Female genital cutting (FGC) is a procedure involving partial or total removal of female genital organs for cultural and religious reasons. Although often practiced in East African communities (ex: Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan), FGC occurs all over the world, for example in refugee communities in the United States. The World Health Organization has condemned the practice and the United States has made FGC illegal for anyone under the age of 18. But, even in 2021, we are still seeing these practices continue. The reasons why are very complex and highlight major intersections of women’s health with societal influences.
In order to gain expert insight, I reached out to a research team at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health who particularly studies the topic of FGC.
Why is FGC Harmful to Women?
FGC is an unnecessary medical procedure that has no medical benefits. In fact, it can really only have negative side effects including severe pain, hemorrhage, chronic genital infections, menstrual problems, and even complications with childbirth (World Health Organization).
According to the research team, FGC can even have negative long-term impacts on women’s mental health. They add that,
“In addition to these physical health consequences, FGC can have an impact on psychological health. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety are some of the psychological effects of FGC. Oftentimes, the procedure takes place in non-medical settings and is performed without anesthesia. Some women can recall FGC as a painful experience from their childhood.”
If FGC is So Harmful, then Why Does it Continue to be Practiced?
When a practice is so extensively rooted in a group of people’s culture, it's not realistic to tell them to stop a tradition that is so greatly rooted in their identity. FGC continues because it is a part of social norms, religious teachings, pressure from the community, and a means of displaying one’s virginity.
However, the research team says that attitudes toward FGC are changing.
“Our team is conducting a research project on FGC. Part of this research involves collecting information about FGC 'in women’s own words,' through one-on-one interviews of women. Most of the women who we interviewed in the Somali- Minnesotan community disproved of or had conflicting attitudes towards the practice. Women shared their own health experiences following their circumcision and discussed the negative impact it had on their sexual functioning and overall health. They talked about having these conversations with family, female relatives, and friends to discourage the continuation of the FGC.”
After learning a bit more about the subject, I still had a major question:
Considering this is a part of so many people’s culture, is it appropriate to tell them that what they are doing is “wrong?” Are people willing to listen and learn about the consequences?
The team recognized the insightfulness of this question “because it recognizes the importance of respecting communities.” After all, FGC is an important cultural practice in many communities around the world. Is it right for us “outsiders” to tell them what they can and cannot practice?
The team highlighted that health professionals and human rights advocates need to be cautious and respectful in how they frame their messages on abandoning the practice of FGC.
“FGC is part of someone’s culture, and perhaps their identity. While health professionals can inform and present reasons for why the practice of FGC should not be continued, it is important not to label FGC as 'wrong' or shaming those who continue the practice. Most people are open to discussion and willing to learn more about the potential impact FGC could have on their own physical and psychological well-being and that of others in the community.”
So, with that said,
What is the Appropriate Way to End FGC and its Harmful Effects on Women across the Globe?
Of course, ending the practice is not an easy task. But the team points out that
“Any approach to ending FGC should be community-led and engage all members of practicing communities. FGC is not just a women’s issue; men must also be included in conversations about FGC to make a difference.”
As always, creating a safe, judgement-free zone for community-based education is key. Messages about FGC must be framed in a culturally appropriate way, which requires partnerships with members of the community, including not just women, but men and religious leaders. The team closes by saying that health professionals should make it clear that their role is “not to exert pressure. Rather, the role of a professional is to create a space for communication and exchange of information.”
To learn more about the research project and people interviewed, read the team’s description below. I hoped you all learned something new and useful; I know I did! Please comment what you think about these experts' insight!
About the Research Team and Project:
"Munira Salad, the Community Engagement Specialist of our research project, has previously worked as a health educator and helped lead health education workshops for immigrant and refugee women who have undergone FGC. The workshops provided an opportunity for women to share their experiences and have an open dialogue about FGC. Most women were active participants and were willing to have these conversations with their community members.
Sonya Brady is an Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Community Health and a Co-Investigator of our research project. Her research interests include health promotion among diverse populations, and ways in which the assets of individuals and their families, peers, and communities can promote health.
Ms. Salad and Dr. Brady are two of many people involved with a community-based participatory research project on FGC. The Principal Investigators (co-leads) of this project are Dr. Beatrice “Bean” Robinson and Dr. Jennifer Connor."