The country of Somalia, officially the Federal Republic of Somalia, is still in the process of rebuilding its government and its economy after a civil war occurred in the country that lasted from 1991-2006. (Yes, it has more issues than dealing with pirates). One of those issues is its prevalence of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). According to numerous studies and scholarly articles, but I will specifically reference the World Health Organization and UNICEF, approximately 98% of all girls and women from ages 15-49 have undergone at least one form of FGM/C in Somalia (WHO,2013). It is common practice for FGM/C to be performed on Somali children from age five through age eleven. Using the Feminist Anthropological Theory, I’m going to analyze and discuss the specific issues related to FGM/C in Somalia and address how the causes are related to women.
Before any assumptions are made that I’m just a Westerner who doesn’t understand the symbolism and importance of the underlying purpose of the practice, I do acknowledge this importance and agree that not all FGM/C is detrimental. As we’ve learned in this class, and it is very important to note, it is a practice that is very deeply-rooted in culture in Northern Africa. The practice of FGM/C isn’t all bad, on its face. In general, it is a way in which the cultures that practice it facilitate the celebration and process of a girl becoming a woman. It is a rite of passage to prepare them to be a wife. However, there are specific circumstances surrounding the practice in certain countries, like Somalia, that put the lives of these girls in danger.
We learned in week six that there are three different kinds of FGM/C. The World Health Organization actually defines four types as follows: Type 1 involves the partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or the prepuce (clitoridectomy); Type 2 involves partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora; Type 3/infibulation involves the narrowing of the vaginal orifice with creation of a covering seal by cutting and appositioning the labia minora and/or the labia majora, with or without excision of the clitoris (infibulation); and Type 4 is considered all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, for example: pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterization (WHO, 2007). It was stated in our lecture materials that Type 1 was the most common. However, this is not necessarily the case everywhere that it is prevalent. Many countries that have extremely high prevalence rates, like Somalia, practice Type 3, or infibulation, more commonly (U.S. Department of State, 2001). This is where the issues come in.
Oftentimes, FGM/C is not performed by a medical professional, and infibulation involves a lot of cutting and, therefore, general medical protocol should be acknowledged and followed to ensure there is no infection and that complications can be successfully prepared for and handled. Not to mention, it puts the girls in excruciating pain. This pain does not just last for the duration of the practice being performed. From the data and personal accounts available to the numerous researchers on the subject, there have been far too many cases where girls are proven to suffer for the rest of their lives, with some even dying from complications and blood loss. In fact, just this month, there was a case reported where a 10-year old Somali girl passed away due to complications with FGM/C. With infibulation, the vagina is sewn to such a small hole that it creates problems for the girls and women with menstruation for the remainder of their periods. Additionally, many women have reported painful urination. The hole left is also so small that they often have to be re-cut in order to have sexual intercourse and also to birth children. These are just many physical effects of the practice, but the mental issues shouldn’t be ignored either. One can only imagine the emotional trauma this may cause many of these girls, who are completely surprised by what is going to happen to them, and then have to be put through such pain whilst being restrained by members of their family.
Now that I’ve gotten through a brief, but detailed, summary of the health issue, I am now going to approach it and analyze it through the Feminist Theory. The Feminist Theory focuses on how gender impacts a situation. Feminist theorists concern themselves with the answers to questions like if there is inequality present specifically due to gender, if inequality might exist at the individual or household level and if it exists at the national or international level. Specifically regarding medical-related issues, some examples of questions from feminist theorists might be if there are gender inequalities about having access to and receiving healthcare or healthcare information or whether one gender has worse outcomes than the other in an area of medical concern. There are other approaches that would be adequate to use to analyze the practice of FGM/C, however, with the Feminist Theory, you are better able to recognize how an issue is specifically related to the inequality women face.
Using the Feminist Theory to analyze FGM/C, and thinking about the types of questions Feminist Theorists may seek answers to, you are able to consider that the practice of FGM/C in general is a result of the oppression and subordination of women. While the practice is a rite of passage and it is important to acknowledge that aspect, a main reason behind the practice is to ensure that women are “pure” and maintain their virginity until they are married. There isn’t this kind of pressure or expectations on boys or men in the society, yet, mothers and grandmothers of these girls who will undergo FGM/C (generally by the time they’re 11 years old) genuinely think that it is not right for a girl not to be cut and that FGM/C will ensure their proper place in the community and that they will be clean for their future husband. According to the WHO, it constitutes “an extreme form of discrimination against women.” I couldn’t agree more. This discrimination, oppression, and subordination of women in Somalia shows up in other statistics as well. Approximately 76% of girls and women aged 15-49 believe that it’s okay for husbands to hit their wives for numerous reasons – even something as small as burning the food or refuses sexual relations. To me, this shows just how deep this discrimination and oppression runs in the country. It makes you wonder how things could be different if more praise and respect was shown towards women. They could still celebrate womanhood without forcing their young children to go through something they can’t give consent to that affects them for the rest of their lives.
Using the Feminist Theory, we are better able to analyze how the social, political, economic, and cultural determinants influence FGM in Somalia. As evidenced in the readings regarding the social determinants of health, there are numerous factors that may affect and impact the health status of certain individuals. In studying FGM/C in Somalia, I think what has the most impact is the social gradient/economic factor. As is widely realized, Somalia is still a very economically disadvantaged country and has yet to have a central authority after the war. “An entire generation is growing up without experiencing stability and security, basic human rights, and economic prosperity (Hansen, et al. 2018). This poses a serious health threat to those living in Somalia. According to WHO, “people further down the social ladder usually run at least twice the risk of serious illness and premature death as those near the top” (WHO, 2003). As we can easily imagine a situation like this in our country and instantly think of an economically disadvantaged, underserved area in the vicinity of our hometown, it may be more difficult to grasp the implications of the majority of an entire country having this extreme disadvantage.
A huge problem is lack of health services in general. In a recent article from 2017, it’s explained that, “there is no doubt that the quality of life of people from all walks of life have been affected; nevertheless, the extent of damage has been enormous among the vulnerable sections of the community.The estimates from the nation suggest that only one-fifth of the women have an access to skilled birth attendant at times of childbirth, while 94% of women do not have access to modern contraceptive methods” (Shrivastava, 2017). This is just one of the many surprising and devastating statistics coming from the status of health care in Somalia. This affects the practice of FGM/C due to the fact that these families need access to health care in the case of emergencies or any complications or infections that arise.
The African Union has made efforts to criminalize the practice – Somalia included. However, the issue is that many countries do not enforce their own laws. With the previous aforementioned death, however, Somalia has verbally committed to start its first criminal prosecution related to FGM/C. This is a huge step in the right direction for the country. In using a Feminist Theoretical approach, anthropologists, policymakers, analysts, and others, could aid these countries in facilitating growth towards better treatment of women.
Hansen, et al. “Somalia: A Political Economy Analysis.” All Institutions, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), 22 June 2018, brage.bibsys.no/xmlui/handle/11250/2502618.
Shrivastava SR, Shrivastava PS, Ramasamy J. Training and deploying midwives to reduce the incidence of maternal deaths in Somalia. Ann Trop Med Public Health 2017;10:801-2
U.S. Department of State. (June 1, 2001). https://2001-2009.state.gov/g/wi/rls/rep/crfgm/10109.htm
World Health Organization. (2013). http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/topics/fgm/prevalence/en/