedure because it is thought to promote certain ideals which many cultures hold in very high regard. Females who have had their external genitalia partially or completely removed are often believed to be exceptionally chaste, hygienic and healthy. This practice is also thought to be a method of controlling the attitudes women have toward sex and their sexuality. In addition to this, FGM is also believed to make women more desirable to their male counterparts. After growing up in Africa and working closely in communities where FGM is widely practiced I have learned that there are several common misconceptions that accompany this practice.
Misconception: FGM is NOT consistent with being healthy:
Elders in the community, particularly those who perform the procedure, told me that by removing a female’s external genitalia they were in turn ensuring that this female has a healthy future. They strongly believed that women who had their external genitals removed are less susceptible to having stillbirths, are less prone to infections and diseases and are less likely to be infertile. This is certainly not the case. Women who have their external genitalia removed are more likely to experience stillbirths, are more likely to contract infections and diseases and are more likely to be infertile. I strongly believe that these misconceptions were perpetuated by cultural practices and beliefs. It is of utmost importance that communities are educated in the health risks that are associated with FGM.
Mothers and grandmothers need to be aware of the fact that girls who have undergone this procedure are in fact more susceptible to stillbirths as the labor process is five times longer than it would have been had their genitals not been cut. In addition to this, girls who have been victimized by FGM are in fact more prone to infections and diseases since urine and blood are forced to exit from the same small opening. These infections often spread to the uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries and often cause infertility. Therefore, those who believe that FGM is consistent with being healthy and perform this procedure for this reason are mistaken. FGM is extremely damaging to the health and sexuality of women and girls and hinders normal development. I strongly believe that health is a fundamental right that every person is entitled to, no matter where they may live in this world. We must ensure that these girls have healthy futures and abolishing the practice of FGM would be an important step toward achieving this goal.
FGM does NOT promote chastity or faithfulness and does NOT protect against rape
Many community members expressed that they believed that FGM ensured that girls remained virgins and were faithful to their husbands. They did not seem to understand that physical changes made to ones body do not directly affect or determine an individual’s behavior. Girls develop into respectful, honorable and faithful women because of what they are taught, what values are instilled in them and how they live, not because of the physical changes that are made to their bodies. It is also a mistake to assume that FGM would prevent instances of rape as this is certainly not the case.
A CANADIAN PERSPECTIVE
In the early 1990’s I was actively involved in getting the Liberal Government to introduce legislation that would criminalize FGM. In 1995 in the second session of the 35th Parliament Bill C-27 was passed making female genital mutilation a criminal act. Therefore, here in Canada, this practice is considered to be a criminal offence and those who perform this procedure can be charged under the Criminal Code of Canada. Unfortunately I am extremely sad to report that not one conviction has been made since this law has been passed even though it is known that this practice still takes place within Canada.
In addition, I also worked closely with women’s group to develop training manuals (link to manual) french and english
Many international organizations have also taken a stance against this practice and the World Health Organization in particular has stated “female circumcision should not be practiced by any health professionals in any setting- including hospitals or other health establishments.”
Often women who undergo this procedure believe that by doing so they are promoting cleanliness, good health and pleasure for their husbands. We need to rally together and speak out against this practice but we also need to ensure that the way in which we approach this problem doesn’t further oppress these already disempowered populations.
CALL TO ACTION
I strongly believe that female genital mutilation is a human rights issue and is one that needs to be addressed on a global scale. I also believe that Canadians not only have a right but an obligation to ensure that this procedure is no longer practiced. This can be done by educating mothers and grandmothers, by creating support groups, and by educating entire communities about common misconceptions associated with the practice of FGM. Doing so will also help raise awareness that FGM is in fact a form of child abuse.
Although many people are quick to dismiss female genital mutilation by labeling it as an African issue or perhaps even an immigrant issue, FGM is very much a Canadian issue and is one that demands our attention. A Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women claims that between 1986 and 1991, approximately 40,000 women who had arrived in Canada had been subjected to some form of female genital cutting. This is not including the thousands of women who arrived in Canada from Somalia after 1991 statistics indicate that many of these women were also victims of female genital mutilation. These women are often overcome with feelings of shame and embarrassment and as a result do not seek out medical assistance even when they are pregnant. This often results in these women not receiving the necessary natal care which they require. We as Canadians need to ensure that these women receive the medical care they are entitled too. We also need to ensure that they are educated about the laws surrounding the practice as well as the health complications that accompany it. By doing so, we will not only be making sure that the women who have already been victimized receive a standard of health care that is consistent with that which has been granted to all Canadians but we will also be ensuring that these women do not subject their daughters to this practice.
As Canadians we must ensure that it is the practice of FGM that we are condemning and not the women who have already been victimized by it.
Senate Chamber Statement – Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Women in Africa
Senate Chamber Statement – Thursday, June 9, 2011
Female Genital Mutilation