|Genital mutilation, also referred to as female
circumcision , genital cutting, or excision, is a coming-of-age
ritual that signifies a girl's entry into
Genital mutilation, also
referred to as female
circumcision , genital cutting, or excision, is a
coming-of-age ritual that signifies a girl's entry into womanhood. It is
accompanied by public celebrations and is often a source of pride for the
girl. For some it also carries religious significance. Usually performed
on girls between the ages of 4 and 12, but also on teenagers, it involves
the partial or total excision of the external female genitalia.
It is performed by a female elder using a razor, knife, or piece of
glass, usually without anesthetic, while several women hold the girl down.
Agonizingly painful, it robs her of sexual pleasure and frequently causes
medical problems, including hemorrhaging, infection, urinary incontinence,
infertility, and complications in childbirth.
"We have done it, we
do it, and we will continue to do it"
Genital cutting is seen as a way of ensuring that a woman is clean,
chaste, and ready for marriage; uncut women are associated with
promiscuity and lack of social
respectability. Deadening the woman's sexual pleasure is a way of
guaranteeing her virginity and fidelity.
Because it is a valued social rite, most girls are willing to succumb
to the pain and the subsequent health problems. But whether they wish to
be excised or not, the choice is not theirs. Living in a staunchly
patriarchal world, they are dependent on men for social and economic
survival. As a father from the Ivory Coast told the New York Times," If
your daughter has not been excised. . . . No man in the village will marry
her. It is an obligation. We have done it, we do it, and we will continue
to do it. . . . She has no choice. I decide. Her viewpoint is not
Legislation and media awareness
In 1994, when a 17-year-old girl from Togo sought asylum in the
United States to escape genital mutilation, few Americans understood the
brutal nature of this ancient and widespread African ritual. Fauziya
Kassindja ran away from home the day she would have been forced to undergo
ritual genital cutting in preparation for an arranged marriage.
She eventually made her way to the United States, but instead of
granting her asylum ,
immigration officials arrested her for illegal entry and sent her to
prison for a year and a half, where she was sometimes shackled and placed
in solitary confinement. Although human rights advocates sought her
release, the courts found her story "not credible." Only when the media
exposed her plight was she freed.
Kassindja's case became a lightning rod for growing legislative and
media attention, awakening the nation to a dangerous and painful practice
that is the social norm for women in many central African
countries.Senator Harry Reid fought for a ban although "all my staff
advised me to stay away from it," considering it a squeamish subject for a
When Stephanie Walsh was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for her
photographs of a genital mutilation rite in Kenya, the inhumanity of the
procedure was exposed to the general public, helping to legitimize a
subject that many found uncomfortable to discuss. An ancient
tradition resists reform
For the past ten to fifteen years, France has criminally prosecuted immigrant parents who have had
their daughters excised, and in October 1996 the U.S. Congress outlawed
female genital mutilation in this country. The U.N. announced a global
campaign in 1997 to eradicate the practice, and a growing number of
refugee, women's, and human rights organizations in Africa and around the
world have called for its prohibition.But progress has been slow.
Western reform movements are sometimes counterproductive, with Africans
resisting the dictates of patronizing outsiders. Outlawing the practice
had already been attempted by colonial governments in Africa during the
first half of the century, provoking only resistance and protests.
The World Health Organization estimates it will take a minimum of ten
years to reduce the prevalence of genital mutilation, and three
generations to eradicate it. It will take time to transform awareness of a
firmly entrenched ritual that is valued by the local culture but
considered dangerous and demeaning by outsiders.
Genital mutilation is practiced in 28 countries in central Africa,
ranging from Somalia in the east coast and stretching westward to Senegal
on the Atlantic. The rite is believed to have originated more than two
thousand years ago in Egypt or the Horn of Africa (what is now Eritrea,
Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Somalia). The World Health Organization estimates
that more than 130 million women have undergone the procedure. Although it
is most often associated with Islam, it is also practiced by Christians,
adherents to traditional African religions, and one Jewish