1. Home
  2. Africa

Razor's Edge: The Controversy of Female Genital Mutilation

[Ethiopia] FGM is practiced predominantly in Africa, 28 out of 53 countries carry out FGM although 16 countries have passed national laws prohibiting FGM.
O segredo mais sagrado ao descoberto (IRIN)

Female circumcision is a celebrated custom that dates back more than 4,000 years. Commonly associated with religion, the reality of this ancient custom is that its roots lie far deeper in culture.

When this girl had her clitoris removed and her genitals sewn up with thorns, the only sound to drown out her screams was the ullalating of women rejoicing over her successful passage to womanhood.

Every year around 2 million girls will experience some form of circumcision in Africa alone. Conducted by untrained practitioners using unsterilised blades in septic conditions it is only possible to speculate at the number of girls who will not make it past recovery. What is certain is that thousands will carry the scars of their physical and psychological injuries for life.

They grabbed me first because I was the youngest. After that they all held me down and cut it me. It hurt so much and I screamed. I can still remember the lady who did it to me now.

There are many different types of circumcision but most involve the removal of the clitoris and in some cases the partial or complete removal of the remaining external genitalia.

Medical consequences include hemorrage, shock, severe pelvic inflmation, depression, sterility, sexual dysfunction and sometimes even death.

The cultural beliefs that perpetuate the practice, however, vary widely between the societies where the custom is performed.

Communities….big variety of customs so if you want to abolish it, you have to convince the people first...

The true extent of the sacred cultural value attached to this practice is shown clearly in Sierra Leone, where over 90% of the female population are circumcised.

Custom dictates that girls must sacrifice their clitoris as a pre-requisite for entry into the sacred realm of The Bondo Secret Society. Only by becoming Bondo members will they be socially accepted by their community and will they be considered eligible for marriage.

It’s the beginning and the end of the very existence of women. If you do not become a member of that society you can’t find a husband, you can’t even find somebody to marry you, it’s completely out of the question as men don’t marry women who are not part of that ceremony.

This girl has recently been told by her family that her time has ome to enter Bondo Society. So frightened about what will happen to her, she has run away from her village and is currently hiding in Freetown.

She was too scared to show her face for fear her family would recognise her and force her under the circumcision knife.

I’m scared because they told me that they use razors to join that society and when they use razors you will be having uncontrollable bleeding, and if you don’t have the strength you will just lose your life.

So secretive is Bondo Society that no uncircumcised women, and certainly no men, have ever witnessed a Bondo circumcision ceremony. Women who have attempted to do so in the past have been abducted by Bondo members and then forcibly circumcised as punishment.

What is clear is that what goes on in Bondo Society is not a topic for discussion for anyone in Sierra Leone and is a feared subject even among politicians.

...no politician has the guts to stand up and say I am against it, nobody has done it in this country.

But politicians are not the only ones to avoid tackling the issue of Female Genital Mutilation or FGM in Sierra Leone. Even amongst the humanitarian community attention is directed elsewhere.

Out of a total of 271 NGO’s in Sierra Leone, I know of only two who are working directly against FGM as a programme.

The humanitarian focus in Sierra Leone is still primarily given to rebuilding a country shattered by 10 years of brutal conflict that left in its wake a tide of unimaginable suffering.

But although the consequences of War have been the biggest priority for the humanitarian community, for some NGOs FGM will never be priority as it not considered as being a harmful practice.

Because of the fact that 90% of our women practice FGM it shows that it is not harmful..that is not an issue

But one woman in Sierra Leone believes that the time has come to break the silence surrounding Female Genital Mutilation. Rugiatu Turay is one of the first and only Bondo members ever to have openly challenged the traditions of her own people.

She has single-handedly convinced over 400 traditional practitioners from 111 villages to stop circumcising girls.

We believe that female genital mutilation is one the issues that is affecting us as women in Sierra Leone. But politicians and elderly people have always remained silent about it. And we in A.I.M think that it is no longer time for politicians to bargain the lives of women to maintain their positions.

Many of the girls that Rugiatu is trying to conivince are under 5 years of age and are already in training to become practioners themselves. In just a few years these girls will start using their blades to cut other girls as a means of providing income for the family.

