My Body, Whose Rules? A Critical Look at Female Genital Mutilation in Canada
The UN has marked International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation on 6 February every year since 2012. Female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) is a severe violation of the rights of girls and women’s freedom over their bodies’ health and integrity. Under Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5: Gender Equality, this day is an opportunity to learn about the violation of these basic human rights in our communities and reflect on the ways in which we can address the situation as a country in general, and as fellow human beings.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), FGM or female circumcision is a set of procedures, “that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons”. The WHO states that FGM is practiced in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. The practice also occurs in Western countries too, including Canada, mainly in diaspora communities from the above-mentioned regions. FGM is outlawed in many countries and criminalized in Canada, but affects 200 million girls and women worldwide.
FGM is a human rights violation. It imposes on the human right for health and body integrity and is sexist in nature, subjecting the female body to dangerous and barbaric procedures. It also violates the human rights of children to be free from harm. Based on diaspora sizes, there are thousands of girls (aged from infancy to approximately 15 years) at risk of being ‘cut’ in Canada or being taken abroad for the procedure (termed ‘vacation cutting’).
The WHO classifies four types of FGM:
Type 1, being the least invasive of the four, involves the partial or total removal of the clitoral glans and/or the prepuce.
In type 2, the labia minora is partially or fully removed as well. It can also involve the removal of the labia majora—the outer folds of vulva skin.
Type 3, also known as infibulation, involves decreasing the size of the vaginal opening via the creation of a ‘covering seal’. Infibulation is performed by “cutting and repositioning the labia minora, or labia majora, sometimes through stitching, with or without removal of the clitoral prepuce/clitoral hood and glans”.
Type 4, involves pricking, piercing, scraping, cauterizing, and other harmful non-medical procedures performed on female genitalia.
All types of FGM pose significant health risks. FGM damages healthy female genital tissue and negatively affects the natural functions of a female body. Immediate health complications include infections, severe pain, fever, urinary problems, shock, swelling, bleeding and even death. Long-term complications include urinary, virginal, menstrual, sexual, and psychological problems. Type 3 FGM may sometimes have to be followed by surgery to allow sexual intercourse and childbirth (deinfibulation), with the consequent closing (re-sewing) of the vaginal opening. Such manipulations of female genitalia for every childbirth make a woman go through a traumatic procedure multiple times, increasing immediate and long-term health risks.
The roots of FGM lie in the belief that a woman or girl who is cut signifies purity and chastity, and is thus more appealing to a future husband. Some communities where FGM is practiced also refer to religion as the source of the direction for this practice. However, FGM supporters’ religious references are largely unsupported by religious texts. Moreover, once interviewed, many FGM-supporters in diaspora communities showed controversial view on the religious origins of this practice.
Data compiled by the UNICEF demonstrates the scale of FGM in various African countries. Somalia, Guinea, Djibouti and Egypt are leading counties in the number of girls and women aged 15–49 years who have undergone FGM (> 90%). Unfortunately, exact global numbers are unavailable due to a lack of research since UNICEF’s findings.
Percentage of girls and women aged 15–49 years who have undergone FGM/C, by country* (map redrawn by Caring for Kids New to Canada using UNICEF data)
* Stylized map, not to scale. It does not reflect a position by UNICEF on the legal status of any country or territory or the delimitation of any frontiers.
Exact numbers of affected women and girls living in Canada are unknown as well. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s statement on 6 February 2021 underlined the importance of data collection as the first step to preventing and eliminating FGM in Canada. The statement also defined a course for healthcare sector training to identify and assist those at risk of FGM. The prime minister added that the government was working with “…women advocates and religious leaders around the world to help change social attitudes…”
FGM has been criminalized in Canada since 1997. However, according to a letter submitted to the Human Rights Committee in Geneva by Equity Now and the End FGM Canada Network, there have been no criminal proceedings on the matter in Canada since the 1997 legislation. According to the letter, “There are no official, publicly available estimates of the number of survivors of FGM/C living in Canada, or women and girls at risk of undergoing FGM/C”.
The poorly understood status and social acceptance of FGM around the world in general, and in Canada in particular, are mainly due to its silent nature. It is almost universally performed in the presence of (often female) family members and is often considered a rite of passage in local communities. For example, in the Sebei community (Uganda), women who are not ‘cut’ cannot participate in cow dung collection (for plastering houses) with other women. Another example is the fear of a husband marrying another wife who is ‘cut’ and who will then insult the ‘uncut’ wife.
Unfortunately, the cultural connotations of FGM are not abandoned after representatives of these communities immigrate to Western countries, including Canada. The fear of being ostracized by diaspora communities in foreign countries where systemic racism and economic disadvantages often lead newcomers to distrust authorities, very likely contributes to the absence of FGM case reporting among Canadian women. Women and girls do not report their family members to law enforcement agencies, fearing legal repercussions for their families.
There is, however, a glimmer of hope in preventing and eliminating FGM in the context of Western society, including Canada. A recent research paper described action research in 2010–2016 in African migrant communities across the European Union (EU) to identify effective interventions to help eradicate FGM in Europe. The research findings shed light on the cultural norms of studied communities and highlighted the ineffectiveness of criminalization and awareness-building alone among host communities. Evaluating the REPLACE Approach, “a new methodology for tackling FGM based on community-based behaviour change and intervention evaluation”, the following conclusions can be made:
All immigrant communities are different in their cultural backgrounds and vision of FGM.
There is a need to utilize community facilitators (e.g., representatives of local non-profits serving diaspora communities) as liaisons to FGM-affected communities. However, the lack of knowledge of research methodologies among community facilitators should be recognized before beginning any interventions. Training should also be provided.
An important role in changing community cultural beliefs lies in cooperation with influential community members, e.g., ‘tagues’ and imams.
All community interventions need to be evaluated to reinform implementation.
Canada is a highly diverse country with thousands of immigrants arriving every year. The REPLACE Approach strengthens the point that Canada requires a section on the illegality of FGM in its citizenship guide, which serves as a strong awareness tool for different immigrant communities while respecting community contextual differences. Furthermore, according to a study from Simon Fraser University, the Canadian government must develop a multi-sector policy framework for FGM with a leading ministry in charge (e.g., the Department for Women and Gender Equality) of policy coordination and defining an action plan for FGM.
What can FGM prevention efforts look like for Canada? It is difficult to say in the absence of measurable data on the status of FGM. Therefore, a significant first step would be collecting long-needed statistics on the number of affected and at-risk women and girls in the country. Based on the findings of the REPLACE project, it is possible (despite the difficulty) to shift cultural norms that have been proven to be irrelevant and even harmful in modern-day society.
The End FGM in Canada Network did exactly that in 2019–2020. Among other anti-FGM awareness-building activities, the non-profit filmed and screened the documentary, “In The Name of Your Daughter”, across the country and engaged Canadians in the #MyIssueTooCanada campaign.
The most important thing Canadians can do to help is to continue the conversation by sharing this information and reporting suspected abuses to the authorities. It is illegal to perform or to assist with FGM in Canada or take someone to another country to perform FGM on them. As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in his statement, if any Canadian citizen is at risk of FGM/C abroad, contact the nearest Canadian embassy or consulate, call 1 613 996 8885, or e-mail email@example.com.
Let’s unite to end FGM in Canada and help those among us affected by this harmful and illegal practice.
Edited by Ali Shahrukh Pracha