A UNICEF report released last month estimates that 200 million girls and women in 30 countries have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM). While FGM is most prevalent in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, immigrants have imported the practice to North America and Europe.
Two U.S. gynecologists have recently made headlines suggesting that less invasive practices, such as small surgical nicks to girls’ genitalia, should be allowed. They framed it as a compromise that would enable families to uphold cultural traditions while protecting girls from more dangerous forms of cutting.
This proposal is not new, and it has regularly been met with vociferous opposition from women’s rights organizations.
To understand the arguments, some background on FGM is required. It’s an uncomfortable subject, but FGM is a global problem. It exists in Canada, and we must confront it head on.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), female genital mutilation includes all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. Immediate complications include pain, hemorrhage, infection, shock and death. Assuming one survives, the long-term physical and psychological consequences are severe.
It is a misnomer to refer to FGM as female circumcision. Doriane Coleman, a Duke University law professor with an expertise in children and the law, rejects the analogy of FGM to male circumcision as “specious and disingenuous” because “the traditional forms of FGM are as different from male circumcision in terms of procedure, physical ramifications and motivation as ear piercing is to a penilectomy.”
How, then, would “nicking” compare to male circumcision? There are two primary differences. The first is the WHO’s assessment that FGM has no health benefits whatsoever, while observational data and randomized controlled trials demonstrate “that circumcised men have a significantly lower risk of becoming infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).”
The second distinction is intent. Male circumcision for religious Jews relates to a covenant with God, and in Islam the ritual appears mainly about cleanliness. Secular families opting for circumcision for their sons can do so for esthetic preferences or health benefits.
In contrast, FGM is about curtailing a woman’s sexuality. It aims to reduce a woman’s libido and help her resist extramarital sexual acts. It is rooted in the belief that a woman must be controlled and submissive. And, as explored in the film Honor Diaries, FGM is part of an honour code to which women are conditioned to adhere, a manifestation of the belief that a family’s honour is contained in women, to be guarded by men.
One woman interviewed in the movie recalls her own experience undergoing the procedure: “I remember before it began, I was still lying there. She was negotiating with my mom with the money. And my mom had to pay her extra for using a new razor.” Certainly from the perspective of harm reduction, the benefits of nicking in a sterile, western doctor’s office are clear.
But the WHO cautions against normalizing and condoning the practice, thereby “hindering long-term efforts for eliminating FGM.”
I asked Raheel Raza, a Canadian featured in Honor Diaries, for her thoughts on the “compromise.” She opposes it: “We are trying to take 10 steps ahead, and then some well-wisher or someone who has never experienced FGM takes it in the wrong direction. There must be no compromise.”
This issue must be exposed to sunlight here in Canada, where there are no statistics on the number of FGM cases within its borders, let alone resources or institutional supports to assist FGM victims. Parliament, whether through the House of Commons or the Senate human rights committee or the office of the Minister for Status of Women, should immediately take up the cause of FGM and honour-based violence.
Neither compromise nor outright denial is an option.
Sheryl Saperia is director of policy for Canada at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies