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Volunteer Surgeon Helps Spread Hope for FGM Survivors

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“I was mutilated along with my baby sister,” shared a female genital mutilation survivor. “She was 9, and I was 11. After the circumcision, I don’t know what happened exactly, but she died.”

Another survivor, currently just 14 years old, said, “I was six years old when it happened to me. I knew what was going to happen. I knew they were going to cut me because a lot of my friends had had it done and I’d had a look – it was quite normal for girls to have a look at each other. My friends had told me that it was really painful, that it was horrible, so I was terrified. It happened when my mother was away and relatives were looking after me and my sister.”

Over 200 million women and girls alive today have been subjected to genital mutilation in 30 countries within Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. In most cases, these women are forced not to speak out against the procedure for fear of social retribution or death – and a majority of survivors have hidden their permanent scars, until recently.

Californian doctor Marci Bowers travelled to Nairobi, Kenya for a two-week mission with Clitoraid from May 2nd to the 13th. Bowers “donates her time as head surgeon for Clitoraid,” a non-profit organization dedicated to helping female genital mutilation survivors.

Bowers performed the reconstructive procedures developed by French surgeon and urologist Pierre Foldes at a hospital in one of the poorest districts in Kenya’s capital. According to reports from the Los Angeles Times, the women undergoing the procedure helped payed roughly $96 each, and the rest of the cost was covered by Clitoraid and Garana, a Kenyan non-governmental organization.

While female genital mutilation, or FGM, is illegal in most parts of Africa, the social customs there have proven difficult to uproot. The procedure, mostly performed on girls between infancy and 15 years of age, involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia. In some settings, FGM is even performed by health care providers who believe the procedure is safer when medicalized. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), though, “the procedure has no health benefits for girls and women.”

What makes FGM so dangerous is that the procedure can cause severe and immediate health complications, such as severe pain, bleeding and infection, urination issues, shock, and death. In terms of long-term health complications, these procedures can also cause sexual, urinary, menstrual and vaginal problems, childbirth complications, the need for future surgeries that present major health risks, and psychological problems including but not limited to “depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder” and “low self-esteem” for survivors.

In Kenya alone, over 5 million women from various ethnic groups undergo this type of mutilation. Primarily, parents force their daughters to undergo the procedure so that their children will not be burdened with the social stigma that can follow ‘un-cut’ women. The cultural implications of resisting or avoiding genital mutilation, in many cases, can include being shunned, deemed unmarriageable and being labeled and taunted as an “eternal child.”

In her two weeks in Nairobi, Bowers helped 44 women – four more that the planned 40. Bowers also trained six local doctors in the corrective procedure and 12 other doctors observed the surgeries. While a select number of women could be helped, hundreds had to be put on a waiting list with no clear answer for when or if they will be treated.

According to the World Health Organization, “FGM is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. It reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women. It is nearly always carried out on minors and is a violation of the rights of children. The practice also violates a person’s rights to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death.”

Of the 200 million women and girls affected, these 44 women are a small slice of many who have not been helped. While extensive outreach must occur in order to reduce the prevalence of this violating procedure, Bowers and other doctors like her are doing their best to improve quality of life for the women they have the opportunity to treat.

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