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The Harmful Myths Perpetuating FGM Worldwide

Photo: Getty
Editor's note: This story contains content that some readers may find upsetting.

Women and our bodies have long occupied a mythical status. We starred as fictional nymphs, sirens and harpies in the ancient texts, arts and pottery of eras gone by. Tales of witchcraft led to the real-life execution of 40,000 people – 80% of them women – across Europe and New England from 1400 to 1800. And superstition means that, to this day, certain Cornish fishermen will not let women on board their boats in case their presence ruins the catch.

The unique power of women’s bodies to give life has been twisted, the mystery of our anatomy positioned as a threat, historically and routinely feared by men, and even, sometimes, ourselves.

One set of mythical fears, handed down from generation to generation across Africa, the Middle East, Asia – and among these areas’ diasporas – enables female genital mutilation (FGM) to flourish. This International Women’s Day, renewed calls will be made to eradicate the practice, which has – according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) – been inflicted upon an estimated 200 million women around the world today, across 30 countries.

There are no health benefits to FGM, but there are plenty of risks

The practice of FGM, or “cutting” is where a girl, aged anywhere from infancy up to 15, has part or all of her clitoris and labia removed. It’s most regularly administered by older women in the community. In some types of FGM, what’s left of the genitals is stitched up to make for a tiny opening by which the girl is to pass urine and menstrual blood.

There are no health benefits to FGM, but there are plenty of risks. As well as disfiguration and loss of sexual pleasure, the procedure can lead to incontinence and other bladder issues, as well as infection, psychological damage, disordered periods, sexual dysfunction and, in some cases, death – usually from excessive bleeding.

What compels people to do this to women? Myths.

In an area of rural Tanzania, women – and men – are convinced that if FGM isn’t practiced, the village’s fishing catch will fail. In areas of Burkina Faso, the consensus is that gold mines will only yield if local women are cut. Some tribes in Mali believe a baby will die if its head comes into contact with its mother’s clitoris during childbirth. And in some areas of Ethiopia, the belief is that, uncut, a woman’s clitoris and labia will grow and extend to dangle between her legs.
According to Unicef, in Somaliland, 98% of women aged 15-49 have been inflicted with FGM, and the practice is still legal. It’s one of a minority of countries yet to criminalise FGM, but even where the practice has been outlawed, it can still remain rife, as well as going unpunished. More than seven years after Egypt introduced a law against FGM, social pressures are keeping it alive. The Guardian reported last year that the practice was still "endemic" in the country.

So, another method to eradicate FGM is sorely needed, and right now, many anti-FGM campaigners have chosen to focus on busting the myths that sustain the practice. They are battling razors with words.

Employed by Somaliland’s Department of Labour and Social Affairs to combat the country's FGM problem, are activists trained by ActionAid – an international charity supporting women and children in extreme poverty. Local representatives from the charity have been giving talks to local schools and press across the region, working with religious leaders to help spread the word of FGM’s evil.

Hamda, 19, who works on the campaign, tells Refinery 29: “The biggest myth [of FGM] is that it protects the girls, not only from having sexual intercourse, but also from rape, and that it beautifies them.”

Zeinab Hassan, Women’s Rights Co-Ordinator at ActionAid Somaliland, concurs, explaining that “people see FGM as a protection of the girl's honour, and her family's.”
Hamda and Zeinab's colleague, Khallid, is certain that, these days, FGM is duty-bound in Somaliland and regions beyond: “Because it is our culture, people think we have to practice it.” In other words, the compulsion to pass this baton has in itself become a ritual, and one that is hard to shake.

The mythologies shrouding the practice of FGM, and preventing its elimination, are not contained in Africa, the Middle East and Asia alone. Last summer, here in the UK, David Cameron ramped up anti-FGM legislation, announcing that ministers would be granted powers to confiscate passports of those suspected to be taking girls overseas to be “cut”; it is estimated that 24,000 girls in the UK are at risk of this happening. Cameron's intentions were good, but by describing FGM as “barbaric”, he was perpetuating yet another myth: the myth that FGM is committed by an exotic Other.
Nimco Ali, co-founder of not-for-profit anti-FGM charity Daughters of Eve, explains that many people in the UK view FGM as a problem that is hard to combat sensitively because it’s borne of a different cultural attitude. However, this can be a distracting story. FGM is a practice linked to structural gender inequality, which is a global problem. “White men aren’t going to say ‘Let’s attack rape culture here, where 40,000 women and girls a year are attacked by people who look like me’, they’re going to say ‘Let’s look at this horrible barbaric thing happening over there.’” Ali believes that, when it comes to tackling FGM, gender inequality should be the focus, rather than geography or history.
Likewise, Hilary Burrage, sociologist and writer of Eradicating Female Genital Mutilation: A UK Perspective, agrees that FGM might be unique in its methods, but remains part of a wider spectrum of gender-based violence. “The notion of female ‘purity’ exists in all societies I can think of, and is critical to the ideas of, say, the US political right, or the Catholic church.” She continues: “Sometimes this focus is on genital appearance directly and sometimes not, but one sort or another of patriarchal control of women’s bodies is certainly alive and kicking in the West as well as in the developing world.”
The point is, then, that while the myths surrounding women’s bodies might take different forms from country to country, they exist worldwide. The only way to bust these myths, agree the FGM campaigners I speak to, is through education – hence what Hamda, Zeinab and Khallid are doing in schools across Somaliland.

Ali, herself a survivor of FGM, puts it like this: “We need PHSE for all young people, not just those who are affected by FGM.” To her, education, wherever it is, “Is about empowering young people." By dismantling the mythologies around female bodies through better access to information, we can hope to tackle the underlying causes of FGM.

Call on the UK to fund the life changing work of women’s rights organisations around the world here