It’s nearly impossible to bring up the topic of female genital cutting (FGC) without stirring up controversy — starting with what it’s even called. The practice of removing part or all of a woman’s genitals for non-medical purposes can be called female genital mutilation, female circumcision, or simply cutting, depending on your point of view.
But even more controversial than its name are the legal issues surrounding FGC and the extent to which it is prosecuted. Two unprecedented cases in Egypt and the UK have highlighted this debate, as well as the rarity of FGC cases going to trial.
Dr. Raslan Fadl was due to stand trial in Egypt on Thursday on charges owing to the death of a 13-year-old girl from complications of a botched FGC procedure last year. This is the first time someone has been charged for carrying out FGC in the country, despite it being illegal there since 2008. Egypt has the highest rate of FGC in the world — over 90 percent of Egyptian women have experienced some form of this procedure.
'We circumcise baby boys all the time. But since that’s practiced by western, developed countries we assume it’s more acceptable.'
Another landmark FGC trial began this month, in the UK. A 31-year-old doctor, Dhanoun Dharmasena, was charged on March 21 for carrying out the procedure on a woman shortly after she gave birth, in addition to Hasan Mohamed, 40, for aiding and encouraging the 2012 crime. These are the first prosecutions since FGC was outlawed in the UK in 1985.
The United Nations estimates that between 100 and 140 million women have been cut worldwide and warns that an additional 30 million are at risk every year. FGC is practiced in 29 countries, mostly in Africa and the Middle East, and especially in Egypt, Eritrea, Nigeria, and Benin.
FGC procedures are often carried out as a social custom when a girl reaches puberty to prepare her for marriage and adulthood. In some cases, the clitoris is also removed to reduce the possibility of a woman experiencing sexual pleasure, reinforcing the notion that women should be “clean” and “modest.”
But FGC is not confined solely to the countries where it is the local tradition. As a result of immigration and refugee resettlement from countries such as Somalia and the Congo, FGC has spread to Europe and the United States. An estimated 66,000 women in the UK have experienced FGC, with another 23,000 girls under the age of 15 at risk.
The World Health Organization has categorized FGC into four different procedures, varying from small incisions in the genitalia to the full removal of the clitoris and closure of the vagina. The harmful health effects from FGC can include prolonged bleeding, fistulas, urine retention, serious complications to childbirth, and infertility.
A UN General Assembly passed a resolution banning FGC in 2012, and FGC-related legislation also exists in 24 of the 29 countries where it is practiced, including the US and much of Europe.
'Girls are dying all the time from FGM but there are rarely any investigations.'
According to the UN resolution on FGC, “female genital mutilations are an irreparable, irreversible abuse that impacts negatively on the human rights of women and girls” and that “negative discriminatory stereotypical attitudes and behaviors have direct implications for the status and treatment of women and girls.”
The Equality Now NGO led the campaign to get the Egyptian government to investigate the death of the girl and bring her doctor to trial.
“Girls are dying all the time from FGM but there are rarely any investigations,” Suad Abu-Dayyeh, a spokesperson for Equality Now and leader of the FGC campaign, told VICE News. “Women’s issues are not a priority of governments in general, not just Egypt’s.”
But ending the practice of FGC is often more complicated than just making it illegal and has more to do with how the laws themselves are implemented.
“Certainly having a law to end a practice such as FGC is important in changing normative opinions,” Sally Merry, a professor of anthropology at NYU, told VICE News. “But having a law alone — which is rarely enforced anyway — will not make anything happen if the education and underlying attitudes are the same.”
Prosecution of FGC is also difficult because few victims are willing to violate the staunch cultural norms and pressures associated with it by speaking out against it. Since the majority of FGC procedures are carried out by family members or individuals in the community, the likelihood of young victims willing to testify against them is slim.
These two legal cases could mark the start of changing attitudes towards FGC, but it won’t happen overnight.
Some view anti-FGC legislation as an imposition of western cultural norms on long-held traditions that important in many cultures as a coming of age ritual and religious custom. Anti-FGC laws are often unable to fully address these complexities.
“We often see FGC as a result of people being oppressed by traditional culture,” Merry said. “But in reality there is a much more complicated context of what drives this practice that is related to nationalism, patriarchy, and coming of age rituals.”
“We circumcise baby boys all the time,” said Merry, “But of course since that’s practiced by western, developed countries we assume it’s more acceptable.” Similarly to male circumcision, not all FGC is deadly or immediately harmful, such as versions that are largely symbolic.
These two legal cases could mark the start of changing attitudes towards FGC, but it won’t happen overnight. “When Morsi was in power, parliament was discussing decriminalizing FGM and even encouraging people to do it,” said Abu-Dayyeh of Equality Now. “But now things are slowly changing, especially with this trial, and the majority of people in Egypt see it as a crime. I think this case is a starting point and one we can use for the future.”
Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @obecker928