I was in Davos last week, at the World Economic Forum. I had won a competition on YouTube and was sent there to talk about the importance of ending female genital mutilation. Along the way, I met the expected good and the great. But I was more than pleasantly surprised that "world leaders" ostensibly preoccupied with world economics, actually talked with me, were interested and offered assistance and encouragement.
I was browsing HuffPo and it struck me how in the post-"Sex and the City" era, we are much more open about sexuality. I was intrigued to read about "the 7 weirdest things women do to their own privates".
It reminded me of the juxtaposition of how women are treated in other communities around the world.
So, partly to mark International Anti-FGM day today, Saturday 6th February, I thought that I would list the 7 weirdest things that other people do to women's privates (which really aren't so private after all...)
1. Herbs are inserted into the vagina to take away its natural lubrication, so there will be more friction during intercourse and more pleasure for the man
2. The clitoris is pricked or sliced with a sharp instrument to draw blood
3. The hood of the clitoris, the prepuce, is cut off
4. The clitoris itself is cut off in its entirety (clitoridectomy)
5. The labia minora and/or labia majora are cut off
6. The wound that is left is stitched up tight, with perhaps thorns or gut, so that there is only a tiny hole the size of a match-head left for urine or menses to pass through
7. The scar tissue that forms then has to be cut open the first time the woman has intercourse. It is also cut further and then resewn, time again when she gives birth.
The 7 items above are all manifestations of female genital mutilation, which happens across the world in different communities. The root cause of FGM is to try and wrest power, sexuality and control away from women.
An estimated 140 million women are today living with its impacts. A further 3 million girls every year, in Africa alone, will be cut. Yet this is not just an African issue. Here in Europe, 500,000 women have been affected, in my home of the UK, 20,000 girls are at risk every year. The pricking of the clitoris is widespread in Indonesia, in some places up to 80% of girls go through this.
It strikes me that the main difference is that in the West, we interfere with our own vaginas because we are led to believe that they cannot be appreciated in their natural state, by others, by ourselves.
Elsewhere in the world, it is simply assumed that the vagina in its natural state is dirty, unhygienic, that having a clitoris will "oversex" a girl. If her chastity and virginity are not ensured by ridding her of her sexuality, she will never be married. And so girls as young as two, sometimes younger, go through FGM, with no anaesthetic, often being held down by their female family members.
So here we are, the world over, seeing the female genitals as something that have to be interfered with, sanitised, cut out, excised. What really separates our cultures and communities?
To me the dividing line is around the rights of the child, human rights and the key elements of choice.
Yes, I'm worried about the rise of feminine products, which allow us to believe we should be dissatisfied with our natural bodies and our natural odours. But as adults, these are choices that are ours to make.
There was a panel discussion in Davos and it became apparent that a threefold approach was needed to come closer to ending FGM:
- to raise awareness about FGM and dispel its taboo
- to accurately reflect its global scale and impact
- to ensure better resources are channelled directly to the community level where change can take place.