How does female genital mutilation control girls? 3 facts  

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Female genital mutilation is a way to control the bodies and sexuality of girls. It is a gender-based violence aimed at controlling women and girls. The underlying reasons for mutilation can be found in the patriarchal social structure. 

Gender-based violence stemming from gender inequality is a global problem and present in all cultures. Female genital mutilation is one manifestation of gender-based violence. 

Mutilation violates the human rights of girls and women and weakens gender equality. 

Mutilation is linked to patriarchal structures. Patriarchy means that men have more power than women in almost all areas of life. They are seen as more capable and valuable than women, and therefore their interests and needs are prioritized. 

“In practice, this means that men, who also decide what can be done to a girl’s and woman’s body, hold almost exclusively the power,” says Maria Santavuo, equality expert at International Solidarity Foundation (ISF). 

“Female genital mutilation is patriarchal violence that both stems from women’s subordinate position and perpetuates it.” 

The underlying reason for female genital mutilation is the inequality between men and women: men have economic, political, and cultural dominance in many communities where mutilation occurs. 

“Female genital mutilation is patriarchal violence that both stems from women’s subordinate position and perpetuates it on multiple levels throughout the life cycle of a girl and woman,” Santavuo summarizes. 

1. Female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM/C) is a form of controlling a girl’s sexuality.  

Controlling the sexuality of girls and women is a global issue that varies in its expression in different communities. In communities where FGM/C traditions still exist, it is one way of controlling the sexuality of girls and women. 

FGM/C is believed to restrain a girl’s or woman’s sexuality in various ways. It is believed that a girl or woman who has undergone the procedure is more likely to remain a virgin until marriage and not engage in extramarital affairs. 

The significance of premarital virginity for girls and women is emphasized worldwide. The emphasis on virginity itself can create space for FGM/C, which many consider a culturally valued method of preserving virginity. 

Women’s sexuality seems to be feared to the extent that even a young girl’s body must be interfered with to control and suppress it. 

Women’s and girls’ bodies embody the honor of the surrounding community, which takes precedence over their right to self-determination. The honor of the community usually takes precedence over women’s and girls’ right to self-determination. 

Women’s sexuality is feared to the extent that even a young girl’s body must be interfered with to control it. 

Grace Kerubo, an expert in anti-FGM/C work, describes the situation in Kenya as follows: “Mothers and grandmothers arrange for their daughters to undergo FGM/C so that the daughter does not bring shame to the family through teenage pregnancy or promiscuous behavior.” 

However, Kerubo reminds us that “FGM/C is not a magic wand that instills important values in our girls. Values are learned and acquired through education.” 

Grace Kerubo
Expert in anti-FGM work, Grace Kerubo works at Manga Heart, a partner organization of ISF, in Kenya.

Sometimes FGM/C is justified on religious grounds. Religion and traditions often intertwine. For example, in Somaliland, abstaining from premarital sex is seen as a religious prescription, and FGM/C is considered a valuable tradition and an effective means of ensuring virginity. 

Neither Islam nor any other organized religion mandates the cutting of girls’ genitalia, but patriarchal interpretations of religion persist. Therefore, it is important to pay attention to who is doing the religious interpretation. 

“As long as men hold the power to make interpretations and decisions about girls’ and women’s bodies and rights, harmful traditions and the subjugation of women will continue,” emphasizes gender equality expert Santavuo. 

2. The girl’s childhood ends with mutilation  

In Kenya, mutilation has traditionally been a rite of passage from girlhood to womanhood, after which the girl is considered eligible for marriage and is seen as an honorable and respected member of her community. 

When a girl from the Kisii tribe in Kenya undergoes circumcision, she is surrounded by teachings on femininity. The mother, grandmothers, and female relatives sing songs to the girl during the circumcision and long recovery period, teaching her how she is now a woman. 

“For the girls, nothing is the same. They are now ‘adults’ and must behave accordingly. They can no longer sit next to their fathers, uncles, or male friends. They can no longer wear short or tight-fitting skirts. They can no longer freely spend time with boys. It must happen discreetly and in secret. Playing together with boys is forbidden,” describes Kerubo the post-mutilation period. 

