Very Personally Yours: Violence Against Women Affects Us All

**Warning** If you are squeamish you shouldn’t read this post. It contains graphic descriptions of something most Americans choose to ignore.

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As I write this, I keep thinking of that little booklet I received in school as a young girl, Very Personally Yours, about puberty and menstruation, and I can’t help but think about how things could have been so different except for an accident of fate that had me born here instead of on another continent. What if there was a booklet about Female Genital Mutilation that was passed out to young girls before undergoing “the tradition”?

Female Genital Mutilation has been in the news quite a bit lately. We call it FGM for short. That helps us to remove ourselves, take a step back from the physical reality of what it is. It becomes an abstract idea, a non-western cultural practice that we don’t need to think about. I ask you to think for just a minute about what it really means.

Female. Genital. Mutilation. Having your labia, clitoris, and vagina mutilated with a knife.

Imagine if you will, young blond Sally at the playground with her friends. Suddenly her mom shows up with a group of other ladies from the neighborhood. She pulls Sally from the jungle gym, saying, “come on Sally; it’s time.” Sally looks back in horror at her friends. Some of the older girls have already been through this.  She received the booklet at school just last month.

Sally’s mother and the other women take her to a potting shed behind her house. There they put Sally up on the potting bench; the neighbor women hold her down while her mom pulls out a JH Henkles paring knife, a needle and some floss from the embroidery project she was working on that morning. “Don’t worry, Sally; all girls go through this. It will make you a better wife.”

Are you feeling uncomfortable yet? This is a slightly modified version of something that takes place every day, all over the world. I think if this were happening to little blond girls there would be much more of an uproar. Thankfully though, this heinous practice is finally starting to get some media attention.  As women, we need to understand that when violence against women is perpetrated anywhere, it is perpetrated against us.

Female Genital Mutilation is a procedure traditionally performed on girls between infancy and 15 years of age, in which all or part of the external female genitalia is removed and or modified. This includes all or partial removal of the clitoris, and all or partial removal of the labia minora and the labia majora. Often times the outer labia are cut and sewn together, leaving only a small opening for urine. This is frequently performed without anesthetic and with questionable surgical equipment, such as rusty knives or sharpened bits of metal. It is usually carried out by a person in the community whose role it is in addition to attending childbirths. In some areas the practice is performed by the mother or aunt. Today however, more that 18% of the procedures are performed by professional health care providers. In Egypt, where 9 out of 10 women have had this procedure, 70% of the operations are performed by doctors.

This is a cultural practice concentrated in Middle Eastern and African countries and occurring in some Asian countries. It is also still practiced by some migrants from these countries. Young girls and teenagers are taken back to their parent’s countries for what is known as “vacation cutting”. What a vacation, huh? There have been some reports of FGM being practiced here in the US. According to a 2000 report from the African Women’s Health Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, over 227,000 women and girls in the US were at risk of being cut, either here or on trips back to their parents’ country of origin.

The cultures practicing FGM believe that it enhances a girl’s chance of a good marriage. It is thought to help control the illicit sexual nature inherent in women and keep them pure for marriage. While this is not a religious practice, it is often thought to be religiously supported.  What it boils down to is a means for subjugating and controlling women.

Unicef estimates that over 130 million women and girls living today suffer from the effects of FGM. Complications that occur immediately from the procedure include pain, severe bleeding or hemorrhaging, bacterial infections, and shock. Long term the girl is at risk for bladder and urinary tract infections, infertility, increased risk of complications during childbirth including death of infant or mother, and severe pain. If the girl has been sewn up, then she has to be cut open in order to have intercourse with her husband and to give birth. And of course, girls and women subjected to this procedure can suffer severe psychological trauma.

There is a movement today to help put an end to this crime against women. Molly Melching and her program Tostan have made great strides in western Africa toward ending FGM. She works with the communities to further human rights education, helping them come to their own conclusions regarding respect for their women’s rights and health.

In the US, the Obama administration has initiated a study into the impact and reach of FGM in the US. The study will be carried out by the US Department of Health and Human Services, working through education with the goal of ending the practice in the US, and with hopes that with the US leading the way, other countries will follow suit.

This development demonstrates the impact of people’s voices. A petition was started on change.org, working with The Guardian and Equality Now, urging the American government to put an end to FGM. 220,000 signatures convinced the US to take action.  When you are considering signing a petition, know that it does make a difference!

Other organizations working to end FGM and to support basic human rights for women and girls include Women Thrive, The World Health Organization, and Amnesty International. To add your voice to support women’s rights, sign this petition to pass the International Violence Against Women Act. Women around the world deserve to be free from such vile practices as FGM and other forms of violence. I-VAWA is an international effort to end violence against women worldwide.

To learn more about FGM, and efforts to support women’s rights, I recommend three books in addition to the links above: Half the Sky – Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn; However Long the Night – Molly Melching’s Journey to Help Millions of African Women and Girls Triumph by Aimee Molloy; and Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy, a fictional account of an Olinka woman in the US who travels back to her country to undergo FGM.

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