They euphemistically call it "female circumcision", but this is in fact one of the most horrific practices that survive in the XXIth century Africa: the female genital mutilation (FGM).
When girls are close to the marriage age (which usually does not bypass 12 years), they will suffer this operation. In some areas, girls suffer FGM even at two years old. If a girl does not pass through this operation, she will be considered by the community as "impure" and she will experience many taboos, not being allowed to touch many items, not being allowed to perform social rites, and being considered immature.
For her family, this is a painful shame, and of course, she cannot marry, as this is the "rite of passage" from childhood to adulthood (ensuring she is good "marriage material").
The operation is an issue between the women of the family and the girl will be operated by a grandmother or an old midwife. As this is a primary source of income for many midwives/practitioners, they propagate the practice.
In most cases, the conditions are highly unhygienic (not to mentioning that the operation is performed without anesthetics) and the tool employed can be in many cases an oxidized blade.
Due to these conditions, many girls get severe infections after the operation, which in some of the cases are even deadly if untreated. The procedure, when performed without any anesthetic, can lead to death through shock from immense pain or excessive bleeding.
Other serious long-term health effects are also common, like urinary and reproductive tract infections, caused by obstructed flow of urine and menstrual blood, various forms of scarring and sterility.
It is estimated that each day, about 6,000 girls experience this operation and 3,000 die annually because of it. 10-20 African babies at each 1,000 births die due to complication provoked by FGM. 135 million women in 28 African and Middle East countries are estimated to live with this mutilation.
The issue follows a code of silence and usually people do not speak about it in the cultures that practice it.
Talking about "pureness", in fact, the aim of the mutilation is to turn women into child-making and working machines, devoid of sexual pleasure, reflecting the man's desire to control women's sexuality (virginity, morality and marriage).
Many people make the mistake of associating this practice with Islam. That's wrong. This African custom predates the Islam spread in Africa, and if many Islamic African communities practice it, it's due to the African religious syncretism: they combine Islam with local religions like they do with Christianity, too. And African Christians do practice the mutilation, too.
The practice seems to have originated in Egypt, during the Pharaohs' time and could have been spread across Africa with the Arab slave traders.
There are 4 types of mutilation, related to how severe the operation is. Types I and II are less severe.
Type I (Sunna circumcision) means clitoridotomy (removal or splitting of the clitoris hood).
Type II means clitoris removal (clitoridectomy) with the total or partial extirpation of the labia minora (inner lips).
The sewing together of the leftover labia minora epidermis, which contains sweat glands, favors a buildup of sweat and urine in the closed off space beneath this closure that can lead to local or urinary infection, septicemia, hemorrhaging and cyst formation. Types I and II are the most common, encountered in all Western Africa (Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Mali, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Togo, Benin, Nigeria), plus Central Africa (Camerun, northern Zaire, Central African Republic, southern Sudan), Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, northeastern Tanzania, eastern Uganda and southern Arabian peninsula (Yemen, Oman) in a minority representing 20 % of the population.
The most severe types are III and IV, which represent 15 % of the total. Type III (infibulation, Pharaonic circumcision) means the partial or total removal of the female external genitalia and suture of the vaginal opening. Type IV means the puncture, perforation or incision of the clitoris and/or labia.
These types are practiced in northern Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia, eastern Ethiopia and neighboring zones.
The infibulation involves massive tissue removal of the external genitalia, including all of the labia minora and the inside of the labia majora, leaving a raw open wound. The labia majora are then held together using thorns or stitching and the girl's legs are tied together for two - six weeks, to prevent her from moving and to allow the healing of the two sides of the vulva.
Nothing is left of the normal anatomy of the genitalia, except for a wall of flesh from the pubis down to the anus, with the exception of a pencil-size opening at the inferior portion of the vulva to allow urine and menstrual blood to pass through.
When girls are married, in many cases with much older men, to have sexual intercourse, the husband must use a knife on the wedding night to widen the apertureÂ
During childbirth, the enlargement is too small to allow vaginal delivery, and so the infibulation must be opened completely and restored after delivery.
Once again, the legs are tied together to allow the wound to heal, and the procedure is repeated for each subsequent act of intercourse or childbirth.
When childbirth takes place in a hospital, the surgeons may preserve the infibulation by enlarging the vagina with deep episiotomies.
Afterwards, the patient may insist that her vagina be closed again so that her husband does not reject her.
Sporadically, the mutilations are practiced in the Western countries were immigrants from these countries have moved, and they even make special trips to their homeland with girls born in the western world to proceed the operation.
This is a crime not only in the western world, but also in certain African countries.
During colonial times, in some countries, like Kenya, the FGM was used as a form of resistance against the colonial will.
In Senegal, for example, this is forbidden since 1999, but this has just intensified the practice. Personally, I met even Senegalese people with a PhD degree that approved the practice, motivating that this way, little girls are safe from rape Â
Other countries have the legislation that forbids the practice, but have no control mechanisms. Such is the case in Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Ivory Coast, Djibouti, Guinea, Tanzania, Togo.
The Inter-African Committee, constituted in 1984 and made of 30 countries, works actively for the eradication of this practice.
Perhaps the most famous victim of the female genital mutilation is the Somali fashion model Waris Dirie, who related her horrific experience in the book "Desert flower".