Khartoum, the Sudan, 1979. The World Health Organization is staging one
of its international gatherings of physicians, health and government
officials titled Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and
Children. The routine medical meeting is billed by women's groups as a
historical milestone: the hush-hush matter of female genital mutilation
(FGM) is, for the first time, about to be officially introduced within an
As early as 1958, members of the U.N. Commission on Women had
persistently requested official investigations - with no success -into
the terrible health problems (affecting an estimated 70 million women)
reported by overwhelmed physicians from a number of African countries.
The following year, African attendees to the U.N. seminar on the
Participation of Women and Public Life held in Addis-Ababa, Ethiopia,
begged WHO to "…show that this mutilation has no medical justification
and…is rather harmful to health and should be abolished forever".
The Sudan had offered to host the meeting. Ruled at the time by a
secular progressive government, the friendly gesture of hospitality was
symbolic as well. This was one of the very few countries that had
recognized sexual mutilation of its female children as a major obstacle
to its economic and social development.
In Khartoum, emboldened African health experts - at last free to expose
at length the medical horrors they encountered in their daily practice
and for which they had no remedies - rose, one after the other, to speak.
Their testimonies were recorded and subsequently published in nine
With this, international agencies could no longer pretend ignorance of a
torture that had affected millions of women for so long. Great hope
swept over those conference attendees who believed the wall of silence
had been shattered forever. The emotion of the day prompted feminist
writer Benoite Grould to comment that, from now on, "there would be no
more innocents, only accomplices."
But did the wall really shatter in Khartoum? Sexual mutilation was not a
secret. It had been known for centuries.
The Greeks spoke of it first. Historian Herodotus reported on excision
among ancient Egyptians when he roamed the country in the fifth century.
B.C. A Greek papyrus dated 164 B.C. describes the practice performed on
girls about to receive their dowries, just before marrying. Geographer
Strabo also reported on the custom while exploring Egypt in 25 B.C.
Astonishingly, Greek physicians soon joined in the ritual. Soramus, who
practiced in Alexandria, Egypt, and Rome in A.D. 138, wrote in detail of
the mutilations he performed. Another physician, Aetius (A.D. 550)
explained how he "seized the clitoris with a large pair of forceps and
pulled it out with his left hand".
Pietro Bembo, a 16th century Italian historian recorded the many stories
of travelers back from the red Sea who had seen "private parts of girls
sewn together…and whose husband's first measure [was] to cut open with a
knife the solidly consolidated parts of the virgin."
Scottish explorer James Bruce visited Ethiopia in 1768 and spoke of
children being infibulated. Sir Richard Francis Burton, after spending
many years in Africa and the Middle East, published a book in 1853 in
which he justified amputation of the clitoris by saying "the women would
[otherwise] indulge in excessive sexual intercourse".
As the number of British, French and Italian explorers grew, FGM became a
well-known matter. Explorers were soon followed by armies, bringing
along doctors and surgeons who documented the mutilation in greater
Quickly, word of the "astonishing" practice spread to many parts of the
world. Even the Anthropological Society of Bombay published a paper on
the issue in 1890. While the practice was dutifully observed, recorded
and commented on, children continued to die.
In 1891, a Philadelphia physician, Dr. P. C. Remondino, published a
volume on sexual mutilation that included both male castration and
[female] infibulation. Moved by the horror and high mortality rate
brought upon thousands of castrated boys at the hands of Coptic monks
(who subsequently sold them to Arabia), Remondino forcefully called for
the abolition of castration. He remained silent, however, on female
mutilation, possibly because female "circumcision" as it was then
delicately called, was beginning to be performed by U.S. physicians on
Imported from England, the practice was recommended by the "Orificial
Surgical Society", a forerunner to today's obstetricians and
gynecologists. The Society, formed in the 1890's, claimed that
mutilation cured women of a multitude of ills, including masturbation and
the measles. One of its members, Dr. D.E.H. Pratt wrote: "if one were to
choose the most important spot in point of influence over the entire
[female] system, it would have to be the clitoris and its hood."
By 1945, when the United Nations was created, massive evidence of the
practice had been extensively recorded, including the disastrous medical
and psychological side effects. Yet, U.N. officials called for more data
and information on FGM, even daring to claim that the practice was "dying
out " when all indications pointed to the contrary. Due to an impending
demographic explosion, the number of victims would soon multiply.
WHO's response was to say that the operations were part of a "social and
cultural nature" which fell outside its area of responsibility. In the
meantime, castration of boys had been quietly and effectively abolished.
No one had claimed "cultural" interference.
Never seen as an intrusion upon "cultural" habits either, WHO's officials
had no second thoughts about diligently dispatching international health
teams to the most remote corners of Africa to conduct immunization
campaigns. These actions received the total support of local governments
who ensured full cooperation by village leaders.
WHO was not the only U.N. body to ignore the suffering.
