Freedom from FGM

By Candace Walsh
Issue 140, January/February 2007

Girls at safe house in KenyaWhen I got back from Africa, folks wanted to know why I’d gone there. When I told them it was to attend Equality Now’s annual conference on female genital mutilation (FGM), the conversation invariably bumped up against a stopping point: once you know about FGM, there really is no way to conscionably go on without doing something to help.

Unless you can think of a reason not to. There is the Africa reason: “Africa is hopeless and always beset by violent crises.” And the busyness reason: “I have enough things to worry about and tend to in my own family and community.” And circumcision reason A: “It’s just like the circumcision of boys. I respect the tradition of circumcision for religious reasons in this country, so why would I concern myself with it as it relates to African girls?” And circumcision reason B: “I am an intactivist for baby boys in this country, so that’s my contribution.” And the cultural-sensitivity reason: “If that’s their cultural tradition, who am I to interfere?” Let’s not forget simple horror: “It’s horrifying and upsetting and I don’t want to think about it.” And, finally, the helpless reason: “I can’t go over there and make people stop it, can I?”

Many of these justifications passed through my own head before I went to Nairobi last October. My tendency is to be an ostrich—I like to be as unaware as possible of things that I find upsetting. But there’s a difference between avoiding upsetting things I can do nothing about and making a dramatic, lifelong difference in the lives of little girls. Those little girls may have radically different contexts and be thousands of miles away, but they still cry when they’re hurt, just like our own daughters. They still have nerve endings all over their bodies, and their bodies start out with the integrity of our own babies’, although that integrity is at risk from the day they are born. By throwing in our lot with them, we affirm our own worth as women who were once girls. When we dismiss the FGM crisis, we reveal how much we have internalized our own culture’s devaluation of ourselves as women.

I have held the warm, strong hands of young girls who lost their families forever when they ran away to escape mutilation. I have watched film footage of a four-year-old undergoing FGM and heard her cries—a sound I will never forget. I was sent to Nairobi to learn more about FGM, but I returned with an ineradicable brand of knowledge. I now know that in Africa, December is FGM cutting season. I know that Africa’s high rates of infant and maternal mortality are linked to FGM. And I know that radical, positive change is taking place every day, and that we are close to a tipping point.

Applying money to the problem is key. Right now, donations to Equality Now’s Grassroots Fund to End FGM go directly to local activists, paying for transportation, teaching materials, and campaigns to enact and enforce laws against FGM. On the ground, these activists counsel girls and their parents about what deep harm FGM inflicts on the physical, emotional, and psychological levels. There is so much room for “sensitizing”; i.e., education. One former circumciser thought that her own mutilated daughter screamed every time she had to urinate because evil spirits were hurting her. Now she has put that livelihood behind her and does better making soap for a living.

The American dollar has massive clout in Africa; the $6 that buys you a latte and muffin here would pay for a week of school for a Kenyan girl. Education is a crucial component for delaying early marriage, boosting employability, and increasing girls’ self-determination. Even better, the Pond Foundation has donated a matching grant to Equality Now’s Grassroots Fund to End FGM; when you donate to the Fund, your $6 now becomes $12.

Additionally, you can join Equality Now’s Women’s Action Network. At no cost, they will give you targeted information about where and to whom to send letters supporting the end of FGM. Or order an Ending Female Genital Mutilation Activism Kit from www.actionpacks.net ($10). The kit contains contact information for decision-making and government officials in FGM-practicing countries, as well as a list of postage costs to the different countries, and other useful components.

It’s easy for me to be resolute and devoted to ending FGM—I was flown into the center of the storm. I think that if each Mothering reader experienced what I did in Nairobi, the positive change would go off the charts. Because that’s not possible, the next best thing is to directly address all of the reasons why people do not engage with this issue.

Compassion fatigue for Africa? Dismissing a whole continent as a lost cause is incredibly easy to do. But think about it in terms of individuals: As mothers, we are about process. Pregnancy is a process. Childbirth is a process. Little by little, fingernail by fingernail, we create human beings. Little by little—meal by meal, laundry load by laundry load, bath by bath, skinned knee by skinned knee—we care for and feed children until they are sound-bodied adults. This kind of project is our specialty. We know the power of a little love and energy judiciously applied over time. We know not only that Rome wasn’t built in a day, but that it was built by thousands over time. And it was built.

Too busy? The secret is that giving time, energy, and resources to a solvable problem gives back to you immediately, whereas hoarding same shuts you down. These are the immediate returns of giving: Perspective—you immediately know what’s important and what isn’t. Joy—you tap in to the power of giving good a boost, which also gives you energy. The absence of guilt isn’t bad either. Do we need to feel paralyzed with guilt because we live in a privileged society? No, but if we just consume, hoard, and coast along without giving anything back, it’s hard to avoid feeling guilty. Now that I’m on the other side, I would much rather commit myself to a cause and see my entire life in fresh relief; see the things that used to upset me—a shrunken garment, a missed appointment—as SLFWPs (silly little first-world problems).

