Who, What, Where: Female Genital Mutilation

This is the first in a series of Who, What, Where: A Series on Global Health Issues. We hope to introduce public health issues across the world and educate readers about their history. 

Let’s talk about Female Genital Mutilation. 

What exactly is FGM? According to the World Health Organization, it is the practice of removing the external female genitalia for non-medical purposes, often resulting in injury due to improper surgical techniques, non-sterilized equipment/environments, and inexperienced practitioners. A large percentage of these procedures causes life-long health complications such as cysts, recurrent bladder infections, and even infertility. 

Who is affected by FGM? As the name suggests, this issue is one that plagues individuals assigned female at birth —primarily African and Middle Eastern women. Some cultures view FGM as a rite of passage girls undergo before transitioning into womanhood while others believe it suppresses a woman’s sexual desire, allowing her virginity to stay intact when the time for marriage comes. The latter has fostered an environment where FGM became the norm as mothers are expected to ensure the next generation kept the traditions alive. Certain communities also believe it enhances the sexual pleasure for their husbands. 

Where is FGM most likely practiced? There are about 200 million women and girls who are currently living with the consequences. Somalia is believed to have the highest prevalence with a whopping 98%, followed by Guinea at 97%, Djibouti with 93%, etc. Although the practice is a concern in European, Asian, and South American countries alike, cases in African countries continue to soar. Preventative measures are being taken to combat FGM through educating women on the complications, advocating for fathers and men to speak against the practice, and compelling religious leaders to denounce it. The key factor is educating mothers, as the cultural expectations are deeply ingrained into their upbringing. Young girls are more likely to follow along if their mothers are uneducated about the health issues brought on by the practice.  

While International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation falls annually on February 6th as a joint effort to combat FGM on a global level, the COVID-19 pandemic has set back the goal of stamping out the practice completely by the end of 2030. The global lockdown has brought forth high rates of domestic violence incidents, has made many educational programs wholly unable to function, and families have had easier access participating in the procedure without being cornered. Despite the unforeseeable circumstances brought by the pandemic, the fight to dismantle FGM practices continues to rage on. 

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