Guest blog by Stephen Williams.
I don't remember when I first became aware of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). It wasn't a subject that had impinged much upon the collective consciousness in the United Kingdom at the time. I suspect I may even have dismissed it the first time because it seemed so inhumane, destructive and pointless. Why would anyone choose to inflict such a thing on another person, or choose to submit to it?
The more I heard about it the less I could dismiss it. Reports were too detailed, too consistent and too convincing to deny. What I read and heard revealed the true hideousness of the practice in all its revolting details. When confronted with FGM, how can anyone fail to be offended and affronted? Even so, there are some cultural apologists who will claim that “it is not part of our culture, so we shouldn't judge”. They would probably claim that, being a relatively affluent, middle-class white professional man, FGM has nothing to do with me; I'm not affected by it.
OK, so what has FGM got to do with an affluent middle-class white Englishman? After all, it's FEMALE Genital Mutilation, right? Doesn't happen in my country; not my problem, right?
Wrong. And wrong in so many ways it is difficult to know where to start.
I think that the most offensive aspect of FGM is that it is imposed, often by force, on young and vulnerable girls and young women in generally male-dominant cultures. Those young women on whom FGM is inflicted are usually too young and too cowed by authority to object, and often have little inkling of what they will suffer, both during the ritual and in its long term consequences. This makes FGM particularly cruel. Adults who inflict it upon girls are guilty of a gross betrayal of trust, and of the duty to care for, protect and nurture children. This is particularly true of parents of young daughters. As a father I cannot for one moment comprehend the failure of a parent to protect their daughters against such a thing, or, even worse, their acquiescence to it. This flagrant breach of the fundamental human rights of vulnerable girls and young women, perpetrated by the very people charged with their protection, is an utter disgrace, a shameful cruelty that will only be purged when FGM is eliminated.
Bad though this is, it says nothing about the pain and suffering of those girls and young women on whom FGM is inflicted, and the health and other problems that are the consequence. I can only try to imagine the physical pain of the cutting itself, and the pain thereafter caused by numerous genital and gynaecological complications. Not only this, but there is the prospect of further pain on consummation of any physical sexual relationship, and additional agony (as if there were not enough already) and health risks for mother and baby in childbirth. Accompanying all this, there is an undercurrent of post-traumatic stress, mental trauma, and for many a lifelong sense of betrayal.
So why is it done? It seems that there are some reasons. Actually, I won't dignify it by using the words reason or reasons – excuses is a more appropriate word. So, there seem to be some excuses for this, none of which are remotely conscionable. Social obligation, peer group bonding, heightened male pleasure during sex, assurance of virginity on marriage, chastity and reduction of sex drive in women are all quoted, but it is the girls and young women, who suffer the pain and the consequences of their culture's expectations, whilst the men escape scot-free.
At this stage the cultural apologists may well be feigning offence, claiming that, as a white male living in Europe, FGM does not affect me, and that I should not be seeking to criticise cultures that practice it. Not being one to care too much about the delicate sensibilities of cultural apologists, I don't believe that a culture that practices FGM has much to recommend it until it stops this child abuse, regardless of how noble and pure it might otherwise be. And I am not alone in thinking this. The United Nations has made its position perfectly clear, and considers FGM to be a violation of fundamental human rights, even passing a specific resolution in 2012 (67/146) calling for the intensification of efforts to eliminate female genital mutilations. So, whilst FGM may not affect me directly, I'm happy to continue offending the sensibilities of the unduly sensitive in support of the campaign against FGM, knowing that it has the full support of the UN and many, many others.
So, whilst FGM does not affect me directly, there are an estimated 60,000 girls in the United Kingdom, where I live, at risk of some form of FGM, generally from communities with strong cultural links to countries where FGM is practised. As FGM is illegal in the UK, some of these girls may be taken out of the country to be subjected to it. Fortunately this is now also illegal for UK citizens and while in the past the UK may have been less than rigorous in securing prosecution of offenders, this is now changing.
Finally, there is the perception that FGM is solely an issue for women. Read the blogs on the 28 Too Many website, and you'll notice that they are all, bar one, written by women. There's only one that is addressed to men - It's time for men to stand up and say no to FGM - 23 January 2014 by Geoffrey Otieno. Most of the campaigners against FGM are, unsurprisingly, women. So, whilst the perception is that FGM is a women's problem being tackled by women, it ignores the reality that anything that affects women also affects men.
So, in bringing this blog article to a close, I shall address my remarks to the men out there.
In many of the parts of the world including where FGM is practised, you men are the dominant influence and hold positions of power. If all of you men decided that FGM should stop, it would stop pretty much overnight. So make it clear that FGM is no longer acceptable, and will no longer be tolerated. If this sounds a bit strong, ask yourself: Is it in your interests for the girls and women in your lives to be subject to this barbaric, cruel and excruciatingly painful procedure? One that has lifelong repercussions for fertility, and genital, gynaecological and mental health? Where is the justification for retaining this egregious violation of the fundamental rights of women? Is this utterly toxic cultural legacy what you wish future generations to remember you for? That you had the power to stop FGM, but did not?
Lastly, try to imagine, if you will, the fear and agony suffered by a girl or young woman in genital mutilation without anaesthetic. Imagine the pain of an equivalent male excision and mutilation; does this not cause you to have the most profound empathy for the girls and women who suffer FGM?
Then I urge you, do everyone a huge favour, and stamp out Female Genital Mutilation – NOW!
Stephen Williams, Comfortable, white English professional middle-class male.
If you want to take action, you can learn more about 28 Too Many's work to end FGM and how you can help at www.28toomany.org. You can donate to support our research and campaigns and follow us on Facebook for updates on the global movement to end FGM.