Washington D.C. — Female Genital Mutilation seems foreign, cruel and degrading to the American eye. While it is indeed cruel and degrading, genital mutilation is not as foreign as expected for some women in America. According to a study done by Equality Now, data on female genital mutilation (FGM) is sparse. So much so that the last available national numbers about female circumcision are from 1997, when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services “estimated that over 168,000 girls and women living in the U.S. have either been, or are at risk of being, subjected to FGM.”
The World Health Organization defines FGM as “procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” FGM is primarily practiced in 29 African and Middle Eastern countries, where more than 125 million women have been affected. In this context, FGM is highly ritualistic. According to Time magazine, female circumcision is performed “under the belief that girls must be ‘cut’ in order to prepare them for marriage.”
Time released a story based on the observations made by Finnish photographer Meeri Koutaniemi, who visited the Maasai tribe in Kenya as they prepared for the circumcision of two girls. Koutaniemi explained preparation for the ritual, which included the shaving and washing of the girls’ bodies. Koutaniemi reported that the ritual was accompanied by screams of pain and crying. Afterwards, the genitalia were marred beyond recognition.
Time published Koutaniemi’s photographs with the article. One, especially moving, was of the blade used for the procedure: a dirty Super-Max double edge razor blade. Another showed the face of one of the girls, screaming in agony during her circumcision.
FGM is typically prompted by cultural or social norms. Young girls are circumcised before marriage, sometimes even to “help her resist ‘illicit’ sexual acts.” Girls are often considered more pure or “clean” after removing certain parts.
These incidences often go unrecognized in the United States, as they are not prevalent on American soil. However, The New York Times recently released a story emphasizing that these rituals have, in fact, affected American women. Immigrant parents have been sending their U.S. born daughters back to their motherlands for years. However, the custom of “vacation cutting” was only banned in the United States last year. At that point, the damage was already done for many American girls.
The physical and emotional tolls on the victims of FGM are enormous. The WHO emphasizes that there are, “no health benefits, only harm.” There are four different types of FGM, though removal of the clitoris and removal of the labia are often common factors. In some cases, a “seal” is formed to close the vaginal opening.
During the female circumcision procedure, victims are subject to hemorrhaging, contracting a bacterial infection and excruciating pain. Other infections, increased risk of infertility and complications with childbirth are likely to occur. Victims are likely to be emotionally shut off about the incident as well.
In 2012, the United Nations General Assembly banned the practice of FGM. The ban “urges countries to condemn all harmful practices that affect women and girls,” and while the U.N. itself cannot enforce laws for the countries, it encourages “enforcing legislation, awareness-raising and allocating sufficient resources to protect women and girls from this form of violence.”