Can FGM be a personal choice?

Female Genital Mutilation FGM
The ethical and moral question is whether communities and families should peg a woman’s status on the cut

What you need to know:

  • Dr Joachim Osur examines the pros and cons of allowing women to make the choice to pursue this harmful practice.

Rose, a farmer from the outskirts of Nairobi, came to the sexology clinic to enquire if she could be circumcised. Female circumcision, also called female genital mutilation (FGM) or female genital cutting (FGC), is outlawed in Kenya.

“There is a court case going on where the petitioner wants adult women allowed their rights to decide whether to get circumcised or not in registered hospitals,” she explained. “I just want to know if you will circumcise me once the case goes through.” Rose was referring to a court case in which a female doctor has challenged the Kenya anti-FGM law.

I reclined in my seat, agape. It was the strangest request I had received in many days. I composed myself and took to understanding my patient’s request through a detailed medical history. Rose was 35 years old. She was married and had four children. She did not have any medical or sexual problem.

“The parents of my husband have never fully accepted me, though” she explained. “They value female circumcision and know that I am not circumcised.” Rose was afraid her father-in-law would disinherit her husband because of this.

I asked why female circumcision was such a big deal in this family. According to Rose, an uncircumcised woman was considered uncultured. Such a woman was considered a sexual disaster, tempting men to sleep with her. “There have been rumours that most likely, the children I have do not belong to one man!” Rose exclaimed. “Apparently, in my sexual craziness I could have conceived with other men.”

Rose was always left out of important family meetings because discussions were said to be for ‘mature’ women; Rose was classified as a girl, not a woman. Her husband had supported her all along, but of late he seemed to be warming up to the idea of marrying a second circumcised woman to reduce pressure from his father.

I concluded that Rose’s issue was a case of an oppressed, ostracised and stigmatised person accepting her status and working towards being integrated into a society that had rejected her. I realised that many women could also be in this state. Such women also fear for their daughters. Such pressures put three million girls at risk of undergoing FGM every year.

The ethical and moral question is whether communities and families should peg a woman’s status on the cut. “Well, that is what our community wants,” Rose insisted, “and if you allow me to do it then I will bring my daughters too because we all have to conform.”

And that is the tragedy. The moment you give leeway for FGM to be practiced legally on adults you open a floodgate for perpetuating its harmful aspects. Being a traditional and cultural practice, it has a meaning that goes with a package of beliefs and practices. In communities that allow FGM, it defines a woman’s status. It also defines a woman’s sexual rights and disables her from making sexual choices. It is a package that defines what one has to accept and live with on making important choices such as marriage; you get circumcised then get married. Many children who have undergone FGM have dropped out of school for early marriages.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has also dispelled the myth that FGM done in health facilities is safe. Irrespective of where it is done, WHO asserts that FGM causes pain, bleeding, infection, infertility, painful sex and many other complications including death. From a medical perspective therefore, FGM is an unprofessional practise which should result in disciplinary action.

“What? So you mean you will not do the cut on me?” Rose frowned. I nodded. What is urgently needed is conversations at community level, with families, on the need to open space for the girl child to achieve her potential and allow women to enjoy their rights. Reversing the gains already made in women’s rights by re-introducing practices such as FGM is defeatist and against the international development agenda.

“Okay doctor, I suggest you tell that to my father in law,” Rose said, standing to leave.

“I will write about it in my newspaper column. Buy the newspaper and give it to him,” I replied, to which she nodded, hurrying out of the consultation room.