Female genital mutilation is a woman's health issue

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Female genital mutilation dates back about 2000 years. It is a practice that involves removing all or most of the clitoris, the labia minora, or both. This international practice received pushback from mostly feminist groups in the early 1990s, which led to an official ban called the Female Genital Mutilation Act in 1996. This act made it illegal to continue the practice of FGM in the United States. However, the act is still prominent in other countries, especially in the Horn of Africa. Although the practice is unlawful – and 26 states have added specific laws that prohibit FGM – it is discreetly practiced among intersex infants and internationally.

FGM in cultures

The practice of FGM is prevalent in most African countries, where it is seen as a cultural and religious ceremony. There are various reasons why this is done culturally. It is believed in many parts of Africa that it is an unveiling to womanhood, or that if it is not done then you are unclean and unworthy of marriage. Other strong beliefs of FGM in these cultures are to preserve a woman's virginity and to reduce the woman's natural sexual urges (FGM National Clinical Group).

None of these are supported by any evidence other than the traditions they have held for centuries. Many of the cultures that practice FGM are usually unaware of any health issue that accompany the child into adulthood resulting in pain, complication and death. Such issues including the contribution to the transmission of HIV and AIDS as well as a risk of infection and bleeding out. This is said to be due to the unsanitary conditions of the procedure such as "dirty instruments" and not properly cleaning and bandaging the inflicted area (Mortimer).

FGM among the intersex community

The practice of FGM has become known internationally because we must not allow acts of forced violence to be treated as a norm when it is causing harm to our global female counterparts. However, no matter how heinous, it is happening now in our country with the approval of parents with their intersex infants. The term intersex is a more formal and respective form of the term "hermaphrodite," which means a person who is born with a reproductive sexual composition that does not fit societal standards of the typical female and male.

This is viewed as a phenomenon since it challenges societal sexual binary constructs because the sexual autonomy of an intersex individual can be a person born looking physically like a woman, but have internal male organs, or a person born with an enlarged clitoris deeming it a penis (Intersex Society of North America). It is still not understood among medical professionals; because of this, it has been termed a "psychosocial emergency," where medicine intervenes to change the infant's body (Chase).

Among medical professionals, this procedure has been normalized and is seen as a way of helping the child grow up and live a normal life without ridicule. Quite contrary to that way of thinking, current studies show that these procedures cause more psychological and physical damage to the individual than once thought. This mindset of normalizing the individual to fit current societal standards and fitting into their "true sex" was developed at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore during the 1920s by Hugh Hampton Young (Chase). He was the guiding force behind the techniques used today, claiming that intersex individuals are abnormal because of their genitals and have no identity. These practices are justified using the psychosocial emergency philosophy, frightening parents into thinking that their child will not be able to live a normal life without the procedure.

"Determining" the sex of the infant

Most surgeons assign infants as females because to them "you can make a hole, but you can't build a pole" (Chase). This form of logic justifies around 90 percent of female assignment surgeries to infants. The procedures done usually consists of first, determining the sex of the child by the size of the clitoris and/or penis. After determination, if assigned female then the infant undergoes surgeries that remove tissue and greatly reduces the size of the clitoris; if assigned male the clitoris, now deemed a penis, is kept and testes are formed with tissue from parts of the body. These surgeries are destructive to the individual because of cases involving trauma and other psychological issues such as identity crisis and depression. The individuals lose a sense of who they are and feel hopeless due to being assigned the wrong gender or in certain circumstances believing they are not even human because of lack of identity.

FGM exemption for intersex infants

It is evident that preventing this practice in other countries proves difficult. But why still allow this with intersex children here in the United States? Unfortunately, the Female Genital Mutilation Act specifically exempts "medicalized clitoridectomies…to 'correct' intersex bodies" (Chase). Due to this, it is legal to perform FGM under medical procedures even though we criticize African clitoridectomy as inhumane and a violation of basic human rights. Further, the support from feminist groups has dropped due to their focus being mainly on genital cutting that is practiced "as harmful cultural or traditional practice on young girls,"(Chase) according to the article U.S. Genital Cutting, the Intersex Movement, and Medical Double Standards. Factors like those mentioned oppress intersex individuals from speaking up without the required support from society.

How education is a factor

It is evident that in both issues education and information are key to helping solve these problems. Medical professionals require much research into the effects of sex assignment on intersex infants, and both social workers as well as health workers should be informed of complications involving FGM in other countries. The lack of education among countries located in the Horn of Africa is a factor in the acceptance of this practice. Organizations are working today to spread information, education and assistance to hopefully one day erode the practice and improve the perception of women in a positive manner. Although awareness for intersex individuals that undergo FGM is increasing, there has not been a huge leap for the legislature or even society to dissent against the lawful practice. It is still accepted nationally, which is why large organizations that support the ban on FGM should support this issue.

Final thoughts

We are an ever-evolving society, and as time proceeds, cultural norms change as well. We must continue to fight for a complete ban on FGM internationally and in intersex procedures. As long we are consistent and persistent with these issues, we help to increase awareness for society to take action. We must remain hopeful that with the spread of information and proper education, this too shall pass – and be seen as a practice that is as primitive and barbaric as it really is.

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