Author and sociologist Hilary Burrage explains how only a zero tolerance approach can bring an end to the damaging practice of FGM.
Some 200 million women and girls alive today are thought to have undergone, or be at significant risk of, female genital mutilation (FGM), a practice that has no benefits and causes physical, psychological and socio-economic harm to victims (survivors), their families and their communities.
There is a global epidemic of FGM, a public health challenge in many parts of the world which demands zero tolerance of this harmful traditional practice stretching back millennia.
The practice may have started in Egypt when wealthy men sought to ensure both that children born to their wives were legitimate heirs (so they sewed the women up – infibulated them – whilst husbands were away), and that their female slaves would not get pregnant, thereby interfering with their work (sew them up, again).
FGM is found in many parts of the world – North and South America, Australia, Russia, parts of Asia and now, especially with the diaspora, Europe, as well as in the most widely known locations of Africa and the Middle East. It must therefore have had many different beginnings, just as it involves many different practices inflicted on girls and women of different status and ages, for different “reasons”, by different types of people.
But in every instance of FGM there is a common theme: control, and the subjugation of women by men. FGM makes women into commodities, to be sold as brides (sometimes one of several, with the same man), to reduce sexual pleasure and so “guarantee purity”, to produce income via marriage for the investment of the family which raised the girl child. It reduces girls and women to chattels.
Like breast ironing and similar less known cruel practices, FGM is patriarchy incarnate, the literal imposition of men’s power on women’s bodies.
The actual assault of the girl is more often by women than men, but there may be little choice if only after FGM can the child become a bride – unmarried she cannot attain adult status and will have no husband to take the place of her birth family. And other motives also lead to FGM, for instance in war zones where infibulation will, it is hoped, prevent rape.
In some communities FGM is also used to punish girls judged disobedient or insufficiently respectful. Not always, as often claimed, is FGM an “act of love”.
There are then many reasons why eradicating FGM is imperative. It can destroy lives; it puts pregnancies at risk; it inflicts trauma and distrust; it devalues women and leaves girls poorly educated and vulnerable; it demands health, legal and other provision (wherever in the world it occurs) which could be put to better use elsewhere.
The damage of FGM, like the motive, is at base economic; it harms communities as well as the women who experience it.
The debate about how many girls actually undergo FGM on British soil continues, but official health service reporting shows that thousands live with the condition. Only by standing with EndFGM activists in their own communities, and bringing together all the agencies involved in eradication, can we hope to make FGM history.
Hilary Burrage is the author of Eradicating Female Genital Mutilation (Routledge, 2015) and Female Mutilation (New Holland Publishers, 2016).
She will deliver a presentation at the FGM Conference: Zero tolerance for female genital mutilation on April 24th. More information in the event is available – here.