Some call it female circumcision, others call it female genital cutting. In its most severe form, the clitoris, inner and outer labia of a girl’s vagina are cut (with a knife or razor) and then crudely sewed up, leaving just a small hole – the size of a matchstick head – for the urine and menstrual blood to pass through.

Photo: WorldPulse.com

Using a razor to cut (Photo: WorldPulse.com)

Although these forms of “cutting” may vary in severity depending on the cultural rituals of different communities, the term I would choose to use when I talk about this – and which is widely used – would be Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).


Author Ngugi wa Thiong'o

Author Ngugi wa Thiong’o

My first brush with this vague concept of FGM happened when I was 15. In school, we read a Literature classic, written by African writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, entitled The River Between.

Kenya is a world away from Singapore. And back in the 1980s, before the invention of the Internet, I knew close to nothing about its history, culture or rituals. This work of literature threw open my mind to realities beyond my own.

One of the themes in Ngugi’s book was circumcision. The word he used specifically was “female circumcision”. But juxtaposed with Waiyaki’s circumcision – which he looked forward to because it marked his final initiation into manhood – Muthoni’s circumcision was dreaded and eventually led to her death.

For her, it wasn’t just a nick in the flesh, as it was for the boys. For her (and other girls like her in Kenya, and Somalia, and Ethopia, and other African nations), the removal of the clitoris and labia led to bleeding, infection, chronic pain, cysts and often to death.

It’s hard not to question if the term “female circumcision” is misleading.


Last night, I attended a film screening and panel discussion on a film called Desert Flower. Organised by the Singapore Committee for UN Women and SMU’s Shirin Fozdar Programme, this powerful film traces the extraordinary journey of Waris Dirie, a Somali desert nomad-turned-supermodel who is now a UN spokesperson campaigning against female genital mutilation.

At the age of 5, her mother brought her out into the desert to be cut by a traditional circumciser. It was a poignant scene in the film for me because the procedure was performed (on what – to me – looked liked a sacrificial rock altar) by a woman on a little girl. There were no men around. It was a ritual performed by women on women.

Why? Because only a “cut woman” is believed to be clean. In fact, it is supported by both women and men in countries that practise it – particularly by the women – who see it as a source of honour and authority, and an essential part of raising a daughter well.

Desert Flower has an R-rating. Here’s the trailer:

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.

Key facts

  • Female genital mutilation includes procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.
  • The procedure has no health benefits for girls and women.
  • Procedures can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later cysts, infections, infertility as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths.
  • More than 125 million girls and women alive today have been cut in the 29 countries in Africa and Middle East where FGM is concentrated.
  • FGM is mostly carried out on young girls sometime between infancy and age 15.
  • FGM is a violation of the human rights of girls and women.

(Source: World Health Organisation, Updated Feb 2014) 

About 125 million women and girls in Africa and the Middle-East have undergone FGM. Among them, about 8 million have experienced the most severe form of mutilation (Type III), which is common in countries like Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan.

But what I learnt from the panel discussion that followed the film screening last night was that FGM happens not just in Africa and the Middle-East but in First World countries as well. Asia is not spared. Even more shocking, FGM happens here in Singapore.

Panel Discussion after the screening of Desert Flower

Panel Discussion with anthropologist Dr Dhooleka Raj and Minnie from UN Women

Maybe because FGM is so foreign and far-removed from my daily circumstance, it’s hard for me to connect with it on a very personal level. But one thing that Minnie from UN Women said struck a personal chord: In the case of Waris Dirie, who was cut and sewn up till what was left was a hole the size of a matchstick head, this hole caused her monthly periods to last 3 weeks.

Minnie from UN Women reveals that FGM happens here in Singapore too.

Minnie from UN Women reveals that FGM happens here in Singapore too.

Honestly, I dread the monthly discomfort and inconvenience of my own period. I remember getting my first period at 13 and thinking to myself, “OMG, is this going to happen to me every month till the day I die?” It was a horrible feeling of helplessness.

But for Waris, it was not just a period that lasted 3 weeks instead of 3 days, but also the chronic pain involved as a result of the botch job done by the circumciser with a razor and needle.

What has been done? 

In December 2012, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on the elimination of female genital mutilation.

In 2010, WHO published a “Global Strategy to Stop Healthcare Providers from Performing Female Genital Mutilation” in collaboration with other key UN agencies and international organizations.


But the truth is, laws are poorly enforced in many cases, and these measures are not without opposition. From the perspective of colonial and post-colonial history (in particular, the introduction of Christianity by Western missionaries), some anthropologists raise questions about the ethical implications of meddling with deeply-entrenched cultural rituals.

In fact, that was the premise of the book The River Between, written in 1965. When I read it in 1985, I too questioned the ethics of imposing Western religious beliefs on indigenous populations.


But last night, in my first brush with the Desert Flower (‘Waris’ means ‘Desert Flower’), I heard a Somali woman speak up for herself and for other African girls who have undergone female genital mutilation. She is one of the first to ever speak up against FGM at the headquarters of the United Nations in New York City.

Now that was powerful.

It was powerful for me because Waris did not always believe it was a violation. It was her reality. And it was through a painful personal journey that led to her to the point of speaking up against it.

And for me, every time an African speaks up for Africans, or a Cambodian speaks up for Cambodians, I think we need to sit up and pay attention. Because hearing a cry for help from within makes all the difference.

The real Waris Dirie, a Somali supermodel and UN ambassador

The real Waris Dirie, a Somali supermodel and UN ambassador

I always believe change starts with awareness. And while I don’t know what a small group of people in Singapore can do, I do believe in the power of the Ripple Effect, and that one person’s awareness can start a chain reaction.

If you feel moved to find out more about Waris Dirie’s humanitarian work, do visit her website at desertflowerfoundation.org or the film’s website at desertflower-movie.com.