February 6th was the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female genital mutilation (FGM). The World Health Organization (WHO) defines FGM as “involving the partial or total removal of external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.”
FGM splits into four different categories according to the type of procedure performed: the partial or complete removal of the clitoris; the partial or complete removal of the clitoris and the labia minora; the narrowing of the vaginal orifice when usually the edges are stitched together; all other procedures such as stitching that are done to manipulate women’s genital area.
People encourage this practice for a variety of reasons. For example, some believe that it will decrease a woman’s libido, which will ensure that she remains pure and modest until marriage. Others do so believing that they will be shamed and fear being cast out for not participating in this practice when it is considered to be the social norm. However, FGM ultimately damages and comes at a high cost both literally and figuratively for young women and girls.
Two hundred million worldwide, more than half a million in Europe, women have been forced to undergo FGM as young girls. An ancient practice, which has long been tolerated by both Islam and Christianity, but which is now becoming increasingly less accepted. The UN has included its abolition by 2030 among the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The legal provisions can be useful to prohibit the practice and punish those who exercise it. In fact, about thirty African countries have adopted rules that severely punish those who continue to mutilate girls. However, the law alone is not enough. Only a cultural work through a widespread action carried out together by international organizations like UNICEF with local communities and non-governmental organizations would free the world from this unacceptable act.
In Africa, especially in the Horn of Africa (Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea), this harmful practice is still serious, but also in the West (Nigeria, Gambia, Guinea, Senegal, Mali) and in Egypt. From Africa, slowly, it has also arrived in Europe and America through migration. In Europe, it is estimated that 500 thousand women and girls have suffered it. In Italy, there are between 46 and 57 thousand victims. Many of them, to circumvent the ban imposed by Italian law (which expressly prohibited FGM in 2006), underwent infibulation, one of the categories of FGM, in their countries of origin during the summer or the main holidays. According to a study carried out a few years ago, in Italy the community most affected is the Nigerian one (35.5% of the total), followed by the Egyptian one (32.5%).
The battle still has a long way to go, but there is no way back. Thomas Sankara, the legendary President of Burkina Faso, said: "Infibulation is an attempt to give women an inferiority status, marking them with a devaluating sign. It will be a constant reminder to them that they are only women, inferior to men, having no right over their bodies or to physical or personal fulfillment ».
Equality Now, an organization aiming to eliminate gender inequalities and such issues as FGM, states, “Girls are at risk of FGM on every continent.” It is not simply a geographical or cultural issue. It is a whole women’s right violation profoundly affecting their physical and psychological wellbeing. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression are often the life-altering psychological effects of FGM. These mental health disorders directly lower the quality of life for the victims. The scarring on genitals is only evidence of surface damage, but the damage obviously goes much deeper than that. The severe repercussions of FGM are felt throughout the entirety of a woman’s life.
FGM also has a financial impact on economies, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), “Treatment of health complications of FGM in 27 high prevalence countries costs 1.4 billion USD per year.” Numerous health complications occur as a result of FGM, including infections and urinary problems.
There are organizations actively fighting and offering an abundance of resources and information about FGM, include UNICEF, Equality Now, and the WHO. Nevertheless, in order to eradicate FGM, there is a need for a worldwide effort to make more people knowledgeable about the issue by spreading awareness and helping survivors. Survivors of FGM exist all over the world and they can share their stories in the hopes that some little girls will be spared the same pain and torment they were subjected to. It is of the utmost importance to gather information and listen to those women and girls who, despite the intense stigma surrounding this invasive procedure, are brave enough to share their incredible stories and continue living.