Millions Are Suffering—Can They Be Helped?
By an Awake! correspondent in Africa
IF YOU had the power, would you eliminate human suffering? Of course you would—if you had the power! The reality is that no human has the means to put an end to all the pain and anguish in the world.
Yet, you may have the power to help reduce, and even prevent, some of the suffering going on around you. For example, it is estimated that, in various lands, tens of millions of women are suffering much pain and anguish as a result of an old and deeply entrenched tradition. According to the tradition, well-intentioned parents arrange for the removal of part or most of their daughters’ genitalia. It has been called female circumcision.* But most experts are now calling it FGM (female genital mutilation), a term that more accurately describes this procedure.
The Hosken Report on FGM informs us that genital mutilation is a practice in a large region stretching from East Africa to West Africa and in some adjacent areas. This painful mutilation of females brings health problems and can be life threatening.
Voices Have Been Raised
It has not been easy to speak out against this practice. The Kenya newspaper The Standard noted that FGM “has been largely surrounded by secrecy. It has been difficult and sometimes dangerous for those women or men who want to stop the operations, to speak out against the practice. They are frequently accused of being anti-tradition, anti-family, anti-religion, anti-national, or of rejecting their own people and culture.”
The same African newspaper explains that FGM “is not a ‘harmless cultural practice’ but a major cause of permanent physical damage and death to women and girl children . . . It violates the right of every girl child to develop physically in a healthy and normal way.”
Throughout Africa and internationally, many others are raising their voices in an effort to educate people about this practice. It inflicts pain and mutilation on girls, even from infancy, and has no medical justification whatsoever.
The number of permanent, painful disabilities and reported deaths have alarmed health officials and governments of many nations. It is even suggested that FGM may play a part in the transmission of AIDS in Africa. And because of the influx of immigrants from Africa and the Middle East to Australia, Canada, Europe, and the United States, this mutilation of females is becoming a public-health issue in some Western health-care facilities. Not to be overlooked are the costs for ongoing treatment of the physical complications and, in many cases, psychological damage.
Legislation has and is being enacted to curb this custom. England, France, Italy, and Sweden are some of the European countries where FGM is illegal. The Globe and Mail of Canada reported that FGM “has been banned by the regulatory body that governs Ontario’s doctors.” Further, it was stated: “Although Canadian law does not directly mention female circumcision or infibulation, federal officials have said such practices would be considered a form of child abuse or aggravated assault.”
A number of international organizations such as the World Health Organization have worked to discourage FGM. A milestone was reached in September 1990, when world leaders, including the presidents of African countries, such as Senegal, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, met in New York to sign the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This document condemns female circumcision as torture and sexual abuse.
London’s Economist reported: “Female circumcision—more properly called genital mutilation—remains one of the great unmentionable African horrors. According to a report by the London-based Minority Rights Group, . . . tens of millions of girls are affected every year.”
This publication went on to say: “The procedure varies from mildly painful to gruesome, and can involve the removal of the clitoris and other organs with knives, broken glass, and razors—but rarely anaesthetic. It can lead to severe problems with menstruation, intercourse and childbirth, psychological disturbances and even death. . . . The practice continues thanks to superstitious fears of female sexuality, habit and the mistaken belief that it is hygienic.”
The Practice Survives
In one African country where many of the women have undergone this procedure, laws enacted in 1947 prohibit the most severe type of mutilation. But the ritual is still carried on. Why? Because millions of well-intentioned people continue to be misinformed and are deceived into believing that FGM is beneficial. For instance, elderly village women believe that it is for the girl’s good. This is why, as reported by the Nigerian newspaper The Guardian, the Minority Rights Group stated that it is necessary to “change the minds of the older women who perpetuate it.”
The magazine Nursing Times reasoned similarly: “Education is the only way you can really fight female circumcision.” And later, this same journal stated: “The whole problem can be eradicated only by raising the awareness of it, and educating men, as well as women.” Why educate men also? Because many fathers pay for the surgery so that they can marry off their daughters to men who won’t accept uncircumcised women.
Another reason that this mutilation continues involves money. The American Journal of Nursing states: “Circumcision is an important source of income for those involved in its performance; therefore, such people have a vested interest in perpetuating the practice.” Not only do older women get paid to perform this procedure but midwives and barbers do too. Nurses and physicians at some medical clinics will also do it to try to spare the girls some of the risks and trauma that come from unsanitary operations. However, regardless of who does it, it is still mutilation.
In some cases adult women submit to this operation again and again through their childbearing years. The New York Times International noted that “many women undergo a painful series of de-circumcisions and re-circumcisions after each childbirth. Scars from circumcisions are cut open before delivery and stitched together afterward. This causes severe hemorrhaging, prolongs delivery and increases the risk of fetal brain damage.”
The magazine New Scientist reported that many “little girls bleed to death because clumsy operators have cut into the pudendal artery or the dorsal artery of the clitoris. Others die of post-operative shock because no one knows how to resuscitate them and the hospital is too far, or those involved are reluctant to seek help because they are ashamed of the botched operations.”
