On June 12, 2014 in Enkorika, a village about 75 km from Kenya’s Nairobi, a group of women gathered around the village centre. They had assembled to voice opposition against a ban issued by their government.
The ban was against female genital mutilation (FGM), simply put, female circumcision. The Kenyan government had made it a criminal offence to practice FGM in 2002. But twelve years later, the practice still continues.
A woman speaks as Kenyan Maasai women gather for a meeting dedicated to the practice of female genital mutilation. AFP
The women belong to a semi-nomadic community, the Maasai, which believes that uncircumcised girls are not fit to get married and it is immoral to be uncircumcised. They also believe that the practice brings honour to 'the circumcised' and makes her more eligible for marriage.
In most of the cases, the groom himself sponsors the circumcision.
According to the Maasai women, the ceremonial ritual accompanying FGM marks the coming of age of a girl, when she sheds the last vestiges of childhood and becomes a woman.
It is traditionally performed between the ages of 12 and 14 and is a part of the rites of passage for girls after which they are considered adults in their community.
Kenyan Maasai women gather during a meeting dedicated to the practice of female genital mutilation. AFP
This strong belief of the villagers is behind FGM, a cruel and harmful practice that affects more than 125 million girls and women world-wide.
It is most common in 29 countries of Africa and the Middle East.
Despite being banned by several governments, the practice continues to threaten the safety of women around the world.
Even though this practice is most prevalent in the African continent, girls and women in some advanced countries like Britain are not spared either. British lawmakers earlier this month said the prevalence of FGM in Britain was a "national scandal", warning that up to 1,70,000 women may have had the procedure and another 65,000 young girls were at risk.
A damning report from the House of Commons’ home affairs committee condemned the failure of the government, police, health and education authorities over many years to address what it said was an "extreme form of child abuse".
"It is estimated that up to 1,37,000 women and girls living in England and Wales could have undergone FGM," estimated the BBC News website, in a report published on 22 July 2014.
Female genital mutilation (FGM) — also referred to as female circumcision — is a surgery done to intentionally mutilate the genital organs of pre-pubescent girls.
In some cultures, it’s seen as a rite of passage to lower female libido and stop them from being promiscuous.
FGM may involve removal of a part or the entire clitoris or the entire labia minora and labia majora (lips around the vagina) which is called "infibulation" involving narrowing of the vaginal opening by creating a seal using skin from the labia.
The genitals contain many nerve endings that enhance sexual pleasure.
After FGM, the female organ loses the ability to feel the pleasure.
Unicef estimates 125 million girls and women alive today have been cut in 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East. Despite the prevalence of FGM in Islamic countries, it's not associated with any one religion.
Though some Islamist extremists have adopted it, FGM is believed to pre-date Islam and is also practiced by Christians in Africa.
Traditionally, midwives who assist women with childbirth, do the surgery but there’s an increasing trend towards medicalisation in some countries such as Egypt, the UK's National Health Service reported.
There are no health benefits from this surgery but there are many risks, including death from bleeding, wound infections including tetanus and gangrene, or blood-borne infections such as HIV and hepatitis B and C. Sometimes it affects a woman's ability to urinate or disrupts her bowels.
Long-term health effects include chronic vaginal and pelvic infections, abnormal periods, difficulty passing urine, and persistent urine infections, kidney impairment and possible kidney failure, infertility, formation of scar tissue, pregnancy complications and new-born deaths, pain during sex, psychological damage, including low libido, depression and anxiety, and the need for revision surgery to open the lower vagina for sexual intercourse and childbirth.
Sanchita Sharma, in a report filed for the Hindustan Times on June 26 this year, interviewed Vivian Magero, a woman from Luo tribe who had narrowly escaped this gruesome practice. Click here to read Magero’s story.
This map from Unicef shows the prevalence of FGM in the female population between the age of 15 and 49 in Africa. Roll over the map to know the rate at which FGM is prevalent in the dark continent. All the values are in %.
Compiled by : Sanchita Sharma and Vignesh Radhakrishnan
Design by: Vignesh Radhakrishnan
(With AFP inputs)