Culture and tradition should not be an excuse for abuse
by Priscilla Ajiji
In 2009, I was enrolled in my dad’s favorite boarding school. I say favorite because he could simply get an admission by making a phone call to the Headmaster. Why him? Well, that is another day’s story. I quickly made friends with Sarah, she hailed from the Sebei tribe, situated East of Uganda. During one of our class breaks, as Sarah and I were standing by the school canteen chatting about, one of our loud mouthed classmates came over and asked, “Sarah, I heard that girls from your region are “cut” down there,” Unfortunately, I couldn’t figure out what this was about.
“No, I’m not,” Sarah slowly replied.
I had never seen Sarah look so humiliated and afraid to speak before. With the impression that I couldn’t ask such questions without offending her, I started on my journey to find answers.
Later on, I discovered that what Sarah was afraid to talk about was called FGM, correction! What Sarah was afraid to talk about IS called FGM which stands for Female Genital Mutilation/Circumcision. FGM/C is practiced in Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and all over Africa. However, it’s also practiced in the Middle East, Asia, Australia, Europe and the United States. Global problem much?
As chosen by the “woman with the knife”, FGM/C is carried out in huts or bushes where young girls are pinned to the ground against their will and then circumcised. How?
The “woman with the knife” can either cut off one’s clitoris or cut off both the clitoris and the labia majora (stage 1 and 2, respectively). Stage 3 comprises of cutting off one’s entire clitoris, as well as, the outer lips and subsequently sow her up leaving her a little space to pee and have her period. Depending on the cultural context, stage 4 named as unclassified comprises of piercing, cutting, or scrapping.
Over 200 million girls alive today have undergone FGM. If we further breakdown this figure, 3 million girls are cut every year across the world which comes with many consequences namely severe bleeding; (Oh the pain is insurmountable!); difficulty in urinating, during periods, ntercourse and child birth; having scar tissue and keloid; among many others. As if the physical consequences are not enough, they suffer psychologically, too. This includes depression, feelings of betrayal from parents and relatives, post-traumatic stress disorder, and low self-esteem, etc. These procedures and pain are hard to forget no matter how old one gets.
According to the United Nations, FGM is a human rights violation. Many governments all over the world have taken steps towards its elimination. Efforts include laws criminalizing FGM, education and outreach programs, scholarships for girls from poverty stricken families (implemented in Uganda), among many others. However, the practice is still strongly supported by those who have been exposed to and are aware of its consequences. Despite their experience, FGM is practiced because of the myths surrounding it; for example, FGM ensures that a girl remains a virgin and protects a family’s honor. While others say that one becomes a woman; hence, increasing marriage opportunities. It is further practiced because of women’s need to be recognized in community or just as part of tradition.
Despite the programs put in place to eliminate FGM, there is little or no focus on the psychological effects of FGM especially in developing countries. A 25-year-old from Sierra Leone was asked about her experience with FGM, she said
“I became a frightened woman because of what they told me during my FGM. They said, ‘you will be visited by a deceased person during your sleep.’ They made it seem so real. Since then I’m scared all the time, and I cannot be home alone all due to circumcision”.
It’s also evident that women who have undergone FGM find it very difficult to talk about. A 47-year-old lady from Eritrea was asked why.
“You feel terribly embarrassed. Circumcised women become isolated, mentally ill or mad. Either that or she stops talking; and nobody understands why. It sounds shallow, but it goes really deep. A woman who has been circumcised will blame any pain she feels on the circumcision. That is all we know. And because we feel ashamed, we stay home with our problems.
Needless to say, talking therapies don’t make your problems go away, but you find it easier to deal and feel happier. Therefore these ladies, despite their plight, are lucky enough to speak; how about the girls stuck in a village in Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Uganda, Gambia with no way of escape, where even if she tried, there is nowhere to run, no number to call for help and has to go through the same tradition? Girls like Christiana who feel betrayed by their relatives, were circumcised and married off to abusive men. (For details on Christiana’s story, watch available video below.)
In conclusion, FGM is not a white problem, it’s not a Middle Eastern or Asian problem, and it definitely isn’t an African problem. Focusing all attention to fighting FGM in developed countries while forgetting its origin does not solve the problem. In the words of Khadija, a victim of FGM, culture and tradition should not be an excuse for abuse.