A BLOG BY SHANNON FISHER
As a women’s rights activist, a significant percentage of my time is spent raising awareness about – and trying to make an impact upon – legislation that relates to reproductive rights and other issues related to female bodily autonomy. I co-founded UniteWomen.org’s Unite Against Rape campaign to address the rising epidemic of sexual assault that is permeating our society. With Unite Against Rape, we have raised awareness of the prevalence of campus sexual assault, intimate partner violence, and the epidemic of human trafficking – but I was unaware of the widespread occurrence of female genital mutilation (FGM) until Angela Peabody of the Global Woman PEACE Foundation contacted UniteWomen.org to ask if one of our leaders would like to speak at this event.
Even after becoming deeply entrenched in advocacy and the legislative fight for women to have autonomy over their own bodies, I still did not realize that FGM is one of the predominate safety issues facing women globally. After speaking with Angela, I researched the topic thoroughly enough to realize the gravity of the situation.
Performed without anesthesia, often with razor blade, female genital mutilation is not safe, either physically or psychologically. Women who have been mutilated often develop serious complications. There are no known health benefits to this procedure, and it serves no valid developmental, religious or health-related purpose.
FGM affects 140 million women and girls worldwide. It is practiced in 28 African countries, in some Asian nations, and in several Middle Eastern countries. To give you an idea of the widespread practice, it is estimated that 97% of women in Egypt – almost 40 million women in that country alone – have had or will have this procedure performed. And yet, little is being done to stop it.
Contrasting this with another health issue that has received an enormous amount of press recently, it should be noted that FGM poses a far greater threat to U.S. Citizens than Ebola – but it is not being covered on the news or discussed at water coolers. Guinea (where 98.6 percent of women and girls will experience FGM in their lifetimes), Liberia (60 percent FGM) and Sierra Leone (90 percent FGM) are experiencing a widespread Ebola outbreak. Once the virus is contained in these countries, that epidemic will cease. But the epidemic of female genital mutilation will not cease until we bring about enough awareness of the practice that it becomes a priority on the international health stage.
American women’s rights activists typically do whatever we can to ensure that women in the United States have widespread access to excellent gynecological health care, birth control, and safe abortion. Most of us tend to think of routine health screenings, pelvic exams, obstetrics, STD testing, and cancer screenings as standard health care for women. Most of us are somewhat oblivious to the fact that there are many economic barriers, both in the United States and globally, to receiving this type of gynecological care. Impoverished people often experience a significant lack of access to quality health care.
In addition to the economic barriers, there are cultural differences in how gynecology is practiced around the world. We rather easily remain in the dark about these variations when the practices are performed on other continents, but immigrants who help to create this wonderful melting pot we call home often bring these cultural practices with them to the United States.
While cultural variances provide a welcome opportunity for many of us to learn and grow as we experience varying perspectives on life, we are all gathered here at the Washington Monument today to address one cultural practice in particular that is causing great harm to women in this country – and around the world. I’d like to congratulate everyone here for stepping up and trying to do something about female genital mutilation.
Recently, a 17-year old girl in the United Kingdom led a campaign to add education about FGM to the curriculum in schools there. She petitioned to notify all primary and secondary school teachers in the UK that most FGM procedures occur over the summer holiday, when students can be whisked away to other locations or given time to recover at home after having been mutilated at home.
UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, publicly supported this campaign that received more than 230,000 signatures, and he stated that “the health consequences [of FGM] include depression, insecurity, pain, infections, incontinence and sometimes deadly complications in pregnancy and childbirth. Mothers shouldn’t be terrified of giving birth to daughters.”
In July of 2014, more than 220,000 people signed a petition in the United States calling for a study to accurately measure the instances of FGM in the United States and come up with a solid plan to tackle it. The petition was started by a woman who was mutilated in Gambia – and whose sister died from complications from the procedure.
Female genital mutilation has been illegal in the United States since 1996, and transporting girls out of the U.S. for FGM is now punishable by five years in jail. But the procedure is still performed in private, and it has gone largely underground.
While creating and signing petitions can raise awareness, it can also give a false sense that we are making a real impact on the practice of FGM. “Slacktivism” is a relatively new term, one that was coined after the rise of social media activism. (UniteWomen.org played a large role in the rise of social media activism, so it isn’t necessarily a term we use very often.) Essentially, slacktivism means that it does not take a monumental amount of effort to raise awareness of an issue by spreading the word about it through social media.
While this model works with many mainstream political issues, FGM is something that is usually isolated within small immigrant communities – and personal outreach into those communities is necessary. We must be careful not to exacerbate prejudices against certain minorities. The message against FGM has to come from within each community to genuinely make an impact. Outside influences that vilify their traditions would only further alienate the people within these communities who would most benefit from receiving the message.
What can we do to assist in these efforts? We must educate and involve doctors, midwives, cutters, mothers, fathers and young people. The procedure doesn’t stop with first generation immigrants. Even after assimilating into American culture, the practice is often carried on into second and third generation Americans – right here on American soil.
