It’s not something that gets talked about very often in Christian circles. If you’ve ever tried broaching the topic over coffee and custard creams after the Sunday service, you’ll know it tends to be a bit of a conversation killer.
The advent of Christianity put the kibosh on the Jewish tradition of snipping eight-day-old baby boys, with the recognition that it was essentially an outward symbol of an inner spiritual state. Nowadays, most mentions of circumcision in church is strictly metaphorical, representing a “cutting off” of our old ways. “Circumcise your hearts” we’re told in Jeremiah 4:4 – a verse the English Standard Version of the Bible vividly translates as: “Remove the foreskin of your hearts.” Nice.
While I’ve always been a fan of the figurative, this week brings a welcome and timely reminder of why circumcision shouldn’t be relegated to the realm of the metaphorical: female circumcision, that is.
Last Thursday was the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). This annual UN campaign aims to raise awareness of just how dangerous and damaging this practice is to girls and women – and, by extension, to society as a whole.
Around 140 million females have been subject to FGM globally, says the World Health Organization (WHO), of which an estimated 90 million are in Africa. Meanwhile a new UNICEF report released last week reveals that one in five girls in sub-Saharan Africa are forced to endure it.
Try to imagine it, if you can: no general anaesthetic, no painkillers, no sterile equipment. A razor blade, a blunt knife, a bit of broken glass. A world of pain.
The short and long-term physical consequences of FGM are severe. They can include excessive and fatal bleeding, infections, infertility, genital ulcers, problems urinating, cysts, and complications in childbirth – not to mention untold psychological and emotional side-effects.
While living in Sierra Leone I’ve become increasingly aware that this is a ‘live’ issue, often cropping up during discussions on women’s rights. A staggering 80 per cent of girls here are reported to have undergone FGM, with it being particularly prevalent in rural areas. Lack of education is a key contributing factor.
In those communities that practice it, FGM takes place when Salonean girls ‘come of age’: it is part of their initiation ceremony into the ‘Bondo Society’, a traditional secret society for women. Girls normally join when they hit puberty, and the cutting is done by a ‘Sowei’ – the woman Bondo leader.
Grassroots groups nationwide have been campaigning against FGM for some years, with mixed results: it has yet to be formally illegalised. In a recent conversation I had with the head of Christian Aid Sierra Leone, Jeanne Kamara, she said that since FGM is an “entrenched socio-cultural issue”, legislation isn’t a panacea. “I passionately believe that there are two silver bullets: education and economic empowerment for women. It’s about changing mind-sets, not laws,” Jeanne explained.
But FGM is an Islamic issue, so it’s just the Muslim mind-set that needs changing, right? Wrong. Tragically, it turns out Christians are at it too. Not just in Sierra Leone, but elsewhere.
An academic study published last summer, supported by the WHO, assessed the prevalence of FGM in Sierra Leone.* While the results showed “a significantly higher prevalence of FGM among Muslims compared to Christians”, the report nevertheless concluded: “From other previous studies [in other African countries] and this one, we see that both Christians and Muslims in large proportions practice FGM… it would appear that religious belief plays a very important role in the continuation of the practice.”
The report makes for incredibly painful reading. I know the overwhelming majority of Christians worldwide would be horrified at the idea of any self-professed follower of Jesus subjecting their daughter, niece or grand-daughter to this abuse. And arguably, it is cultural tradition, rather than religious belief, that is the predominant driving force behind people’s support of FGM.
That said, regardless of whether you believe FGM is a product of culture or a product of religion, the fact remains it is an issue that needs to be talked about. That’s why it was encouraging to see the UK’s first interfaith summit on FGM taking place at Whitehall late last month, with politicians and faith groups discussing ways religious leaders can help fight the practice.
Let’s not limit our “gender equality/women’s rights” conversations to rants about the Church of England’s progress (or lack thereof) on women bishops. By all means, get fired up about that. But when you’re nibbling on your custard creams and sipping your coffee after church this Sunday, please don’t forget to rant about FGM too.
*Reference: Owolabi Bjälkander et al, ‘Female Genital Mutilation in Sierra Leone: Forms, Reliability of Reported Status, and Accuracy of Related Demographic and Health Survey Questions.’ Obstetrics and Gynecology International, August 2013.
(image via sxc.hu)