FGM: Raising awareness accross the world

I recently attended a conference called AfroMadrid. This conference focused on issues that plague those of African descent in Spain, as well as the issues on the continent which are the catalysts of transnational migration of immigrants. Issues such a race and education were discussed, as well as discrimination and racism and the mindsets necessary to combat the two. Something that stuck with me the most however was the discussion revolving around health.

During the panel on women’s health, there was a testimony by a woman who was of Somalian descent but Kenyan born, as there is a Somalian population in the North Eastern province of Kenya. She spoke of an issue that many women in about 30 countries, many of which are located in Africa, face. She talked about her experience with Female Genital Mutilation also known as FGM. FGM is defined as non-therapeutic, partial or complete removal or injury of each of the external female genitals. There are Four type of FGM, all ranging in severity, from removal of the clitoral foreskin, to complete removal of clitoris, labia minora and majora, and sewing up of the vaginal opening. The practice is deeply rooted in tradition and dates back to the fifth century BC.

It is an encouragement of the patriarchy, a method of birth control, a guarantee that women will behave morally, avoiding promiscuity and promising faithfulness to their husband. It is viewed as a symbol of femininity and beauty, often considered a right of passage from girlhood to womanhood. Unfortunately, the tradition comes with very serious physical and mental consequences, such as bleeding, wound infections, sepsis and shock. Chronic physical problems like anemia, infections of the urinary tract, infertility, pain and menstruation problems are frequent. Women also have a higher risk for HIV infections. Both mother and child suffer during pregnancy and childbirth. Examinations and vaginal application of medicine are more difficult. Women have a higher risk for a prolonged delivery, wound infections, tearing during childbirth, the need to resuscitate the baby during childbirth and an inpatient perinatal death. Mental consequences after FGM include the feelings of incompleteness, fear, inferiority and suppression. Women report chronic irritability and nightmares. They have a higher risk for psychiatric and psychosomatic diseases. FGM carried out by doctors, nurses or midwives is also called medicalisation of FGM and is definitely unacceptable. It is a practice that is done for the approval of men and older generations, but the women and children are the ones who face the consequences of this unjust practice.

FGM is unacceptable, and many international organizations such as the World Health Organization, UNESCO and UNICEF condemn its performance. It is considered an abuse of a woman’s basic human rights, as FGM refuses women the right of freedom from bodily harm. Thankfully, specific laws that ban FGM exist in many countries in Europe, Africa, USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. However what about the treatment of women who have been subjected to FGM? There needs to be conversation between doctors and patients of FGM to support and inform the victims of the medical consequences and international attitude in order to avoid the future mutilation of newborn daughters in foreign countries. In addition, there needs to be an international conversation that creates awareness of how healthcare providers can support victims of FGM who live in western nations. Due to migration, an increasingly higher level of women with FGM now live in foreign countries. However, the knowledge and experience of medical staff in these countries is insufficient enough to handle cases, often leaving women unsatisfied with OBGYN healthcare. In order to prevent the exclusion of these women, it needs to be talked about and people need to be educated! The cycle needs to be ended.

Sources: Utz-Billing & H. Kentenich. Female genital mutilation: an injury, physical and mental harm. Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics & Gynecology, December 2008; 29(4): 225-229