Vagina or clitoris aren’t words people say much. Not as much as dick, balls, penis, boner, erection and we could go on.
Now a group of teenage girls are fighting against the stigma of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) by reclaiming the right to say what’s down there between a woman’s legs.
(If you’d like a list of glorious synonyms, including The Notorious V.A.G. click here).
And they’re doing so with a beautiful and important song on YouTube. Youth-led charity Integrate UK has launched the #MyClitoris campaign to raise awareness about female genital mutilation (the more extreme form is called ‘infibulation’ which sounds equally painful).
At least 200 million girls and women have been cut in 30 countries.
It contains some epic lines like ‘They say it’s OK for a little bit, to be taken away from my clit… no thank you-oo-oo! Trying to change me, shame me, tame me, shape me everyday! You can’t touch my dignity in any way!’
Yes, it’s the first time you won’t be able to get a song about your clitoris out of your head.
But back to the serious stuff. FGM is a worldwide problem. According to Unicef data, at least 200 million girls and women have been cut in 30 countries. In Africa is it especially prevalent in countries like Somalia, Guinea and Djibouti – where 90 per cent of women undergo FGM.
There are different types of FGM – all of which make our toes curl and vaginas ache – and it’s important to be clear on the differences. The World Health Organisation (WHO) classifies ‘partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or the prepuce’ (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoris) as Type 1.
Type II is partial or total removal of the clitoris and labia minora (the flaps – can anyone think of a better word? – that stick out on either side of your vaginal opening), with or without excision of the labia major (the folds of skin, usually covered by pubic hair that cover your vagina).
Type III is even more intrusive. It involves the narrowing of the vaginal orifice by cutting and bringing together the labia minora and/or the labia majora to create a type of seal (with or without cutting out the clitoris). In most instances, the cut edges of the labia are stitched together, which is referred to as ‘infibulation’ – ouch. Sexual intercourse is difficult, if not impossible, and giving birth involves splitting the vaginal opening, well, open.
All other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, for example: pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and burning are Type IV. (Any type of piercing or surgery is defined as FGM – but most of those include consent).
Nobody should accept anyone telling them their bodies aren’t good enough, nor what they should wear, how they should think.
OK the science lesson’s over. But for some women it’s not a lesson, it’s their reality. And that long list of women include Iman, the Malian singer Inna Modja and the Somalia ex-model Waris Dirie.
The inspiration for the video came from an article called An Agonising Choice in the finance and politics magazine The Economist. The magazine argued that some types of FGM (Type 1 and 4) should be legalised and performed in hospitals to reduce the danger and frequency of operations performed by people who aren’t professionals: ‘However distasteful, it is better to have a symbolic nick from a trained health worker than to be butchered in a back room by a village elder.’ The magazine argued that it might also reduce the frequency of infibulation as people would presumably choose a legal and safer alternative.
But Bethel Terefe, who appears in the video, couldn’t disagree more. The 20-year-old student (she’s wearing a hat in front of the guy playing the guitar) believes that any type of FGM is child abuse. ‘It’s not about how it’s done it’s about where it comes from. You’re still being sexually abused as someone is touching your genitals without your consent.’
‘How can they say it’s ok to carry out a ‘little bit’ of FGM on a girl?’ 17-year-old Awa (who gets a pint of milk poured over her in the video) asks. ‘They wouldn’t say that about any other kind of abuse! It’s not.’ For the 17-year-old Gambian who’s been volunteering for the charity for the last three years, the video is also about the wider issue of female empowerment.
‘Nobody should accept anyone telling them their bodies aren’t good enough, nor what they should wear, how they should think.’ That’s why the video has been shot mostly in varying shades of glorious pink – in order to combat gender stereotyping, Awa explains. ‘ There’s a guy who wears a dress at the end of the video – same thing. I don’t want anyone making assumptions about me and how I should dress. It’s my choice!’
WHO only differentiates between the types of FGM ‘to make it easier to treat’, Bethel says, rather than make different types of mutilation relatively acceptable. It’s an issue which is particularly important for her; ‘I’m the first person not to have FGM in my family.’ She moved to the United Kingdom from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia seven years ago with her family. She invited a representative from Integrate UK to her university project ‘Hidden Scars’ on FGM and since March, she’s been an outreach officer going into schools and educating young people on FGM, radicalisation and gang culture.
I ask Bethel what her mother thinks about the video. ‘She loves it. And my father loves it too!’
Anyone interested in joining, supporting or finding out more about the charity, can email firstname.lastname@example.org. Integrate UK’s young people deliver peer education in schools nationally around FGM awareness, grooming for child sexual exploitation, radicalisation and gang/drug culture. They also train front-line professionals. They’re starting a project on the concept of ‘honour’ and honour crime in the new year. Find out more.