Asnakech, from Ethiopia, was 12 when her parents decided it was time for her to “become a woman.” A self-taught circumciser came to her house, cut her clitoris and outer labia using a razor blade, then pressed ashes and cow manure on the bleeding cuts. In technical terms, this is called Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
Asnakech can still remember how scared she felt and how no one comforted her afterwards.
Five days later Asnakech was raped by a stranger close to her home.
“My family made me marry him, because I was no longer pure. No one else would have had me,” says Asnakech.
The mutilation and rape left Asnakech with severe injuries and it took a long time before she recovered.
“I still cannot find words to describe the pain I felt. The idea of sexual intercourse felt a sheer impossibility, but I had no choice,” says Asnakech.
Asnakech’s story is just one of many: Girls forced to undergo FGM who then have to live with the devastating consequences that follow them late into life.
FGM is an abuse of human rights and the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation on February 6 gave us all an opportunity to raise awareness about the risks and implications of this harmful traditional practice.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 120 million to 140 million women have experienced some form of FGM, and in Africa, more than 3 million girls are at risk each year.
Most of them are in Africa: About 92 million girls aged 10 and above are estimated to have undergone FGM. If current trends continue, about 86 million additional girls worldwide will be subjected to the practice by 2030.
FGM is not an anomaly. Like early forced marriage, or denial of education, a complex range of social and cultural reasons are used to justify the painful cutting. One such belief is that a girl’s sexuality needs to be controlled. This demonstrates the underlying gender injustice of the practice: girls and women are not autonomous, someone else has to control them — mostly fathers and husbands.
FGM, however, is clearly a violation of girls’ and women’s rights, which can cause long-term physical and emotional damage. In the worst cases, it can lead to the death of mothers and babies during childbirth. It can also cause complications such as severe pain, shock, haemorrhage (bleeding), tetanus or sepsis (bacterial infection), urine retention, open sores in the genital region and injury to surrounding genital tissue.
There is no medical justification for FGM. Instead, it is practised for a variety of complex cultural reasons dating back thousands of years, such as the belief that it helps preserve chastity, cleanliness and family honour and that it prepares a girl for marriage.
However, times are changing. Most states in the region have outlawed the practice. And slowly, the mindset of traditional and cultural leaders is turning around. Many individual men and women in Africa would rather wish the cruel procedure was not practised on their girl child and yet, they do it anyway, with the hope of being perceived as “normal” so their daughters will have the opportunity to get married. The way around this issue is to educate communities about the dangers of this perceived normal behaviour and have more and more people speak out against it.
The child rights organisation Plan International is committed to ending FGM. We are convinced that the required long-term change has to come from within. Thus, we are working with communities to ensure that something once known as a rite of passage can be rejected for what it is — a human-rights abuse.
For Plan International and its partner organisations, the key to ending FGM is knowledge and essentially education. Often people are not aware of the health risks of FGM. Efforts at a grassroots levels, alongside policy work, are key to changing this.
We have been working in some of the most affected countries across Africa, such as Mali, Guinea Bissau, Ethiopia, Egypt, Sierra Leone and Kenya, informing mothers and fathers of the risks FGM poses to their daughters, as well as the dangers of the practice itself. When mothers — and fathers — learn about the risks of FGM, they are less likely to put their daughters through the mutilation process. It also helps them to understand some of the health problems they may have encountered themselves.
Yet there still needs to be a wider shift from what is seen as “normal” behaviour along with the perception of girls, their rights and their roles in society.
Though girls and women are considered disadvantaged and vulnerable in many aspects, if given the opportunity, they can become powerful agents of change in their community and society.
We want to ensure girls have access to a good quality education, are protected from violence, such as FGM, and the threat of early marriage. We need to give the girls a space where they are able to speak out and make their voices and choices heard, so they can begin to lay the foundations for a brighter — and healthier — future.
Roland Angerer is Plan International’s regional director for Eastern and Southern Africa.