Yet, the practice continues. Reports of FGM keep showing up in African and European newspapers. One African journal recently reported that “most of the victims of female genital mutilation are babies and girls. Although parents circumcise their daughters in the belief that it is right and necessary, the operation and its aftermath is comparable to torture.” According to the London newspaper The Independent (July 7, 1992), a recent survey revealed that “the practice was more widespread in the UK than previously believed.” In Britain more than 10,000 girls, “most of them aged eight or under, are estimated to be at risk of female circumcision.”
A Tradition Based on Falsehoods
Some believe the falsehood that the female genital organs are unclean and must be purified by cutting them away. They think that only men have the right to enjoy sexual pleasure. It is also believed that FGM improves fertility, discourages sexual immorality, and increases a girl’s chances for marriage. “Ironically,” notes Time magazine, “the frigidity or infertility caused by the mutilation leads many husbands to shun their brides.”
Not believing that female circumcision will prevent women from being promiscuous, participants in a recent conference of the Inter-African Committee, held in Lagos, Nigeria, stated that early moral training is much more beneficial. Wrong actions can be prevented by education, not mutilation. To illustrate: Should we cut off the arms of babies to keep them from growing up to be thieves? Or cut out their tongues so that they will never say bad things?
One Nigerian couple refused to circumcise their daughter. This infuriated the husband’s mother, who felt that the child would grow up to become promiscuous. But with good moral upbringing, the girl remained chaste. In contrast, some other children known by this family, whose parents did not take the time to impart good morals to them, ended up being quite promiscuous even though circumcised. Now the grandmother has become convinced that the important thing is, not circumcision or the lack of it, but the inculcating of God’s moral laws in children.
If we love our daughters, we will reason on the bad consequences of FGM on their lives and not promote or encourage this practice in any way. This will take courage because in some places fear of community pressure to conform to this tradition is intense.
A Religious Connection
The history of female mutilation is enlightening. The practice is centuries old and is even evident among the mummies of ancient Egypt. The journal Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery notes: “Female circumcision was practiced in ancient Egypt and relates to the Pharaonic belief in bisexuality of gods.” To this day, the name of the most severe type of this mutilation is Pharaonic circumcision.
In some places, ancient religious ceremonies are connected with FGM. An African authority explained that one particular ceremony is considered an act of communion with an ancestral god, whose protection is invoked to help the girls through the actual operation and at the same time to give them the wisdom of their forefathers.—Compare 2 Corinthians 6:14-18.
It is not difficult to understand why true Christians living in countries where FGM is practiced do not observe this tradition. There is nothing in the Bible that even hints at the need to perform such a mutilating operation on women. It is clear that the Creator designed the female to be able to enjoy sexual pleasure within the marital arrangement. Female genital mutilation does not harmonize with the principles of love, empathy, and reasonableness promoted in the Holy Scriptures.—Ephesians 5:28, 29; Philippians 4:5.
Most important, the God of love, Jehovah, is saddened by this unreasonable mutilation and the resultant suffering of millions of women and little girls. How glad we are that he has promised a new world where no one will suffer!—Revelation 21:3, 4.
See article “Female Circumcision—Why?” in the June 22, 1985, issue of Awake!
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What About Male Circumcision?
Some may raise the question, Is not male circumcision a mutilation of the body as well? The Bible states that at one time God made the circumcision of males mandatory. Later, with the establishment of the Christian congregation, circumcision was no longer a requirement, although not prohibited. It is left up to each individual to decide whether he will submit himself or his sons to circumcision or not.
Today, male circumcision is practiced in many places. True, the operation involves the surgical removal of flesh. But this procedure is in no way a counterpart of FGM. As a rule, men do not experience adverse side effects after circumcision. In contrast, normal female functions, such as menstruation, intercourse, childbirth, and the elimination of urine, are often accompanied by lifelong excruciating agony as a result of FGM. Also, extremely complicated childbirth has caused serious birth defects in and even the death of many newborns.
How many men would subject themselves or their sons to a procedure that mutilated the penis so as to prevent all sensation during intercourse and that caused persistent pain and health hazards throughout life? Clearly, there is no comparison between male circumcision and FGM.
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An African Girl Speaks Out
‘I was eight years old when I was circumcised. I’m 11 now, but I still remember the operation so well. Even to think about it makes me upset, and sometimes I have terrible dreams. Most days I’m a happy person, but when I think about it, I start to feel dead inside.
‘I was really happy when I first heard about it. My family and my relatives were going to give me many presents. I didn’t know what the circumcision operation was, and I didn’t think that it was going to hurt.
‘My excitement vanished. I started crying and became really scared. There were four women holding my arms and legs. One woman covered my mouth with her hand. I tried to free myself, but they were stronger than I was and forced me down again. It hurt so much.
‘When the knife cut into me, there was blood everywhere. I never thought that anything could hurt that much. Afterward they covered the wound with a mixture of eggs and sugar. Then they tied my legs together. I was carried back to the car. I cried all the way back to the village.’—Excerpt taken from Kenya newspaper The Standard.
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