Lyndsey Jefferson is a graduate of the LSE MSc Human Rights programme (2012-2013). She is an activist for women and girls’ rights currently working for The Girl Generation. She also previously worked as a researcher in the UK Parliament. You can follow her on twitter @lyndseyj. This article originally appeared in Standard Issue.
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is not an easy subject to talk about. The taboo of discussing women’s genitals exists in every culture, and it can be difficult to engage with an issue that might feel far removed from one’s own individual experiences. However, each and every one of us must stop living under the illusion that FGM is not our issue.
According to the United Nations, one out of every three women in the world will personally experience physical or sexual violence. That’s one billion women. It is important to consider FGM as an expression of extreme discrimination and Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG), as the UN has already done with the 2012 resolution calling for a worldwide ban on FGM. It is also important to remember that VAWG, including FGM, are international problems that transcend cultural, religious, and economic boundaries.
FGM refers to the partial or total removal of the female genitals for non-medical reasons, with the goal of controlling a woman’s sexuality. It is usually carried out on very young girls between infancy and the age of 15. FGM is practiced in 29 countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, and due to migration it is also happening in Europe, North America, and Australia. The World Health Organisation has estimated that between 100 and 140 million women worldwide are currently living with the harmful effects of this practice. FGM can cause severe pain, bleeding, problems urinating and menstruating, cysts, infections, infertility, complications in childbirth, and sometimes death. The psychological effects of FGM are also severe and can cause post-traumatic stress and depression. Another study by UNICEF (pdf) found that over the next decade, 30 million more girls will be at risk. In the UK alone, over 20,000 girls under the age of 15 risk undergoing FGM each year. It’s time to start talking.
While culture and tradition are often used to justify oppressive practices, there is no justification for violating the human rights of a child. FGM is erroneously linked to religion, but it is not particular to any faith, and predates both Christianity and Islam. Here in Britain, the fear of being politically incorrect has severely undermined efforts to end FGM in the UK. FGM has been illegal in the UK since 1985, but there have yet to be any convictions. Campaigning against FGM is not cultural imperialism – ending this harmful practice is a human rights issue. Using the right language is also crucial: FGM is an act of violence against women and girls. Full stop. We would not accept a practice of cutting off a girl’s arm for culture, so how can we be silent about FGM?
By starting an open and honest discussion about FGM, we can create an environment in which more people are comfortable talking about sexual violence. FGM is shrouded in secrecy and in the affected communities everyone plays a role upholding this practice. Women who speak out against FGM risk a strong backlash, and uncut women are often stigmatised and ostracised. This is why it is absolutely vital that women and girls feel empowered and confident to talk about FGM in order to end the cycle of shame that drives the practice underground.
FGM is one of the most important human rights issues of our time because it goes hand-in-hand with other gender equality issues, including child, early, and forced marriage (CEFM), honour-based violence, and girls’ education. Talking about FGM opens up doors to wider discussions and can be a catalyst for change. The survivors will lead the way to ending this practice, and it is our duty to listen to their stories, and be humble and ready to learn. Everyone has a part to play in making a world that is safe for girls.
We need to push ourselves to take a stand, even though it may not always be easy. The rights of girls and women are more important than feeling comfortable. As women, as men, as parents, teachers, lawyers, police officers, health professionals, and as human rights advocates – FGM is everybody’s business.