[FYI: This post contains some graphic descriptions of female genital mutilation, and links to related material.]
This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend an advance screening of part of the new PBS/Independent Lens series Half the Sky. The series doesn’t air on public television until October 1 & 2, but screenings are taking place at public libraries now across the country.
This series, based on the bestselling book by authors and NY Times journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, highlights issues affecting women worldwide. The entire 4-hour series will cover several issues dealt with in the book including education, human trafficking, maternal mortality, and violence against women. In my screening, we saw a 45-minute segment focused on maternal mortality and female genital mutilation.
I hope everyone will check your local listings and tune into this series. Even as someone who has read the book and understands the issues involved, I still found this episode powerful, moving, and informative. While maternal health was the focus of this episode, Kristof and the filmmakers do a great job of showing this issue in a holistic way. Most of this segment takes place in Somaliland, where the problem of women dying from preventable causes like obstructed labor, infections, and eclampsia are tied to larger problems within the society. First, no type of family planning exists for these women, and we are told that it is not uncommon for a woman to have 8-10 babies over her lifetime. One woman interviewed in the film has 15 children. Having too many children too close together poses obvious health risks.
Another, more horrifying problem is that of female genital mutilation. While maternal mortality is billed as the focus of the episode, I think FGM is really the story here. Most Americans probably don’t know this practice exists, and many that do probably don’t grasp the brutality of it. Even this episode shies away from fully explaining or illustrating the problem, and I think that’s a shame. While I understand the limits of what can be shown on TV, this practice needs to be brought out into the light. People need to understand that FGM still happens, and they need to understand that it’s not “female circumcision” as some kind of counterpart to male “circumcision.” Circumcision as we know it for boy children involves removal of the foreskin, often for religious or cultural reasons, and while there is debate about the practice in the U.S. today, it is often done in safe and sanitary conditions and doesn’t hinder male reproductive functions or sexual enjoyment. FGM, on the other hand, is a practice that has as its primary purpose to control women. To protect female honor, FGM is practiced to make sex less enjoyable for a woman. Extreme forms also make childbirth and premarital sex impossible.
In the most basic form of FGM, the clitoris and/or clitoral hood are removed. This inhibits sexual pleasure. In more intensive forms like that practiced in Somaliland, though, the process goes even further. All of the external parts of the genitalia, including the inner and outer labia are also cut away. Then, a girl undergoing the process is literally immobilized, her legs tied up for as much as 40 days while her genital area heals together, literally healing itself shut except for a small hole–sometimes as small as a matchstick–through which she can pee and menstruate. During the healing process, she also often receives little or no food or water because she has been so intensely mutilated that she can’t excrete properly. After experiencing all of this horror, once a girl comes of age to marry she will literally have to be sliced open again so that she can have sex or deliver children. And all of this is usually done by traditional “cutters” without anesthesia or proper sanitation. (You can see diagrams of various procedures here.)
Folks, this isn’t like the circumcision that men experience. I can’t emphasize how inappropriate the term “circumcision” is. This is like if circumcision involved cutting off a boy’s entire penis and foreskin, sewing up his genital area, and then slicing him open again when it was time for his testes to drop. It is unimaginable, barbaric, and it would never be done to a male child the way it is done to females.
This segment of Half the Sky does a lot to educate about the procedure. We meet a “cutter,” an elderly female who says she continues to perform the procedure mostly to make money. We see a traditional birth assistant and hear how she has sliced open several women with the same blade. We hear mothers explain that the procedure continues because it is demanded by the community; no one would marry their son off to a non-mutilated girl. We hear from Edna Adan–a former UN diplomat and the true hero of this episode–about how dangerous the procedure is not only because it obstructs labor, but also because mutilated and scarred tissue cannot properly stretch for delivery. Adan is fighting this practice with education, building a hospital and training midwives to go out in the community and fight this tradition. But she has a long road ahead.
This is just one of the six Half the Sky segments you will see on PBS, and I can’t urge you strongly enough to watch them all. As I said, the series avoids some of the more graphic details I’ve provided here, which is both a plus and a minus. The series is appropriate for older teens and young adults, but at the same time I hope it will spur viewers to pick up the Half the Sky book, hit the Internet, and research these issues further. Kristof and WuDunn make credible narrators for the series, though some of their celebrity co-hosts seem unnecessary. Watching Diane Lane talk to Somaliland women, constantly looking shocked and asking silly questions… it’s probably the typical reaction a lot of privileged U.S. women would have to the problem, but she was the least engaging part of the episode for me. I didn’t even know who she was at first.
If you’d like to know more, please check the Half the Sky web site for more info and showtimes for the series. You can also learn more about Edna Adan’s hospital online, and Tostan is another organization that fights the FGM practice and accepts donations, interns, or volunteers. FGM is a practice that should not exist in any form, anywhere in today’s world.