Cosmetic procedures like labiaplasty and vaginoplasty, done to improve the female genitalia’s cosmetic appearance are the latest trend for Western women and are typically done to enhance the woman’s self-esteem.  These procedures of choice are a stark contrast to what millions of young girls and women endure in societies where it is culturally mandatory for a much more invasive and life threatening procedure known as female genital mutilation.

Female genital mutilation (also known as female circumcision) is classified into four types by the World Health Organization (WHO) and each involves the removal or alteration of the female genitalia.  These types include the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia-which is scraped off by a non professional, for example, with a piece of broken glass, a tin lid, a razor or another sharp cutting tool. Annually, an estimated two million girls are affected and an estimated 135 million have already undergone the ritual.  Many women who have been tightly sewn have to be cut and restitched after giving birth to a child.

The practice causes a range of severe sexual, psychological, and health ramifications. According to the WHO, long term physical consequences can include: recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections, cysts, infertility, the need for later surgeries, and an increased risk of childbirth complications and newborn deaths.

While illegal in many countries, the practice still occurs regularly without interference from authorities.  FGM is carried out in over 25 countries in Africa, with Somalia and Sudan performing the most severe types. It is also practiced in Asia, the Middle East, and has reportedly been carried out by immigrant communities in Western nations-including the United States.

The practice is frequently carried out without anesthetics and is most commonly performed on girls who are between four and eight years old.  In some cases the girls are as young as newborns.  FGM occurs primarily because of cultural and/or religious customs and traditions.  In some cultures, unless a girl undergoes the procedure, she is not considered an adult or woman.  Further justification by FGM advocates are that it makes women clean, promotes virginity and chastity, and guards young girls from sexual frustration by deadening their sexual appetite.

Fatima Ali was circumcised at age 13 in Egypt and experienced grave complications which included severe pain years later during childbirth. She refuses to allow her two daughters to undergo the procedure despite facing criticism in her village. She has stood her ground saying, “I don’t care what everyone thinks. I was really harmed, and I didn’t want this for my daughters.  When I talk about my experience, many become convinced.”

Awareness groups are trying to spread the word on FGM’s effects and highlighting how the practice is internationally recognized as a violation of girls’ and women’s human rights.  Several African women’s organizations have discussed the detrimental effects of female circumcision to the governments of African nations who have in turn made the practice illegal.

Involving locals in educational programs on the health, social, and legal ramifications of FGM is central to curbing the practice. Local initiatives that raise awareness about the dangers of female genital mutilation are a viable solution for societies where cultural background and sensitivity is necessary in discouraging parents from the practice.  In some cultures where several girls are initiated in groups as part of a passage to womanhood or marriage and where celebrations and festivities occur, locals, such as physicians, religious leaders, and women who have undergone the procedure have succeeded in FGM eradication by informing communities of its dangers and by continuing to initiate girls into womanhood during similar festivities but without the practice of female genital mutilation.   

The progress being made on raising awareness is increasing and should encourage the international community to support the grassroots work of locals who are adamantly working to eliminate the practice.  By spreading knowledge about this life threatening procedure through educational programs, counseling, and by involving local law enforcement to ensure adherence to laws, we can help stop this practice.