UNICEF, has also turned a deaf ear. In 1974, then-director Alistair
Matherson echoed the false claim that the practice existed only in a few
"remote areas" of Africa. Later, when no longer director, he published
an article praising UNICEF for not acting on the mutilation, out of
"respect" for the now famous "cultural" tradition. He instead blasted
the "women-libbers in industrialized countries" for their presumed
In January 1980, James P. Grant was appointed UNICEF's executive director
and under-secretary-general of the United Nations., A former president
of the Overseas Development Council, Grant held directorship positions in
the U.S. Agency for International Development, the World Council of
Churches, Save the Children Federation and other field development
groups. As a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation, John Hopkins and
Tufts universities, he had received many honorary degrees and awards,
including the Distinguished Public Service Award bestowed by AID along
with the 1990 Cristopherson Lectureship Award on International Child
Health from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
In view of his considerable expertise, it is impossible for Grant not to
have known of the devastating consequences of FGM and their impact on
development. In spite of all the evidence, he chose to continue the
hands-off policies of his predecessors. Under Grant's leadership,
thousands of African children and their mothers continue to die of causes
brought about by FGM, in a part of the world where maternal death is one
in 21 versus one in 6,500 in North America and one in 9,800 in Western
Although outraged, tireless field doctors, nurses and feminists continued
to mount pressure on the United Nations, to a point where UNICEF found
itself in an uncomfortable position. A gigantic and well-oiled
fundraising machine, its credo is the happiness of "mothers and children
everywhere". Fearing the appearance of insensitivity to FGM could result
in severe financial losses, UNICEF officials began attending
women-organized and led FGM seminars, professing "grave concern".
Yet, Page 10 of UNICEF's 1993 annual report belies such concern. It
reads: "One third of the estimated 13 million children who die from
preventable causes each year are African."
To show support, a UNICEF representative attended the Dakar, Senegal,
1993 Conference on Assistance to African Children. Present were: 46
African governments, 26 non-African governments, two liberation movements
and 18 U.N. agencies. To save at least 1 million lives per year,
participants agreed to: raise immunization coverage levels to 80 percent;
insure 90 percent coverage for measles and tetanus; increase to 80
percent the use of rehydration therapy against diarrheal dehydration; and
eliminate iodine deficiencies at a total cost of $12.7 billion. Not one
word was said about FGM.
When questioned about it by Forrest Sawyer on ABC's Day One (November
93), Grant admitted that no money had been specifically earmarked to end
the practice. Pressed further by Sawyer, he guesses that perhaps
:hundreds of thousands" may have been spent out of UNICEF's yearly budget
of $922 million.
This was an extraordinary public display of insensitivity toward the
torture and death of millions of female children. The failure of UNICEF
to use its considerable weight against the torture is particularly
grievous since the organization was specifically created to address the
needs of women and children the world over.
Grant was recently awarded the Command of the National order of Mali, an
award presented by a country where 90 percent of the women are
The same indifference and bureaucratic double-speak applies, in various
degrees, to other international field operating agencies: the U.N.
Development Fund for Women, U.N. Fund for Population Activities, AID,
Family Planning International Assistance, the International Planned
Parenthood, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders and so on.
All are well aware of FGM, yet none have programs to eradicate the
torture. International financial groups fare no better.
Demonstrating that these institutions can respond to social emergencies
when they want to, the World Bank and UNICEF joined hands in 1991 to
assist the Indian government with maternal and infant health projects. A
special fund of $ 600 million dollars was provided. However, in a 1993
report, the World Bank did not include FGM on its list of health risks to
children and women around the world.
A strong responsibility also rests with religious groups. Of all the
major religions, only Judaism denounced FGM as unacceptable when, in 1000
A.D., a horrified Rabbi Gershom put an end to the mutilation of Egyptian
In the 16th century, Catholic missionaries invading Ethiopia decided to
forbid what was erroneously believed to be a Jewish custom. When
reassured it was not, they allowed mutilation to resume. The Collegium
of Cardinals in Rome issued a decree that "all impediments to marriage
should be eliminated". Since women who were not mutilated were
considered "unfit" for marriage, the decree essentially legalized FGM.
It is still in effect today.
Most other Christian groups have remained quiet, except for the Church
World Service, which helped the Egyptian Coptic Church to eradicate the
habit, after the Copts were repeatedly turned down by UNICEF.
Quiet as well are Moslem religious leaders. Mutilation is not demanded
by the Koran, a truth irrelevant to local holy men who falsely maintain
it is. The misinterpretation of Islam's Holy Book undermines gravely the
heroic efforts of local health workers.
"The missionaries have concerned themselves with the souls of African"
said writer Benoite Groult, "the industrial developers with the raw
materials, the military has trained soldiers and made wars, the humanists
have battled against slavery, the physicians have worked against endemic
diseases, but no one has proposed anything for women".
And indeed, no one has.
(Compiled from U.N. public documents, international press reports and the
writings of Herodotus, Dr. Rodondino, Benoite Groult and Fran P. Hosken.
An internationally recognized authority in the field of FGM, Hosken has
written and published the Hosken Report, an extensively researched and
unique account of the historical, political, medical and social aspects
of Female Genital Mutilation. A must-read, it is ordered from Women's
International Network News (WINN), 187 Grant Street, Lexington, MA, 02173