Tackling the issue of female genital mutilation through a progressive social norm approach
The Orchid Project: Tackling FGM through addressing social norms
It is said that a woman has more erotic potential in her little finger than a man has in his entire body. When a woman’s genitals are referred to it is generally through reference to her vagina, her uterus and her ovaries: secret, productive, hidden vessels. However, less attention, and less importance, is given to her frilly bits; the outer genitalia. The outer female genitalia is beautifully designed, and yet it is rarely discussed in our culture where you might imagine that all that exists between a girls legs is a neat receptive hole. The clitoris contains far more sensations and pleasurable nerve endings than the penis, despite its reduced size. Moreover, its sole purpose is to give the woman pleasure and to provide her with orgasms which sets it apart as unique from the rest of the body. Despite being regarded as the passive, submissive genitals, it is an active and complicated part of the body which swells and changes when aroused much like the male genitalia. Many women find it much easier to orgasm from stimulation to their outer genitalia than they do through penetrative vaginal sex.
The brutal savagery to this special part of a woman’s body, known as female genital mutilation, is one of the most shocking and repulsive acts that a human being can be submitted to. This barbarity used to be referred to as female circumcision, as if it was the female equivalent of the removal of the male foreskin. However, the two acts cannot even be realistically compared in terms of intrusiveness and long term connotations. The act of female genital mutilation involves the removal of the clitoral hood, the visible part of the clitoral gland and the inner labia. In some cultures, this even involves the removal of the outer labia, and closure of the vulva. This leaves only a small hole through which the woman can urinate and pass menstrual fluid. In this most repulsive form, known as infibulation, the vagina is opened for the purposes of sexual intercourse and childbirth but apart from that it remains sealed.
The act itself is often performed without anaesthetic using crude, unsterilised instruments, which puts the girl at risk of HIV infection. The Practitioner, the “Cutter”, may well have no or very little medical knowledge or training. The fear and pain that must be experienced by these young women is unimaginable. This is a dangerous, unhygienic and life threatening procedure. It can lead to a girl bleeding to death, suffering from infections, cysts and from difficulties in childbirth. Furthermore, the psychological difficulties experienced as a result can be profound and life damaging. Post traumatic stress disorder is common amongst victims. It is a violation against female sexual autonomy. It is also an attack on female sexual pleasure. The key site of female sexual desire is within the clitoris which has been destroyed. Twice as many mutilated women report experiencing absolutely no sexual desire than non mutilated women. Scar tissue around the damaged entrance to the vagina can mean that penetration can be extremely painful and as a result sexual intercourse can be a traumatic experience. It is a way in which to control and restrict women and to gain ownership over their bodies by cutting at their flesh to satisfy male needs and jealousies. Female Genital Mutilation is usually carried out on a girl between the ages of five and fifteen, long before she can begin to understand or explore her sexuality.
Female genital mutilation is widely associated with African countries, as well as a handful of countries in the Middle East and Asia. However, this is not representative of female genital mutilation, which is a global issue. Increasingly, it is becoming an issue of concern within diaspora communities within Europe and the United States of America. Keen to hold on to their roots, these communities may want to cling to such outdated traditions as a means of retaining a sense of cultural identity. Despite being outlawed in many of the countries where the practice is prevalent, it still persists. This is even the case in first world countries such as the United Kingdom. Clearly government measures to make this practice illegal is not enough. The main problem is the sense of tradition that female genital mutilation signifies within many communities. Within some cultures, this is viewed as a vital coming of age process whereby a girl begins the process of becoming a woman. Furthermore, it is often viewed to be a necessary “purification” measure. Not only is this viewed as an initiation into womanhood but it is also viewed to be an initiation into the community.
Girls who have remained “uncut” are often stigmatised or even ostracised from their community. They may be banned from the preparation of food or from communal drinking water. This is because they are viewed to be unclean and even promiscuous, as the act of female circumcision is linked closely with the notion of chastity. The act is viewed as a way of ensuring that a woman remains a virgin until her wedding night. Her uncut status may even affect her marriage prospects as she may be seen to be an undesirable wife. Within some communities, there are bizarre myths surrounding what will happen if a girl is left uncut. For example, it is sometimes believed that if left to its own devices, the labia will grow to an enormous penis like length. More upsettingly, many communities believe that if the baby’s head makes contact with the clitoris during childbirth, making the ritual a seemingly necessary process.
Organisations such as The Orchid Project, an NGO that deals with the issue of female genital mutilation are up against a mindset that has been solidified over the course of many generations. Girls are taught to take pride in their cut genitals, despite the distress that the act and the aftermath may cause them. It has been found that a negative experience of female genital mutilation by a mother will not necessarily make her question her decision when putting her own daughter through the same process. This is an example of traditional knowledge prevailing over personal experience and is indicative of the often overpowering strength of cultural identity.
Furthermore, even if a parent has serious doubts about subjecting their daughter to this ritual, they will also worry about the long term effects that remaining uncut will have in terms of her marriage prospects and in terms of her being included within the social life of her community. It may be difficult for such a parent to act alone against the rest of the community. The key to reducing female genital mutilation long term is through widespread education in order the create better understanding both within and outside these communities. The Orchid Project understands that the biggest hurdle they face in the difficult to shift social sanctions and rigid sense of tradition that normalises the practice of female genital mutilation. The staff at The Orchid Project therefore work under the philosophy that: “One individual acting alone cannot shift a social norm – the entire community must work together collectively”.
The Orchid Project aims to help to put an end female genital mutilation through a progressive social norm approach. They work at a grassroots level, with the aim of educating communities about the health and social implications of Female Genital Mutilation. The Orchid Project is keen on getting communities to make a collaborative decision to vocally and collectively declare that they will put an end to female genital circumcision. Through this type of assertive action, The Orchid Project believes that new social norms will be created which will replace the old. The manner in which such communities are often linked through close knit social networks can mean that such action can be very effective and can spread quickly, with a snowballing number of communities wishing to get involved. This is referred to as “organized diffusion”.
The Orchid Project have a very careful and sensitive approach to their work and do not preach or enforce. They instead believe in taking a non judgemental attitude and holding open, constructive conversations within and between target communities. Their work centres primarily around the three key areas of advocacy, communications and partnering with external organisations. They advocate to government departments and to other influential decision makers to gain their commitment and support for the cause. For example, The Orchid Project has been instrumental in pushing for the British Department of International Development to strategically invest £35 million towards ending female genital mutilation. The organisation uses various communications platforms to inform, educate and spread awareness. For example, They support and partner closely with external human rights organisations such as Tostan, a Senegal based NGO thats runs community empowerment programs. Such partnerships are vital when creating and maintaining intercultural understanding.
We at WO Magazine are in complete awe at the amazing work done by The Orchid Project since they began their mission back in 2010. We are also completely inspired by The Orchid Projects positive and ambitious attitude towards eventually putting a worldwide full stop to all female genital mutilation. Female genital mutilation is one of the most pressing issues in female centred international development. It is therefore organizations such as The Orchid Project that are helping to create a gender equal world where women can escape the vicious cycle of poverty and miseducation and finally flourish.