The International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation

The 6th February was the international day of zero tolerance to female genital mutilation. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a so-called cultural practice that occurs very widely throughout Africa. Forms of FGM occur in parts of Namibia as well. It consists of the total or partial removal of girls’ and women’s external genitalia or causing injury to women’s genital organs.  Where it occurs, Female Genital Mutilation usually is inflicted upon girls before they reach puberty. The victims of FGM usually are girls between the ages four to eight years old. The “operation,” usually is done by women, who themselves have been subjected to these practices.

The most common type of FGM typically consists of the total or partial removal of the clitoris and/ or inner lips (labia.) The World Health Organisation estimates that the majority of affected women have had these procedures done to them.

Another form of Female Genital Mutilation is the total or partial removal of all the external genitals. This is also called infibulation. Once the external genitals are removed, the remaining parts are sewn together and only a small hole is left for passing urine and menstrual blood. When a woman to whom this procedure has been done is married off, the scars of the infibulations are opened so that the husband can have intercourse and the woman can bear children. Subjected to life-long suffering and pain that this causes for affected women, the opening of the genitals for intercourse and child-birth is the cause of additional pain, discomfort and – one imagines – profound embarrassment for affect women.

While the above are the most common forms of FGM, there are other practices which might include the burning of women’s genitals, inserting corrosive substances or herbs that will tighten the vagina as well as the stretching of the clitoris or labia.

Sister Namibia is aware that the elongation of the labia is practiced in some parts of Namibia especially Caprivi. Where practiced, this is done to young girls from about eight years old until the onset of menstruation.  If, by this time it is found that a girl’s labia is not “long enough” an adult woman will be tasked with stretching the lips to the required size.

There is absolutely no medical reason for these practices. Where it is practiced, FGM happens because they are meant to increase the sexual pleasure of men and to ensure that women’s sexual pleasure is reduced and their sexuality controlled. In those cultures in Namibia where labia stretching occurs, the size of a girl’s or a woman’s labia could be cited as a “valid” reason for divorce.

In cultures where it is committed, people usually argue that FGM ensures that particularly young women will not “run around” looking for sexual gratification. It is generally assumed that women’s expression of sexuality reflects badly on the family and the parents and that by controlling women’s sexuality, the “honour” of the family and the parents is safe guarded.  In societies where women are particularly disenfranchised, women perform these mutilations on young girls and it is not uncommon for women themselves to pay lip service to the supposed virtues of women and girls who have been subjected to these forms of mutilation.

Sister Namibia is of the opinion that all manifestations of FGM are forms of torture which infringes on the fundamental right of women to have meaningful and full sexual lives. Any form of FGM is an affront to women’s rights and dignity. There cannot be any justification for any form of FGM in a society which respects and values individual and human rights. These practices are barbaric and must be exposed and stamped out where-ever and how-ever they occur.

/ Laura