“I started initiating girls when I was 13. Since then I have circumcised 23 girls in total. My mother and my father are dead and so this is the only way for me to get sustenance as we charge per girl.

But for as long as these women rely on the money they earn from circumcisions to survive, asking them to stop is impossible without offering an alternative form of income.

Our problem now is the financial support because if we ask them to stop they need an alternative way of making income. That is why you see we are calling on the government to support us so that we can get donor agencies giving us money to support these women who are willing to drop the practice of female genital mutilation in our country.

But since the policy of donors is to work in collaboration with the government, accessing funds will only be possible when FGM becomes of government priority. Certainly for the time being, therefore, the future for Rugiatu looks bleak.

Linda Osarenen is the programme director for the Inter African Committee against Harmful Traditional Practices, based in Ethiopia. Their role is to support and oversee the work all NGO’s working against FGM in Africa. She believes that government support is essential for the eradication of FGM but it will only work effectively when done in collaboration with local NGO’s.

Ethiopia is one country in Africa that does have a zero tolerance commitment from government on the issue of FGM.

As a result, NGO’s have been in a position to access funds and have embarked on a wide variety of successful awareness raising campaigns.

Easier platform here than SL, Ethiopia shown strong commitment.

But the challenges facing NGO’s working in Ethiopia are so great that even with the necessary support from government, they are still a long way off from eliminating the practice completely.

One of the most immediate of the challenges is religion. Over the years this deeply spiritual society has incorporated the cultural practice of female circumcision and made it into a religious requirement.

Particularly common in the Muslim regions of Ethiopia is a practice known as Pharaonic circumcision or Infibulation and is the most physically harmful of all circumcision techniques throughout the world.

Infibulation found in this part of Africa, especially in Muslim areas can havc serious health consequences – Demonstration of what it entails.

One of the functions of this invasive procedure is to enable husbands to determine whether or not their wives have sex before marriage.

For she is generally only cut open a few days before her wedding night or forcibly ripped open during intercourse.

The health implications for infibulated women can be severe and on occasion totally devastating.

Targeting religious leaders therefore, is an obvious first step towards stopping the practice. Convincing this predominantly male arena that circumcision is not a religious practice, however, has been found to be no easy task.

It’s in Koran, we believe it should be continued.

But evidence shows that this is not a view held by most Muslims. As even in strictly Muslim countries like Iran and Syria, circumcision is not practiced anywhere since there is no evidence of it being a religious obligation either in the Koran or the Bible.

But religion is just one of the reasons why FGM is practiced in Ethiopia.

Students here are being taught about the harmful effects of FGM in the hope that they will return home and raise awareness in their own communities.

When asked why they themselves had undergone the practice their views reflected the fact that circumcision is perpetuated by the cultural views of men.

The girls are frightened that if these men are not sensitised and educated they are worried they may not get married and so because of that they prefer to be circumcised to get a husband so we must focus on the men to be sensitised and educated that these girls should not be circumcised.

Clearly when dealing with a traditional practice as culturally sensitive and regionally specific as female circumcision, it is only members of that society itself who are in a position to introduce change.

But this can only happen with government support as only then are NGOs in a position to access the funds and the political back up they need to continue.

Even with commitment from government, however, since these societies are dominated by the views of men, it is only by changing their attitudes that the practice will ever truly stop.

Until such a time occurs, FGM will continue to affect the lives of millions of women and girls in Africa ever year as they remain powerless to escape their own traditions.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

Share this article

Hundreds of thousands of readers trust The New Humanitarian each month for quality journalism that contributes to more effective, accountable, and inclusive ways to improve the lives of people affected by crises.

Our award-winning stories inform policymakers and humanitarians, demand accountability and transparency from those meant to help people in need, and provide a platform for conversation and discussion with and among affected and marginalised people.

We’re able to continue doing this thanks to the support of our donors and readers like you who believe in the power of independent journalism. These contributions help keep our journalism free and accessible to all.

Show your support as we build the future of news media by becoming a member of The New Humanitarian. 

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.