Nearly 200 million girls and women worldwide have experienced female genital mutilation (FGM). Since 1992, the procedure has been officially recognized as a human rights violation by the United Nations.
A new study, seeking to identify the consequences of the practice, examined affected women belonging to the Somali, Amhara and Oromo communities from the Somali Region of Ethiopia.
The study titled “Psychopathological sequelae of female genital mutilation and their neuroendocrinological associations” was published in the journal BMC Psychiatry on June 13.
FGM refers to the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia for non-medical purposes. Also known as “cutting,” the painful procedure is usually carried out between infancy and adolescence without the use of anesthetics and antiseptics. In most cases, it is performed by people without medical training who use special knives, scissors, scalpels, pieces of glass or razor blades.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are four types of FGM which involve the removal of the clitoris alone, removal of both the clitoris and the vulva, sealing of the vaginal opening by sewing the outer labia, or other harmful procedures such as incising, scraping, or pricking the genital area.
The researchers revealed that the way the body handled stress was affected by this. After examining hair samples of the affected women, higher levels of stress hormones were found in women who experienced severe forms of FGM and women who underwent partial or complete removal of the clitoris before their first birthday.
“Even if the women cannot remember the procedure itself, they carry those memories in their biological systems for the rest of their lives,” said researcher Dr. Anke Köbach from the University of Konstanz, Germany. The high levels of cortisol can increase the risk of excess weight, muscle and tissue weakness, and alter brain development.
Women who experienced FGM were also more vulnerable to psychological disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression. Nearly 20 percent of young women with an average age of 32 suffered from PTSD. The mental health consequences were said to be “particularly grave” among women who underwent the more invasive methods of the procedure.
In addition to these findings, WHO notes a long list of potential complications such as chronic pain, urinary problems, painful menstruation, increased risk of childbirth complications, scar formation, increased risk of HIV transmission, etc.
Misinformed beliefs and myths encourage the practice of FGM in many cultures. For example, some communities may perceive it to be a rite of passage, a way to control sexual desire, a way to gain respect and ensure fidelity, etc.
“These myths and beliefs are fueled by poverty, high illiteracy rates and ignorance of the medical effects or the legal consequences of the practice,” said Janet Anyango, programme officer with the Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) in Kenya. “Changing people’s perceptions and attitudes about FGM is the biggest challenge.”