Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), as a practice has been in existence for centuries and has deep cultural roots. The expression “Female Genital Mutilation” received greater attention in the 1970s to give it a clear distinction from male circumcision due to of its gravity.
Female genital mutilation includes a range of practices involving the complete or partial removal or alteration of the external genitalia for non-medical reasons. It was adopted by the UN in 1991 under recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Between 100 and 140 million women and girls around the world have undergone some form of FGM.
Statistics from UNDP, UNICEF, WHO give varying estimates of the number of girls who undergo this painful practice and give a range of between 2 to 3 million.
Africa bears the largest burden of this practice with over 26 countries engaged in this practice according to Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH) 2005.
The magnitude of the practice is not uniform; Somalia is recorded to have the highest concentration with 98% of the population participating while Zambia has the lowest at 5%.
Though heavily practiced in Africa, there is evidence of its practice in the Middle East, Asia, New Zealand and Australia. Most girls undergo this practice when they are between seven and 10 Years old.
The main reasons given for the support of this practice include necessary rites of passage into womanhood, prevention of promiscuity and preservation of virginity.
Other reasons include enhancement of male sexuality and widening of the birth canal to facilitate childbirth. Regardless of the reason, this practice is deeply entrenched in culture and in some cases religion (among Muslims and Catholics) according to PATH.
The cultural benefits associated with the practice include rendering a girl marriageable, gaining respect among peers, motherly pride and spiritual purity.
Some of the immediate physical problems associated with this practice include shock and trauma; wound infections, damage to adjoining organs and excessive bleeding.
Long term complications include infertility, difficulty in giving birth leading to death and trauma of both mother and child, increased risk of HIV infection, lower sexual desire among women, painful sex for both men and women to mention but a few.
From a sustainable development view point the practice impacts on the achievement of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
The third and fifth goal in particular, relating to promotion of gender equality, empowerment of women and improvement of maternal mortality are negatively impacted by this practice as children who undergo FGM are forced into early marriages, pulled from school, and are expected to bear children shortly afterwards.
In spite of how harmful this practice is, it is unfortunately resistant to change. Various reasons have been given for this resistance, and studies are still underway to verify them. Why the practice persists is however not as important as what should be done to eradicate it.
Lessons for Education for sustainability (EFS)
How do we ensure that the community learning curves for harmful practices such as FGM, widow inheritance, child marriages remain sustained?
How do we ensure that life skills necessary for safeguarding future generations against harmful cultural practices are sustained?
How do we help communities make connections between FGM, economics, societal equity and environmental protection for future generations?
These are some of the questions I had as I began working on this assignment. In my view these are the main take home lessons for EFS practitioners.
Celebration of culture legitimizes community. When targeting harmful practices, it is important to first understand what the practice symbolizes and ensure that only the harmful practice is targeted for change while promoting the symbolism.
Support education basic education of girls and women is critical. This should include instruction from local customs and oral literature that helps keep the young girls in school and reinforce their status as valuable members of the community.
Support health education for ALL to raise visibility of the harmful effects of FGM and how this impacts on maternal and child health thus helping the community to make this connections. In other words help the community make the connections between FGM and development.
Economic empowerment- empower women to be able to generate and contribute to family income through micro credit schemes as well as help the circumcisers look for other avenues to generate income.
Enforcement of law
Invest in the education of legislators to also make connections between FGM , the economy and the environment This will eventually culminate to strong state support.
Community Action- let the community take the driver’s seat in identifying perpetrators of the practice as well as participate in the rehabilitation of girls who have gone through the practice to restore esteem.
Alternatives- The communities should take lead in identifying alternative rites that maintain symbolism of what is considered as a harmful cultural practice while celebrating culture.