It is a topic most of us tiptoe around or even avoid talking about altogether. But for some women, it is a traumatic experience that they have to live with for the rest of their lives.
Last Saturday was International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), which offers a rare chance to highlight this barbaric procedure. The figures are shocking. According to the latest UN Children’s Fund report, it is estimated that at least 200 million girls and women alive today in 30 countries have undergone some form of FGM. And there are new victims every day.
I assumed it was a rare practice that occurred only in rural areas among the uneducated or unaware – until someone I had known for years, who was from a wealthy Egyptian family, told me that she was a victim of FGM when she was 8.
“It is just accepted as normal practice ... My mother had it done to her and my grandmother, great grandmother and other female relatives,” she says.
A mother of two teenagers, she says she is one of the “lucky ones” because she was able to have children, even though each birth had its own complication.
Besides the emotional, psychological and physical hurt, FGM can lead to health issues such as severe bleeding, regular infections, complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths.
“I do feel like a part of my womanhood was stolen from me and I was made to feel great shame throughout my life for being born a woman,” she says.
The small space allowed for this column can do no justice to this topic and this woman’s courage as she stood up to pressure and protected her own two daughters from FGM.
The practice has been illegal in Egypt since 2008, but despite the law, it has persisted.
“It needs to stop. It is a violation of rights, of privacy and of life. This horrible violent practice violates the meaning of life itself,” she says.
FGM comprises all procedures that involve altering or injuring the female genitalia for non-medical reasons and is recognised internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. According to the UN report, half of the affected women are in three countries: Egypt, Ethiopia and Indonesia.
Last year, this topic was addressed in Omnia, a short film by Emirati filmmaker Amena Al Nowais that won the Best Picture award at Image Nation’s first Arab Film Studio Documentary competition. The subject of the film, Omnia Ibrahim, a 32-year-old Abu Dhabi resident from Egypt, attended the ceremony and faced the media to further discuss this topic. Imagine the amount of courage it took to first appear in this film and then answer questions about her life.
Nawal El Saadawi, the feminist, activist, doctor and writer, has written frankly about her own FGM and has been fighting for women’s rights for decades under a barrage of death threats and even spent time in jail for her beliefs and writings. This issue also needs more men fighting against it for it to finally stop.
“Never before has it been more urgent – or more possible – to end the practice of female genital mutilation, preventing immeasurable human suffering and boosting the power of women and girls to have a positive impact on our world,” said United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon.
Thankfully, there is progress. In some of the countries where it is prevalent, the authorities are clamping down on those who perform it. Slowly, through cooperation of the entire community, self-awareness by the families themselves and international efforts, it can be eradicated for ever.