8,000 women and girls are mutilated in the world every day. EIGHT THOUSAND GIRLS PER DAY, every day of the year – many of whom live in the United States. The last known study, performed in 1997, estimated that nearly 230,000 women and girls are at risk for female genital mutilation in the U.S. annually. That number continues to rise.
As we stand surrounded by the National Monuments today, let that be a powerful reminder that a few determined minds can change the course of human history. Many women’s rights activists are fighting tooth and nail around the country for legislation that provides women with social and economic equality. There is a renewed push for the Equal Rights Amendment that has gained significant political traction in recent years, and that movement shows no signs of stopping.
I want to be clear, though, when I say that the health and well-being of women is not – and should not be – a political issue. It is an issue of human decency. No party affiliation or political persuasion should matter in the least when addressing issues of providing a safe environment for our citizens, and global citizens, to flourish. I think we can all agree that, outside of any ideology, keeping our women and girls safe from harm should be one of the main priorities of the United Nations and the governing bodies worldwide.
Having autonomy over our own bodies is the most basic freedom a person can have. In nations ravaged with conflict, rape is used as a weapon of war. This is not only physical warfare, but also psychological. A single spirit dampened can extinguish that of an entire village once a sense of safety is lost.
Men in some cultures view women’s bodies as being theirs to take and do with what they will, and yet the shame continually falls upon the victim. Honor killings, family disowning, and social shunning of women who are not virgins – even when that occurs by rape – are still very common. There is a shadow of shame cast on female sexuality, and female genital mutilation falls within that category.
FGM is performed for several common reasons:
1) To ensure a woman’s virginity before marriage and her fidelity once she is married. Women’s genitals are often sewn closed and later re-opened for the sole purpose of reproduction;
2) To control a woman’s sexuality. Historically, female sexuality has been vilified and it is often believed that women should not be allowed to experience sexual pleasure;
3) To make a girl more acceptable in the community and increase her eligibility for marriage; and
4) As a traditional rite of passage into adulthood.
On the topic of female genital mutilation being consideed a rite of passage, people often compare male circumcision to female circumcision (another term used for FGM). The main difference between the two is the underlying ideology behind the practice. The purpose of FGM is often to subjugate women and remove their bodily autonomy, further establishing their lower place in a hierarchical structure of a patriarchal society. Also, the safety of the two procedures differs greatly. Removal of the foreskin does not affect the male sex organ; whereas FGM severely damages the female sex organs and is often accompanied by severe health complications.
Some women are opened up only for pregnancy and delivery and otherwise remain sewn together. They are not only viewed as baby factories, but literally locked up like manufacturing equipment.
Feminism has made great strides, but women are still viewed as property in many areas of the world. It has only been in the last half century that women in America have stepped out from under that shadow. When the birth control pill was released, a woman in the United States had to have a permission slip from either her husband or her father to receive the prescription. SCOTUS rectified this in Griswold v. Connecticut, which secured the right of women to obtain birth control without marital consent.
Women in some places are not free to go in public without a male escort to whom they are related. Children are under the control of adults, with parents and other elders making decisions for them that should provide for their safe and healthy well-being and development. These elders also provide cultural ideals about what is acceptable and attractive.
We all desire to be what our culture presents to us as being beautiful. FGM has been associated with tailoring sex organs to appear more beautiful and clean. When I think of the standard of beauty presented to us in fashion magazines, the media and the entertainment industry, the look of a woman’s labia does not even cross my mind.
We never know what goes on behind closed doors, and just as we do not see sexual and physical abuse in our neighbors’ homes, we also do not see the barbaric violent act of genital mutilation. It is more common than we know – and due to the nature of the act, and the shame associated with it, it is not likely that victims are going to tell anyone outside of their family about it. The effect this procedure can have on a woman is much more far-reaching than the physical scars. A little girl can go from being an innocent, happy, healthy person to being traumatized, withdrawn, insecure, and shamed.
Amnesty International calls FGM a grotesque practice. The UN refers to it as “an irreparable, irreversible abuse that impacts negatively on the human rights of women and girls.” The UN 67th General Assembly adopted a Resolution “intensifying global efforts for the elimination of female genital mutilation.” These efforts are in place worldwide to stop the practice and educate communities. FGM is considered a human rights violation due to the physical and psychological impact it has on women and girls.
I personally believe that certain human rights are a given – or should be a given – and that it is up to us to protect our brothers and sisters around the world. If all of us here today commit to doing just one thing, we could make an indelible mark on the worldwide treatment of women and girls.
If we all promise to learn as much as we can about every issue that involves threats to female bodily autonomy, and then go on to share that information with others, we could play a major role in changing the status quo. Just as with addiction – with societal disease, admitting the problem is the most important step towards recovery. You cannot slay the dragon you don’t see. So, let’s all commit to opening some eyes and making a difference.