Female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM/C) is one of the most controversial debates when discussing women’s rights, especially in Africa. It refers to all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. Most recently, there has been increasing debate on whether cosmetic surgery of the female genitalia; such as vaginal reconstruction, labia surgery and hymenoplasty, constitutes FGM/C. FGM/C is prevalent in the western, eastern, and north-eastern regions of Africa, some countries in Asia and the Middle East, and among certain immigrant communities in North America and Europe. Contributing factors include culture, ethnicity, age, literacy levels, gender inequality, poverty and the value communities put on chastity.
In many countries and communities, FGM/C is performed sometime between infancy and age 15, with increased campaigns against the practice resulting in it going underground. In Sierra Leone, the practice of FGM/C is closely linked to the traditional coming of age ceremony for women called ‘Bondo’, which is practiced across the country. Initiation into the Bondo Society usually takes place at puberty however, in some communities, it may happen at an earlier or later stage. Growing up in Sierra Leone, I remember a young ward moving into our home from the village. She would often share her stories; most of which centred on village celebrations, especially Bondo. Her face will light up at the prospect of one day going through the process as she looked forward to been taught how to become a woman and manage the home. She also explained the pomp and pageantry she expected when she would be unveiled to the community. To Baindu, her initiation represented the day she would transition from girlhood to womanhood, and for many families and communities, initiation into the Bondo Society it is a source of pride and joy. Additionally, Bondo is sometimes supported by some politicians and community leaders, either through patronage or membership. Fuambai Sia Ahmadu, America-based scholar and editor-in-chief of The Shabaka Stone Magazine has often spoken of her journey to Sierra Leone to be initiated into the Bondo Society, a tradition she felt was important to her and female members of her Kono family.
However, what is worrying about Bondo and the practice of FGM/C worldwide is the age at which girls are initiated and whether they are empowered to make an informed decision on what they experience. Also of concern are the implications this could have on their human rights and their physical, mental and sexual well-being. The UN describes FGM/C as a violation of the right to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life, when the procedure results in death. Possible medical consequences of FGM/C include severe bleeding and cysts, infections, infertility, painful menstruation and accumulation of menstrual blood in the vagina, acute urinary retention, excessive pain and injury to the neighbouring tissues, as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of new-born deaths. Possible mental consequences of FGM/C include post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. FGM/C also has a huge impact on sexual relationships between couples as it could result in the fear of sexual intercourse and in extreme cases, the inability of both men and women to enjoy sexual relations. Additionally, FGM/C impacts on levels of child, early and forced marriage and access to education in communities. This subsequently impacts access to political participation, economic opportunities and most importantly the value of women and girls in their communities. Forced to undergo FGM/C as a teenager, Alimatu Dimonekene, social activist and anti-FGM/C campaigner describes the practice as one of the most extreme manifestation of discrimination and violence against women and girls.
While criticism of aspects of one’s tradition may prove aggravating, as a society we would be doing millions of women and girls a disservice by failing to acknowledge and address traditional practices that need on the reasons for and the value of such practices. FGM/C should not be performed on anyone under the age of 18 and women who willing consent to such practices should be given the opportunity to make informed decisions. Furthermore rights based campaigns towards preventing and ending FGM/C must take cognisance of the social norms of each community to examine how best they can work with such communities to end the practice. The beauty of culture is that is changes and as a generation we have the ability redefine it now.