However, the responsibilities do not stop there. 

“The girls now have adult responsibilities,” Kerubo tells. “It is not uncommon for underage girls who have undergone mutilation to be married soon and expect their first child.” 

Girls who marry at a young age often drop out of school and stay out of the workforce, making them financially dependent on their husbands. 

In areas where Solidarity’s partner organizations work against mutilation, some girls manage to avoid the procedure. 

“The lucky girl gets to spend her childhood innocence until her teenage years. She can make her dreams and aspirations come true. She can choose for herself whom to marry and when to have children. She can grow into an adult in peace,” Kerubo reminds. 

“She is respected for her actions. The lucky girl is the one who is not mutilated.”

3. Social control forces mothers to continue the practice of female genital mutilation.

In areas where FGM is practiced, there is significant pressure on mothers, in particular, to raise their daughters to be modest and honorable. In order to ensure community approval, mothers and other female caregivers pass on the community’s traditions and practices to their daughters, even when they have personal experiences of the pain, health problems, and traumas caused by FGM. 

In patriarchal communities, it is often the responsibility of women and mothers to prepare their daughters for adulthood and ensure their eligibility for marriage. In a patriarchal society, mothers do not want their daughters to remain unmarried, as women without husbands are often vulnerable and in a particularly precarious position. 

“In communities where FGM is common, it is a social norm, adherence to which brings positive consequences and challenging it brings negative consequences such as shame, ridicule, and exclusion,” Santavuo says. 

Parents take their children for the procedure because they believe everyone else is doing it too. Additionally, they believe that the majority of the community wants and expects the tradition to continue. The culture of silence perpetuates these often-distorted beliefs. 

Young girls may even hope for FGM themselves if the majority of their peers and women in the community have undergone the procedure. FGM is often performed when the girl is too young to understand its health and future implications, often under the age of 10. 

It is extremely difficult for an individual mother or family to break the norm of FGM because they fear that the girl and her family will be stigmatized, criticized, and mocked as a result. Even criminalizing FGM by law does not easily change the situation, as the fear of being ostracized from the community often outweighs the fear of criminal consequences.

Nainen kirjoittaa Female Genital Mutilation liitutaululle
Social pressure maintains the practice of female genital mutilation. Therefore, it is important to educate the entire community about the harms of this practice.

However, there are women who oppose the tradition of FGM. According to Kerubo, they face heavy criticism from their community. 

“Women who oppose backward customs and advocate for change are called unruly, disrespectful of their culture, and other mean terms,” Kerubo believes. 

Kerubo suspects that behind the criticism lies patriarchy. “Many of the traditions of the Kisii tribe are dictated by men and made to serve their interests.” 

The attitudes of men towards FGM are crucial. “Just like in many other patriarchal communities, Kenyan Kisii men also have a significant role in the fight against female genital mutilation,” Kerubo says. “If the father remains firm in not allowing his daughters to be mutilated under any circumstances, the daughter will not be mutilated.” 

The fight against FGM requires addressing the subordinate position of women  

Control and violence against women and girls should be addressed worldwide. Female genital mutilation is just one extreme example of what the subordination of girls can lead to. 

“Permanent results in the fight against FGM can only be achieved by addressing comprehensively the subordinate position of women. As long as women’s livelihood depends on marriage and they are not involved in making decisions regarding the laws and norms that govern society, women’s rights will not be realized,” Santavuo reminds. 

“Permanent results in the fight against FGM can only be achieved by addressing the subordinate position of women.” 

Kerubo sees light at the end of the tunnel. She believes in the power of girls who are aware of the dangers of the procedure in the fight against FGM: 

“Children are our greatest hope. When they gain this knowledge, they will break through the prevailing norms, and ultimately, female genital mutilation will no longer hold water.” 

“It may take a generation, but with the support of organizations like ISF, we know we will get there. We will achieve a society free from female genital mutilation.” 

First published on 8th of October 2021.