The centuries-old practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), sometimes also referred to as circumcision or cutting, has been recognized as a human rights violation. Although we tend to think of FGM as something that happens "elsewhere," it happens in the U.S. as well. And, new research shows just how horrifying and long-reaching the consequences of FGM are.
The most recent CDC statistics about the prevalence of FGM in the States were released in 1997 and estimated that between 150,000 and 200,000 girls were at risk. Since then, many have suggested that the number continues to rise, with FGM occurring underground here and in the U.K.
By definition, FGM does not treat a medical issue. Instead, the four main types of FGM all involve the intentional cutting and removal of the external female genitalia. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the practice of FGM is often considered a cultural tradition in the 29 African and Middle Eastern countries where it happens most frequently. The practice was made illegal in the U.S. in 1996, but we're learning that it's still an issue here.
Until recently, knowledge of the health consequences of FGM were scattered. A new study, published in BMJ Open, aimed to provide more concrete evidence of the ways this procedure affects women's lives. This paper was a meta-analysis of results from 57 studies. All the studies provided original, quantitative evidence of the health effects of FGM from over 20 countries — including Egypt, Nigeria, and Sudan, but also the U.S., France, and Sweden.
Their results showed that, as observational and qualitative studies have previously suggested, FGM is associated with serious negative health effects in the short and long term. According to these data, the most common immediate complication of the procedure is hemorrhage as a result of cutting the clitoral artery. And, later in life, having had the FGM procedure was associated with increased risks for bacterial vaginosis and urinary tract infections. Plus, damage to the urethra and nerves in the area can cause scar tissue to form, which can lead to chronic pain during sex. And, unlike male circumcision, these risks come without any potential benefits (although male circumcision is facing backlash, too).
The procedure is certainly controversial, and because it's steeped in cultural tradition, fighting against it can be difficult. However, U.N. secretary general Ban Ki-moon recently announced a global campaign to end the practice. And, as research, statistics, and extreme cases continue to make their way into the news, we hope FGM's opponents will gain momentum. Because, as Mona Eltahawy pointed out in the New York Times, we shouldn't have to wait until someone dies to take action.