Next, the circumcision issue: There’s a reason that what used to be called female circumcision is now called female genital mutilation. When a girl (baby, toddler, preteen, teen) is mutilated, her clitoris and labia are excised with an unsterile tool—a piece of broken glass, a tin-can lid, a sharpened bone. There is no anesthesia. Circumcisers usually go through batches of girls at a time, so infections are commonly spread from girl to girl this way. First-degree female genital mutilation is cutting or removal of the prepuce, or hood, of the clitoris, and/or the clitoris itself. In second-degree FGM, the clitoris is removed along with the labia. Third-degree FGM includes the above as well as infibulation, or the sewing up of the vagina to the diameter of a pencil. Girls are held down by adults, and often break their own arm or leg bones while struggling to escape.

Girls who have undergone first-, second-, and third-degree FGM are most often unable to experience orgasm for the rest of their lives. Second-degree FGM survivors suffer additionally from complications of scar tissue, and third-degree sufferers have terrible problems menstruating and urinating. Sex is painful, and uncomplicated vaginal childbirths are compromised by scar tissue and a lack of elasticity in the birth canal. Among the many problems associated with FGM, marital relationships between men and women suffer because sex is not pleasurable for the woman; rather, it’s usually very painful. On their wedding night, men who have married infibulated girls or women are often given a hunting knife in order to be able to penetrate them. It is that nightmarish, and it happens every day. We can help.

Circumcision of baby boys in this country is mutilation as well, but it is not the same thing as FGM—it does not destroy their ability to experience orgasm, it does not affect their ability to impregnate, and it does not compromise the survival rates of their children. Nor does caring about the integrity of little girls’ bodies take anything away from the anti-circumcision movement for baby boys. Making anti-circumcision for boys your cause while being indifferent to FGM in Africa—and wherever African populations have relocated throughout the world—is also illogical. Girls’ bodies are being systematically mutilated daily. As long as this is happening with a minimum of condemnation, human beings are stuck. We are all, as humans, only as advanced as the least fortunate person. As long as we are not working together to end FGM, we can advance only so far. It’s upsetting to grapple with the depths of FGM. But it’s more upsetting, in the aggregate, to turn away from it.

I can’t say it any better than this: a recent report on FGM in Tanzania called it “a human rights abuse masquerading as a cultural tradition.” As Efua Dorkenoo, Ghanaian activist and author of the seminal FGM book Cutting the Rose, said, “So many left-leaning Western women are paralyzed by their fear of not respecting cultural differences.” I remember, as a college student, reading about FGM in a Women’s Studies class back in 1993. I was galvanized by the issue until I read a piece by an African woman who stated that Western women’s interest in FGM was invasive, condescending, and suspect. That was all I needed to distance myself from the topic. The last thing I wanted to seem like was some tone-deaf, white do-gooder, critical of another culture’s genital traditions. How uncool. Right?

Wrong, but understandable. The truth is that fully mature, empowered, informed women are not making this choice of their own volition. Genital mutilation is done to babies, toddlers, little girls, preteens, and teens without their consent. Most do not know what their “initiation” actually entails. Even when they do, they are completely dependent on their communities for survival. FGM status is a deal-breaker in the marriageability of many African girls, and in a small village, sadly, marriage means survival. Being “different” in an African village is not like an American adolescent putting a green stripe in her hair. It often means death, exile, or forced mutilation.

When we in the Western world use the word tradition, we tend to mean carving pumpkins, not flesh, and lighting candles, not cauterizing unsterile wounds. Calling FGM a “tradition” is deceptive, and muddies one’s perception of the issue. However, anti-FGM activists, realizing that FGM has been part of coming-of-age rituals for hundreds of years, have crafted new, alternative rites of passage for adolescent girls, ones that include singing, seclusion, health education, and information about their future roles as women in the community. This practice has been implemented in many villages, and includes giving female relatives a chance to hand down their wisdom and knowledge without perpetuating FGM.

The most common response I’ve encountered since my return is “It’s horrifying and upsetting and I don’t want to think about it.” People don’t come right out and say so, but their eyes drop, their body language becomes more guarded, and they change the subject. FGM is not easy to talk about. How many more girls will be mutilated simply because the phrase itself, female genital mutilation, is hard to say, hard to think about and discuss? We need to call out our feminine indoctrination, our internalized prissiness reflex, kick it to the curb, and focus our power on being agents of change.

In the film Hotel Rwanda, hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina (played by Don Cheadle) expresses confidence that as soon as Americans see videotape footage of the massacres going on in Rwanda, they will help. A hardened journalist turns to him and intones sadly (I paraphrase), “No, they will watch it and then go back to their dinner.”

Can you go over to Africa, march into a village, grab the shard of glass out of a circumciser’s hand, and preach the gospel of female intactivism? I wouldn’t advise it. However, you can write letters. You can make a regular tax-deductible donation. Hold a fundraiser. Organize a sponsored stroller 5K walk in your neighborhood and send the funds to Equality Now, where they will be doubled by the matching grant. Find out what individual activists need—pencils, notebooks, audiovisual equipment—and send it. Do what feels doable for you, whether you’re somewhat timid or a total powerhouse. You don’t have to change who you are to change the world. But what you do to change the world will change you.

Candace Walsh is a mother of two and Mothering’s articles editor. She has written for Newsday, Blender, Details, New York Magazine, Travel and Leisure, and Sunset.