Yoga Blog

MAY 22, 2011

Shedding Light On A Hidden Traditional Practice – Female Genital Mutilation

Posted by Dorothy under Community Interests, Interesting Readsno responses

By Eliane Luthi Poirier*

She uses a razor blade from a local corner store, broken in half to produce a sharp enough edge for the procedure. The tools used are not sterilized and the procedure is done without any sedation. Surgical gloves are not used; however, the ‘Mak Bidan’ will wash her hands with soap before performing the procedure.

The procedure, known euphemistically as “female circumcision,” is being performed on a young girl in a fisherman’s village in northern peninsular Malaysia. The ‘Mak Bidan’ performing it, a self-taught midwife, charges RM10 per procedure. Generally, before the procedure is performed, she receives offerings such as glutinous rice and eggs from the parents of the girl.

This ritual, more commonly known as “female genital cutting” (FGC) is performed on two to three million women and girls each year. Especially prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa, it has also been reported in the Middle East, and, closer to home, in certain areas of Malaysia and Indonesia.

The term FGC actually covers a wide variety of different practices, some more severe than others, which result in the complete or partial removal or alteration of the external genitalia of a girl. Worryingly, the procedure is often performed with unsanitary, makeshift, or rudimentary tools.

The health consequences of the practice can be severe. Immediate complications, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), can include severe pain, shock, hemorrhage (bleeding), tetanus or sepsis (bacterial infection), urine retention, open sores and injury to nearby tissue; while long-term consequences can include recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections, cysts, infertility, and an increased risk of childbirth complications and newborn deaths.

What brought about this harmful practice?

It is not immediately clear what the exact origins of FGC are. Because it is widely practiced in Muslim parts of the world, it is often mistaken for a Muslim practice, yet there is no mention or endorsement of this ritual in the Koran. Additionally, other communities, such animists and Christians in Africa, are also known to perform the ritual.

What does seem certain is that deeply entrenched beliefs about gender have played a major role in the propagation of the practice. The WHO points out that FGC is “often motivated by beliefs about what is considered proper sexual behavior, linking procedures to premarital virginity and marital fidelity.”

As such, FGC is another avenue for parents to ensure their daughters abide by the traditional global gender conventions of chastity, modesty and submissiveness. It also seems that compliance or non-compliance with the tradition has strong social consequences: UNICEF notes that in communities where FGC is practiced, “not conforming to the practice stigmatizes and isolates girls and their families, resulting in the loss of their social status. This deeply entrenched social convention is so powerful that parents are willing to have their daughters cut because they want the best for their children.”

FGC is illegal in Malaysia and there are few statistics regarding its prevalence here. Nevertheless, a descriptive study published last year, entitled “The Practice Of Female Genital Mutilation Among The Rural Malays In North Malaysia” by scholars Abdul Khan Rashid, Sapna S. Patil and Anita S. Valimalar shed some new light on the practice.

The authors believe that the ritual of FGC varies from state to state in Malaysia, but it is thought that the procedure is generally performed while the girl is in her infancy (usually before her second birthday). In rural societies such as the fishing villages they studied, the traditional practitioner will be a ‘Mak Bidan’ similar to the one described above, though the use of trained medical professionals in clinical environments seems to be on the increase. (There have even been reports of same procedure, known as ‘sunat’, being performed by doctors in certain medical clinics in Singapore).

Contrary to the type of FGC practiced elsewhere, sunat does not result in major injury to the girl’s genitalia, but – beyond considerations about discrimination against women – the unsanitary conditions in which it is usually carried out remains a major cause for concern.

Among Malay communities, the practice is motivated by religious beliefs: although FGC is not a religious obligation, most respondents in the above authors’ study believed that females who had not undergone the procedure were not Muslims. They also stated that they would continue the ritual on their own daughters, as they saw no harm in doing it.

The authors of the study rightly point to the need for the public and the ‘Mak Bidans’ to be educated on the dangers of FGC and the true religious requirements of the practice. “This is best done by those from the state religious authority and it should be multi-sectoral, sustained and community led,” they note. Indeed, with such a deep-seated and taboo social tradition, a community-based approach is necessary to foster constructive dialogue and positive social change.

For more information:

The World Health Organization: Female Genital Mutilation website

UNICEF Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting website

Desert Flower Foundation website

(a foundation run by Waris Dirie, the UN Special Ambassador for the elimination of Female Genital Mutilation)

*Eliane Luthi Poirier is a communications professional based in Senegal. She currently works at Tostan, an international NGO that empowers local communities and fosters dialogue on FGC. In the past, she has worked with numerous NGOs in Asia on various women’s issues, including domestic violence, human trafficking and harmful traditional practices.

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