Controversial, Yet Cultural: Female Circumcision in Somalia
While the practice of male circumcision remains prevalent in Western cultures, the practice of female circumcision is something often unheard of by Westerners. Yet, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) estimates that over 200 million females in over thirty countries worldwide have experienced this practice. This procedure, in its most basic practice, involves the cutting and removal of the external female genitalia. Due to the extremity of the procedure, many condemn the practice by referring to it as female genital mutilation. The World Health Organization (WHO) states that there are no health benefits to female circumcision, only harmful side-effects that can bring about lifelong complications for a woman. These effects can include critical bleeding, cysts, urinary and menstruation difficulties, infections, life threatening complications in childbirth for both mother and child, and can also lead to tears in the vaginal wall in extreme outcomes. Despite these deadly health risks, female circumcision holds significance for the cultures who practice it as it is viewed to symbolize a woman’s purity. While female circumcision has cultural value to those who partake in the operations, it is important to note that it may also be instilling a societal norm of female objectification.
Somalia contains the highest rate of female circumcision worldwide with an estimate of over 98% of its females being affected. Two-thirds of Somalian women are subjected to infibulation, which the WHO has identified as an extreme type, Type III, of female circumcision. Infibulation involves not only the removal of the clitoris but furthermore the stitching together of the labia majora, sealing the vagina shut.
Since infibulation is often the method performed, with 80% of girls receiving the procedure between the ages of five and nine, the practice is viewed in some parts of Somalia as a depiction of a woman’s purity. On her wedding night, her husband has the “honor” of cutting open the seams before intercourse. This practice on one’s wedding night brings cultural esteem to the woman’s family within the community, because it is viewed as symbolizing the woman’s success in purity preservation for her husband. The process is regarded as a rite of passage and celebration in becoming a woman in the eyes of the Somalian people. Without it, these girls face the certainty of being rejected by their community.
While female circumcision may in some cultural contextes be a positive symbol of purity, it may also be having the reverse effect on the societal perception of women. In subjecting children to this practice, Somalia and other countries alike are raising their girls to believe that their body is not their own, but rather a commodity to be utilized by men; this not only eliminates a woman’s free will and autonomy over her body, but furthermore promotes inequity between the sexes. When society views a woman only as a man’s object, there is a higher risk of domestic abuse and the government is less likely to pass legislation that benefits women. It is impossible to change this vicious cycle considering women are viewed as a commodity; they are not viewed as capable of being leaders or holding authoritative positions. Although Somalia banned female circumcision in 2012, the practice is still prevalent due to many who are hesitant to enforce the law at the risk of losing political support. Yet this is not just a simple case in which law enforcement or government officials choose not to disrupt a traditional cultural practice– their lack of action will continue to keep women’s health at risk. Women will continue to die, whether through the procedure itself, the process of cutting open the seams and intercourse, childbirth, or the effect of the related stigma circumcision brings about in condoning violent acts, such as domestic violence. Until a significant change occurs, girls will continue to be circumcised and communities will continue to praise them for it.