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Female Genital Mutilation as a Domestic Issue

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October 6, 2015

Recently my URGE chapter at Wichita State hosted the president and founder of the Keep Girls Safe Foundation Sien Lengeju. Keep Girls Safe’s work is focused on ending female genital mutilation (FGM) in Kenya and here in the States. Before hosting the presentation, I was slightly aware of the issue across the Atlantic but completely ignorant to the problem in our own country, and I know many others are just like me in this. So I want to share a little bit of what I learned to help spread awareness for Keep Girls Safe’s cause.

There are three common terms for FGM which are female genital mutilation, female circumcision, and female genital cutting. Each term carries its own respective connotation that give a different meaning to the human rights violation. Using female circumcision softens it and emphasizes the cultural idea that this is necessary for cleanliness by equating it to male circumcision. Female genital cutting medicalizes the issue and takes the human aspect out of it. Female genital mutilation paints it in the act’s true color: a violent procedure aimed to degrade women.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), FGM comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. There are three main types or tiers to FGM. Tier 1 (clitoridectomy) entails the removal of the clitoris. This type of FGM is the least invasive. Tier 2 (excision) is the removal of the clitoris and the partial or full removal of the labia minor; tier 3 (infibulation) is the most invasive and worst type of FGM. Infibulation entails complete removal of the clitoris and labia minor. From there, the girl is stitched up and the vaginal opening is narrowed; she is left with enough space to urinate and menstruate. If a woman wants to have a child, she has to go to a doctor to open her vaginal cavity a yet another invasive procedure. All of these have serious short term and long term health risks including extreme pain, hemorrhaging, cysts, and reoccurring infection.

The reason for FGM’s prevalence is purely cultural. There are some that claim that there is a religious reason for it. In her presentation, Sien pointed out that no scripture requires FGM like they do male circumcision. However, if a woman is not circumcised, she is considered dirty and promiscuous and struggles to find a husband. The procedure is usually performed from infancy to around 15. 15-years-old is when a girl is considered to be of marriage age.

In the United States, this has become an issue within groups of immigrants from the African countries that still practice FGM. These immigrants are striving to reserve their cultural practices (and power to them in such a xenophobic society) but like their relatives in their first country, they are unaware of the problems FGM causes.

The Federal Government passed an act against FGM in children under 18 in 1996, but children are still at risk. One risk factor is that children travel with their parents on vacation back to their home countries where FGM is practiced, and if the children find themselves in a situation where they would be exposed for not being circumcised, they are circumcised on the spot.

For immigrant pregnant women who are not circumcised, there is still a threat of facing FGM. Many of these women often opt for a home birth. If these women’s mid wives see that they are not circumcised, they will do so before the baby is born; one belief regarding FGM that if a woman is not circumcised their baby will be sick or die. This is why domestically, Keep Girls Safe is pushing for legislation that protects women over 18 from FGM.

As a survivor of FGM, Sien does not blame men specifically for enforcing the patriarchal practice of FGM. She recognizes that men are largely uneducated regarding the process and implications of FGM. She has also found that after workshops with men in different villages that they are very responsive to education.

I encourage you to check out Keep Girls Safe’s website to learn a little bit more about the foundation’s specific work and how to get involved in the awareness campaign.