It's time to shed light on this age-old ritual.
A considerable demographic of Lankan women go through circumcision as babies or at a very young age. This leads to several physical and mental issues later in life. Why is this practice still followed well into the 21st century?
Kavini,* 26, was one of the many women I spoke to. This is her story:
“As a teen, I often heard the word ‘circumcision’ used in connection with men. I had some knowledge of the process as I had many male cousins and my elders spoke about it regularly. Up until my twenties, I didn’t have the slightest inkling that this was also conducted on girls. A random discussion with my colleagues opened my eyes to this ritual and left me determined to learn more. Google provided me with plenty of hard facts, but I still couldn’t connect with the issue on a personal level….
That is until I came to know that I had also been circumcised as a very young girl. I have no recollection of the operation, and in some ways, I’m glad I don’t remember anything. I can’t imagine the pain I must have felt. My mother had no idea about what was done to me and she had not been present when it took place. She had simply handed me over to the woman doing the procedure and waited outside till it was over.
The knowledge turned my world upside down, to say the least. I wanted to discover more women who faced the same situation, and I was shocked to learn that almost all of my female relatives had been circumcised as well. Now my aim is to create awareness amongst the younger generation about this ongoing tradition that needs to be abolished immediately.”
What’s All The Fuss?
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is an umbrella term for any kind of procedure conducted on a woman’s genitals for non-medical reasons. It is extremely dangerous and can be traumatizing for the victims, with the adverse effects lasting well into adulthood. While it has been banned in several countries, Sri Lanka remains one of the nations where FGM is not illegal and prosecution can only be carried out if tangential proof is brought forward, like bodily harm.
The Different Types Of FGM
According to the World Health Organization, FGM covers four main categories: the partial and/or total removal of the clitoris and prepuce (the fold of the skin surrounding the clitoris); the removal of the clitoris, prepuce and the vulva; the narrowing of the vaginal orifice; and other harmful, non-medical procedures including (but not limited to) pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterization.
Since female circumcision done in Sri Lanka is kept very hush-hush, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact procedure. Various methods include pricking the clitoris until blood flows, shaving the clitoris and cutting off the foreskin.
Coming To Terms
Farra,* 18, told me her story, too.
“For the longest time, I didn’t know a single thing about circumcision. We never learnt about it in school, and none of my friends or family members mentioned it. About a year ago, I overheard my cousin discussing how he wanted to circumcise his newborn daughter. She was barely a few weeks old at the time. It was the first I’d heard of the practice, but the more I spoke to the women in my family, the more I realized that almost all of them had undergone this same procedure…including myself. Not only was it infuriating to realize that none of us knew why we had been circumcised, it was even worse that some of the women I spoke to had no idea that the procedure had been done to them—it was that normal in their circles.
I was very confused and angry, because it seemed to have been done just for the sake of an age-old tradition. I learned that my father had refused outright to allow the procedure to be carried out on me, as his sisters had been granted that ‘freedom’. However, despite the knowledge of his disapproval, my mother bent to pressure from her elders, and my circumcision was carried out. My father had been furious when he came to know. He believed that it was not right to mutilate a body, and I admire him for the stand he took, despite my having to face it in the end.
I think FGM is despicable! If we are created one way, why go to such lengths to remove a naturally-occurring physical attribute? I also think that circumcision should not be performed on men. If they decide to do it out of their own volition, that’s fine—but it shouldn’t be done as a matter of course.”
Farra is one of many girls who are struggling to come to terms with the damage done to their bodies. Since the topic is considered taboo and people won’t speak of it in public, it’s not surprising that most women aren’t aware that such traditions take place in Sri Lanka. Despite the many circling opinions and debates, the truth tends to remain cloudy and kept under wraps.
In addition, what’s often seen in cases of FGM is that it’s done as a compliance to family pressure.
Divyi,* 31, described her difficult situation: “I’m married and I have a baby daughter. My mother circumcised me within the first 40 days of my birth, simply following the tradition of years past. However, I promised myself that things would be different for my daughter and that I wouldn’t allow her to be circumcised. But my husband is conservative and he is insisting on the procedure being carried out. Now I’m facing opposition and lot of problems with my family due to my defiance. I don’t know what to do!”
Divyi’s position is a difficult one, but in making her decision, she needs to be aware that it could cause her daughter to be estranged from her for life.
Taku,* 23, hasn’t forgiven her mother. “When I first heard about females being circumcised, I immediately went up to my mum and asked her if I, too, had undergone the procedure. When she replied yes, I wanted to know the reason behind it, but she didn’t know. Since all her family members had followed the same ritual, she’d felt compelled to do it, too. I was so angry that I asked her if someone were to chop off my nose, limb or ear simply due to tradition, would she allow it? I’d always felt unending respect for my mother, but my opinions have changed. To me, it was really irresponsible of her to allow such a barbaric act to take place to her own daughter.
A friend of mine, who’s quite the rebel, fared worse. When she questioned her parents, she was scolded and beaten up. They were furious that she had dared to probe into an old cultural ritual.”
Exploring The Reality Of FGM
Vivanya,* 25, said:
“I had read quite a bit about female circumcision in general. There are several accounts detailing the procedure conducted in African countries, but I didn’t realize how prevalent it was in Sri Lanka until a colleague of mine told me about her own personal experience. I, myself, have never been circumcised. That’s probably because my parents’ beliefs are different and it was not something practiced by them (for which I am so thankful). My personal opinion is that it’s unethical for someone else to make such a huge decision on your behalf, even if it’s your parents.”
With heightened awareness around FGM, an increasing amount of young mothers are battling to protect their daughters. Their reasoning is simple: If it serves no medical purpose (and it doesn’t), why should women be pressured into changing the structure of their genitalia? Circumcised women are often more prone to urinary tract infections and cysts, and find intercourse to be blindingly painful. All this aside, the very procedure causes some to be scarred for life and develop psychological issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Male Movement
It’s not just the women fighting for change. To modern men, FGM is a barbaric and totally unnecessary ritual. Seeing their sisters, daughters and female friends face this issue has given men a better idea of the suffering women face, and a louder voice to advocate for the abolition of FGM.
Damon,* 26, believes that, “the decision to be circumcised should be made by the respective woman. If she chooses to get it done, it should be of her own free will. To me, meddling with your genitalia is equivalent to removing an eye or ear—it leaves you incapacitated and disabled. We were born with these organs because they serve a purpose in our bodily functions. The clitoris is the most sensitive part of the female anatomy and it is needed for the woman to orgasm. If the clitoris is removed or harmed, then she misses out on sexual satisfaction—a fundamental human right. C-town talks a lot about gender equality and bridging pay gaps, but they still continue practices like FGM. I am totally against this and I hope more people will take a stand.”
A lack of understanding and fear of rejection drives the next generation to follow their peers. But by encouraging more victims to share their experiences, it showcases the brutality of the act and lends courage and persistence to those fighting against it, encouraging further education and advocating change. It’s high time we create awareness about FGM and make a positive revolution towards protecting the women who’ve been subject to it for too long.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
This article was originally published as ‘The Untold Story Of FGM In Sri Lanka’ in the September 2017 issue of Cosmopolitan Sri Lanka. For more health and life advice, grab a copy of our latest magazine.
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