They say nothing stays hidden under the sun. One day you’re having a conversation about something unrelated and all of a sudden a deep family secret, or even just a truth that nearly everyone else but you knew is revealed. This was how Jessica found out that she had been circumcised as a child.
“I was talking about a family member’s proposal with my mum, and she was talking about how the bride’s value would be more because she had been circumcised. My face must have shown horror, as she asked me what the matter was.” Jessica remembers.
“It’s barbaric,” she sputtered.
“Cut a long story short, it was then revealed that I had been circumcised as well when I was very young. I’m still processing this, honestly.” Jessica says bitterly.
The majority view of female genital mutilation (FGM) is that it is done in dusty rural areas still wedded to past traditions. It is done to uneducated women with very few rights or agency. It couldn’t possibly happen to someone with educated and exposed parents who live in an urban setting and who want the best for their daughters.
But it does and it has. Not just in villages, but also in the cities even in the ‘enlightened’ west, where it is performed by amenable doctors.
In the United States only 27 of the 50 states (54%) actually have a law against FGM/C. A legislative act that banned the practice was deemed unconstitutional by a judge last November. He ruled that Congress did not have the power to make such a law as it stood and that as a ‘local crime’ it should be up to the states to outlaw it.
It was the first time an FGM criminal case had happened in America and lawyers were already able to pick at it. The lives of millions of young girls potentially tangled in a web of legalese.
It sometimes feels like the vast majority of conversations about FGM happen on the advocacy side of things. Jessica lived her life, went through puberty, enjoys an intimate relationship with her husband and has had two children with few complications. She had never discussed this with her family even though apparently the practice was very common in her family.
This is not a surprise, many people are uncomfortable about talking about the topic. Then there is the taboo of talking about genitalia, doubled when it is female genitalia and you have a kind of omertà about FGM.
And this discomfort and code of silence allows FGM and other harmful cultural practices to thrive. People continue to practice them with only vague notions of why.
Our Executive Director, Alison Data Phido often tells a story where she visited a community where FGM was rife. What happened next would have been quite funny had it not been about FGM. In separate conversations with the men and the women, it turned out that neither was aware of the reason for doing it!
The women in the community who generally pushed for, prepared their girls and carried out the procedures said they were doing it because the men wanted it so. They believed that the men valued a bride who had had it done over those that had not. The men, on the other hand, revealed that they were confused as to why the women did it, but assumed it was a ‘woman thing’ they had to do culturally.
Because it was a ‘woman thing’ there was a certain secrecy about it that allowed FGM to thrive in that community.
The ‘taboo-fication’ of women’s issues- especially ones relating to reproductive and sexual health- needs to be faced head on. Just recently, this writer was watching a piece on a news panel show about periods and one or two of the panelists just about evaporated with embarrassment.
Hushed discussions and Chinese whispers not only lead to the proliferation of ignorance about important issues concerning women and their health but can even scupper advocacy efforts in the short and long term. Only by having frank discussions can we demystify once taboo subjects.