The FGM Debate Again! [Editorial]

News  Independent (Banjul, Gambia). Friday, 17 May 2002.

Abdou M. Jeng

For years now, many health-related and other international organisations, particularly the WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA, World Bank, USAID, and UNDP have been strategizing global campaigns against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), but still the efforts have not been able to completely eradicate the practice. But why is it so!

Fellow Gambians and Africans, let's reason, without any emotional or cultural sentiments. Men are not directly affected during the physical operation, but its after effects affect both men and women either directly or indirectly, sooner or later.

FGM is always a sensitive topic for discussion either in the home or in the media.

Let's stop pointing accusing finger to the west for funding campaigns for the eradication of FGM. In any case, the west is not even directly disturbed by the practice. Most of us do not know how painful the mutilation, which is inflicted on the girl-child, is.

FGM, also called female circumcision, is a collective name given to series of traditional surgical operations performed on girls in more than 28 African countries, including the Gambia. In all most of these countries, the major defence for the practice is that is an aspect of African culture. Fine. But what use is a cultural practice that is dangerous to health? Are we slaves to traditional practice? Culture is the product of man's creation and should be amended whenever aspects of it are found to be inimical to sound health.

FGM is an ancient custom, which is estimated to affect about 130 million girls and women in the world. Every year about two million girls are genetically mutilated in the name of culture. The origin of FGM is still not clear, but it is practiced mainly in Africa. This custom is deeply rooted in both women and men's consciousness and is vividly seen as a parameter for appropriate womanhood within a clearly defined hierarchy and societal mechanism of women's sexuality.

In conservative communities, the rite of passage ceremony has lost its educational values, but the practice of FGM still continues. Sad!

According to WHO, FGM is classified as follows:

Type 1: Clitoridectomy - the partial or total removal of the clitoris, a small organ located in front of the opening to the vagina, which is sensitive to touch, and a site of sexual stimulation to the female.

Type 2: Excision - both the clitoris and the inner lips (Labia majora) are cut off, living the vagina uncovered. This could be rendering it prone to bacterial/viral infections, thus leading to infertility.

Type 3: Infibulation - the clitoris is removed, partially or totally cutting off the labia minora (smaller lips). The surface is either stitched together or kept intact by tying it together until it heals, covering the urethra and most of the vaginal opening, please for God and heaven's sake, don't tell me this is not happening in the Gambia as Gambians are fond of saying such does not exists here, while it is killing and destroying our social fabric, simply because our laissez-faire attitudes.

Tribes, communities, regions, and language groups have variety or rear forms of cutting and manipulating the external genitals. Some of these reasons are however given to justify the practice. They vary from tribe to tribe and community to community:

It is an essential part of our culture that must be preserved.

Female genitals are unclean and will grow if not cut.

It is an initiation into womanhood and enhances the husband's sexual pleasure.

FGM improves fertility and prevents infant (girls) and maternal morality.

It is a religious obligation as it prevents sexual promiscuity.

Well! These are the reasons, think about it and compare it with the health-related complications, the long and short-term complications; it is painful, (no anesthesia!) It is also prone to tetanus and HIV/ADIS infection; could cause rude shock that can lead to mental disorder. In extreme cases, it could cause death.

The health complications of this practice also includes various gynecological, psychological and sexual problems.

These are some self-speaking statistics on FGM: 40 percent of Mandinka, 11 percent of Serahule, 19 percent of Fula, 9 percent of Wollof, 15 percent of Jola, and 6 percent of other minority tribes practice FGM in the Gambia.

Many programmes, polices, projects and plans have been geared towards the elimination of all forms of harmful traditional practices, especially FGM. But the lack of general commitment and the will has hindered their successful implementation.

The debate on FGM is sensitive, emotional and provocative but with genuine commitments and political will, the Gambia will surely speed-up the elimination of all harmful traditional practices without distorting an iota of the fabric of our culture. Thus enhancing the positive and progressive norms and values of our beautiful traditions. The debate is healthy and not directed at any people, tribe, or group of people, but against the violence done to the human rights of the girl-child, and women at large.

Many have even advocated the initiation without bloody operations; teach the initiates the culture and values of being a good woman in society.

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