In 1990 I did voluntary work with several US college students in Barra Kunda (pop. 500) in the West African country of The Gambia. One day, a female group member told me that some village girls had asked her to show them her clitoris. This was no sexual advance. They were curious since girls in Barra Kunda had (part of) the clitoris cut from their female genitals. The UN calls this Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) and defines it as: “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organ”. FGM/C exists for thousands of years and is still performed in parts of Africa*, the Middle East, Asia, India and Colombia.
Every year on February 6th, the UN calls for zero tolerance to FGM/C and aims to educate the public about its possible long term health consequences such as chronic pain, infections, primary infertility and birth complications. The risks depend on the FGM/C type performed, the expertise of the practitioner and the hygiene conditions under which it’s performed.
FGM/C is carried out as a way to control women’s sexuality, to ensure virginity before marriage and fidelity afterward. Additionally it is believed that an uncut clitoris resembles a grown penis and that FGM contributes to an attractive vagina.
FGM/C is widely debated. Western Countries -where as recent as the 1950s, clitoridectomy was practiced to treat perceived ailments including hysteria, epilepsy, mental disorders and masturbation- have seen a rise in surgical procedures for non-medical reasons (hoodectomy and labiaplasty) to “rejuvenate and make the female vagina young, beautiful and improve women’s (sexual) health”.
Understandably so, proponents of FGM/C have questioned the UN for not addressing the many vaginal operations in the West for beauty reasons, on intersex persons as well as genital piercing that according to them fit the UN FGM/C definition. They consider the West condescending and hypocritical for denying them an old tradition. In a recent US campaign, vaginal surgery and piercing have been fiercely defended. Women’s groups have declared: “Whether a woman does this for medical or aesthetic reasons, it’s her choice.” The question is: Shouldn’t this also apply those in the developing world?
*In 2015 The Gambia prohibited FGM/C