What is a Compassionate Approach to Female Genital Mutilation?

It’s easy to get outraged about female genital mutilation, or FGM. I know I was, because FGM has life- long medical harms, not benefits, and strips a girl and a woman of power over her own body and sexuality. But please allow me to add some complexity to your outrage.

Did you know female genital mutilation was performed in the U.S. by physicians as a cure for “hysteria,” “frigidity,” and lesbianism? After I learned this, I conveyed it to a dear friend, a white woman in her 70s. She said, “Ginger, that was done to me right here in San Francisco! They told me it would make me enjoy sex with Tom, and I believed them.”

So, FGM is not specific to Africa or even certain geographies. This is among the many myths that were busted for me when I co-founded the Female Genital Mutilation Greater Los Angeles Taskforce. My esteemed co-founders are Athia Carrim, Director of the International Institute of Tolerance; Senait Admassu, CEO of the African Coalition; Rohida Kahn of the Department of Homeland Security; Mame Mbaye, the Honorary Consul of Sengal; and Dr. Nina Smart, author of Wild Flower.

Currently, United Nations reports that “an estimated 200 million girls and women alive today are believed to have been subjected to FGM; but rates of FGM are increasing, a reflection of global population growth. Girls and women who have undergone FGM live predominately in sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab States, but FGM is also practiced in select countries in Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America. It is also practiced among migrant populations throughout Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand.”

Another myth I had to unlearn is that FGM is specific to Islam. FGM was taking place before the formation of Islam. According to Imam Ashraf Carrim, nowhere in the Koran is FGM sanctioned. FGM is performed by people of many religions, and even by atheists.

FGM is performed by women, usually not by men, which was also a surprise to me. These women believe that cutting their girls will ensure social acceptance and a good marriage. And they are not wrong. In addition, the women who perform FGM, often in rite of passage ceremonies, get paid for their services.

Knowing this, I believe the only response to FGM is a compassionate one, even as we fight to end FGM. I am astounded by the beautiful cultural competence with which my co-founders approach families who plan to send their girls back to home countries for FGM, or to find a physician in the U.S. (yes, there are some) who will cut their daughters. We know that families respond to kindness and understanding, education and prevention. Countries can and do enact policy changes and public education campaigns. When these efforts fail, we must resort to prosecution, at least in areas where FGM is illegal. We know that men must be part of the solution. We know youth affected by or at risk of FGM who speak up are brave and powerful change agents. We know economic opportunities for women are a crucial part of disrupting the FGM cycle, as well as the cycle of child brides.

We are a task force comprised of non-profit community leaders, religious leaders, advocates, attorneys, physicians, social workers, elected officials, mental health workers, public health experts and more. If you would like to join one of the monthly Female Genital Mutilation Greater Los Angeles Taskforce meetings, please message me or one of my colleagues separately.

We’d love to know what you think of the compassionate approach to FGM. Please send your comments on our contact form and feel free to share this with your networks.

References

Cook R, Dickens B, Fathalla M. Female genital cutting (mutilation/circumcision): ethical and legal dimensions. Int J Gynecol Obstet. 2002;79:281–287.

Smart, N. (2014). ANAMAROl Publishing House, Bucharest. Wild Flower: The True Story of a Romanian Girl in Africa.

United Nations Population Fund. (2022). Female genital mutilation (FGM) frequently asked questions.

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