News & Current Affairs

Research Links Female Genital Mutilation to Red Sea Slave Trade Route

By Azeezat Okunlola | Sep 15, 2023

Research by Lucia Corno of Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Eliana La Ferrara of Università Bocconi and  Alessandra Voena of Stanford University has linked female genital mutilation to the Red Sea Slave Trade route.

Female genital mutilation, or FGM, is a practice that has been around for hundreds of years in various forms. At present, it is estimated that 200 million girls and women have experienced it, mostly in developing countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

Although its beginnings remain a mystery, the report has explored its historical beginnings by combining current data from 28 African countries with information on slave shipments from 1400 to 1900.

The study found that the risk of female genital mutilation is "significantly" higher for women from ethnic groups whose ancestors lived along the Red Sea slave trade route. They were also "more in favour of continuing the practice," as discovered.

Women were taken from Africa and sold as concubines in the Middle East during the Red Sea slave trade, which lasted for hundreds of years up until the middle of the 20th century. 

Infibulation, or partial stitching up of the vulva, is said to have been practiced to temporarily signal the virginity of girls and young women, thereby increasing their market value.

“According to descriptions by early travellers, infibulated female slaves had a higher price on the market because infibulation was thought to ensure chastity and loyalty to the owner and prevented undesired pregnancies,” the report states.

The study's authors hypothesize that FGM generated into a status symbol in non-slave societies because it indicated a woman's virginity or purity, and that this practice spread to slave societies.

"Our paper shows that [the practice] has ancient roots and over time it may have become part of certain groups' cultural identity," lead author Prof. Lucia Corno told the Telegraph.

Pietro Bembo, a Venetian historian who traveled the Red Sea route in the 16th century, is quoted in one of the excerpts studied by the researchers as saying, "The private parts of the girls are sewn together immediately after their birth since an indubitable virginity at the marriage is held in such high esteem."

Portuguese missionary Joao Dos Santos wrote in 1609 that "a group from Mogadishu (Somalia) has a custom to sew up their women, especially their slaves being young to make them unable to conception, which makes these slaves more valuable in the market both for their chastity, and for better confidence which their owner put in them"

Female circumcision is still associated with concepts of sexual morality and subjugation today. The practice is typically carried out on young children in the hopes of improving their future marital prospects. It's often viewed as a rite of passage for young girls transitioning into adulthood.

The Telegraph spoke with three women from Somaliland, an independent nation in the Horn of Africa, about their personal experiences with female genital mutilation.

Asli and Halimo, then aged 6 and 8, were both infibulated and have been left with permanent health problems as a result. 

The locals will be relieved once the operation is performed. Halimo, who is now 53 years old, said, "They say that from today you become a woman, now you are complete."

Asli, now 26, claimed that she had asked her mother why she had "punished" her by putting her through the procedure. "It's the culture, my mother said; it's the tradition." 

Dr. Leen Farouki, a leading expert on female genital mutilation, has written that the practice is thought to reduce sexual desire.

She explained that this belief stems from morality, hygiene, and aesthetics, and that it increases one's chances of getting married. As an added bonus, "it is also believed to curb sexual urges and maintain virginity."

Luul, the third Somali woman interviewed by the Telegraph, is a former surgeon.

An uncut woman sends the message to her husband that she is not a virgin, according to 63-year-old Luul. “But if he marries and she is closed, there is a celebration."

“I cut 15 girls a month for 15 years. There was no anaesthetic. There was a lot of pain, but it was compulsory."

Media and political focus on female circumcision over the past two decades has led to "significant" reductions in cases on a per capita basis, as reported by the United Nations (UN)

Most countries saw decreases between 1994 and 2020, and the present-day girl is one-third less likely to have the procedure than she was 30 years ago.

Recent research from the universities of Exeter and Birmingham estimates that 44,000 women and young girls still lose their lives annually as a result of infections and complications related to these procedures.

Female circumcision, according to their research, is a major killer in countries where it is common practice. The United Nations has expressed concern that the rate of progress is insufficient and that the absolute number of young people is increasing rapidly.

It warns that if current trends continue, the number of girls at risk of genital mutilation will rise to 4.6 million by 2030, up from less than four million in 2015. 

"Most of these countries have a high rate of population growth — meaning that the number of girls who undergo FGM will continue to grow if the practice continues at current levels," the agency said.

It went on to say that existing efforts need to be multiplied by ten to deal with the consequences of rising populations. 

Dr. Farouki says that although 84 nations have passed laws outlawing female circumcision, many of the countries where it is still practiced do not have such laws, and those that do often are not consistently enforced.

“During Covid, lots of law enforcement agencies were not there. So the [people practising FGM] re-found their positions within their communities, and were able to push their practice forward again,” said Nankali Maksud, who leads on female circumcision for UNICEF.

There has been resistance to efforts by international organizations like Unicef to end the practice of female circumcision. Some groups have condemned western activists for trying to end a centuries-old ritual that they view as a rite of passage into womanhood. 

"Female circumcision is celebrated as an age-old tradition that marks a girl's social and sexual transition from childhood androgyny to a full adult female or 'wife,'" explains Dr. Fuambai Ahmadu, an anthropologist at the University of Sierra Leone. “The same is true for the celebration of male circumcision/initiation which in the past marked the transition of a boy to an adult male or ‘husband’.”

Dr. Ahmadu criticized the anti-FGM movement, calling it "largely misguided" and "shaped by outdated and racist stereotypes about African women and men." Professor Corno has said that learning more about the history of female genital circumcision can help in developing effective policies to curb the practice. “Our work highlights the importance of ‘inherited culture’ in the perpetuation of this harmful practice.”

However, human rights groups argue that procedures that put children in danger should never be carried out. 

According to the World Health Organization, more major surgeries can result in complications during childbirth, including excessive bleeding, incontinence, cysts, and infections. 

“FGM is a procedure that can be life-threatening and has absolutely no medical purpose or benefit. It can cause serious, lifelong physical and mental health problems,” said Hillary Margolis, senior researcher in the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch.

“Most girls who undergo FGM are under 15, so adults are subjecting them to a procedure for which they can’t give informed consent and often may not even understand. It is a procedure that may negatively impact the rest of their lives.”

The vast majority of girls and women in countries where FGM is still practiced agree, according to UNICEF's research. 

ActionAid is backing Halimo and Luul in their efforts to end the practice. Halimo is the leader of a group of 200 women who discuss the practice of female circumcision and raise money to hire more doctors who perform the procedure. "We each save $1 per month and use it to provide [different] jobs for people who perform circumcisions," she explained.

Anti-FGM groups in Sierra Leone have been advocating for a "bloodless rite," which is similar to the traditional initiation rituals but does not involve circumcision. 

The most effective methods of reducing the practice, according to the research, are grassroots campaigns that use local resources like billboards, traveling performers, and radio shows.

"More and more, we are seeing religious or cultural justifications for FGM being countered in local communities around the world," Ms Margolis said. “These local efforts are crucial to ending the dangerous practice.”

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