Female Genital Cutting is an International Issue

By Brionna Wiggins

Upon hearing about female genital cutting and what it entails, it seems that one of the first facts you hear about it has to do with its prevalence in Africa and the Middle East. While it is true that these continents have a high prevalence (which has been decreasing according to a recent study by BMJ Global Health), it may contribute to the misconception that these are the only places in the world where females undergo FGC. Unfortunately, this is not the case. This practice reaches Asia, Europe, North America, South America, and Australia. Its presence on multiple continents leads FGC to be an international issue that needs to end with the support of all the nations involved.

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Map Courtsey of Orchid Project
As part of my senior project, I have been bestowed the opportunity to do volunteer work with Sahiyo. They work specifically with the Dawoodi Bohra community, whose members mainly reside in India, Pakistan, Yemen and East Africa. FGC is also prevalent in countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia. There have even been reports in Colombia, South America. This puts FGC on every continent in the world!

As previously mentioned, FGC occurs among diaspora communities. When families from countries that practice FGC move into new areas, they inevitably bring along the instilled need to continue the social norm. This leads to FGC being present in ‘receiving countries’, which can include places bordering practicing countries. Despite the handful of receiving countries that ban and criminalize FGC, the practice is still inflicted on girls in an effort to maintain their cultural identity. However, diaspora community members may send their daughters to their home country for ‘vacation cutting’. FGC is not a practice that is restricted by borders. Decades ago, FGC was practiced in some of the same countries that worked to prevent it.

In Victorian Era England, FGC ushered its way into the medical field as a cure for nervous diseases, masturbation, and any other infliction that doctors/surgeons related to the female organs. Gynecological surgeon Isaac Baker Brown popularized the idea of using clitoridectomy, or removal of the clitoris, as a solution for ailments in medical circles. After some time, Isaac Brown and those who followed this method were eventually condemned. Yet, it was not so readily removed from American medical textbooks. Doctors in the U.S. also continued with this treatment to cure female ailments and the last documentation of this practice dates as far back as 1947. It is the year Renee Bergstrom received a clitoridectomy at the age of three in “white, midwest America” (The Guardian). People with good intentions may harm others irreparably, even the ones who trust them the most.

While the practitioners may mean well, it still doesn’t excuse the continual physical and psychological harm of women and young girls. These mistakes have been made before, and are still being made by participating societies and people who perpetuate the practice. With FGC being so close to home, the problem cannot be ignored any longer as someone else’s problem. This practice affects women and girls on every continent. It must be dealt with using the full support of every global citizen to end the practice of FGC for the sake of women and men. You can help advocate against it too. Research is crucial in understanding a multifaceted issue such as this to ensure and reaffirm what you’re advocating for. That’s when you can volunteer your time or voice to organizations working to end FGC and keep up to date on the topic. Also, you can inquire about the laws in your state if they regulate or have anything in place pertaining to the practice. If there’s not a law already, then you can advocate for one being created.

 

More on Brionna:

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Brionna is currently a high school senior in the District of Columbia. She likes drawing, helping others, and being able to contribute to great causes.

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Trauma and Female Genital Cutting, Part 6: Effects of FGM/C on the Lower Urinary Tract System

(This article is Part 6 of a seven-part series on trauma related to Female Genital Cutting. To read the complete series, click here. These articles should NOT be used in lieu of seeking professional mental health and counseling services when needed.)

By Julia Geynisman-Tan, MD

Background

FGM/C has no known health benefits, but does have many immediate and long-term health risks, such as hemorrhage, local infection, tetanus, sepsis, hematometra, dysmenorrhea, dyspareunia, obstructed labor, severe obstetric lacerations, fistulas, and even death. While the psychological, sexual, and obstetric consequences of FGM/C are well-documented (refer to prior posts in this series), there are few studies on the urogynecologic complications of FGM/C. Urogynecology is the field of women’s pelvic floor disorders including urinary and fecal incontinence, dysfunctional urination, genital prolapse, pelvic pain, vaginal scarring, pain with intercourse, constipation and pain with defecation and many other conditions that affect the vagina, the bladder and the rectum. Urogynecologists are surgeons who can both medically manage and surgically correct many of these issues.

FGM/C and Urinary Tract Symptoms

One recent study from Egypt suggested that FGM/C is associated with long-term urinary retention (sensation that your bladder is not emptying all the way), urinary urgency (the need to rush to the bathroom and feeling that you cannot wait when the urge comes on), urinary hesitancy (the feeling that it takes time for the urine stream to start once you are sitting on the toilet) and incontinence (leakage of urine). However, the women enrolled in this study were all presenting for care to a urogynecology clinic and therefore all of them had some urinary complaints so it is difficult to tell from this study what the true prevalence of lower urinary tract symptoms are in the overall FGM/C population.

Therefore, given the significant number of women with FGM/C in the United States and the paucity of data on the effects of FGM/C on the urinary system, my research team studied this topic ourselves in order to describe the prevalence of lower urinary tract symptoms in women living with FGM/C in the United States. Publication will be available online in December 2018.

We enrolled 30 women with an average age of 29 to complete two questionnaires on Overactive bladder 1their bladder symptoms. Women in the study reported being circumcised between age 1 week and 16 years (median = 6 years).

  • 40% reported type I
  • 23% type II
  • 23% type III
  • 13% were unsure

Additionally, 50% had had a vaginal delivery; and 33% of these women reported that they tore into their urethra at delivery.

Findings:

A history of urinary tract infections (UTIs) was common in the cohort:

  • 46% reported having at least one infection since being cut
  • 26% in the last year
  • 10% reported more than 3 UTIs in last year
  • 27% voided ≥ 9 times per day (normal is up to 8 times per day)  
  • 60% had to wake up at least twice at night to urinate (once, at most, is normal)

Most of the women (73%) reported at least one bothersome urinary symptom, although many were positive for multiple symptoms:

  • urinary hesitancy (40%)
  • strained urine flow (30%)
  • intermittent urine stream (a stream that starts and stops and starts again) (47%) were often reported
  • 53% reported urgency urinary incontinence (leakage of urine when they have a strong urge to go to the bathroom)
  • 43% reported stress urinary incontinence (leakage of urine with coughing, sneezing, laughing or jumping)
  • 63%reported that their urinary symptoms have “moderate” or “quite a bit” of impact on their activities, relationships or feelings

What’s the Connection Between FGM/C and Urinary Symptoms?

Urinary symptoms like the ones described above can be the result of a number of factors. pee-night-400x322Risk factors for urinary urgency and frequency, incontinence, and strained urine flow include pregnancy and childbirth, severe perineal tears in labor, obesity, diabetes, smoking, genital prolapse and menopause.

However, given the average age of women in our sample and the fact that only half of them had ever had a vaginal birth, the rate of bothersome urinary symptoms are significantly higher than has been previously reported. FGM/C may be a separate risk factor for these symptoms. Interestingly, the prevalence of urinary tract symptoms in our patients closely resembled that of a cohort of healthy young Nigerian women aged 18-30, in which the researchers reported a prevalence of lower urinary tract symptoms of 55% with 15% reporting urinary incontinence and 14% reporting voiding symptoms. The authors do not mention the presence of FGM/C in their study population but the published prevalence of FGM/C in Nigeria is 41%, with some communities reporting rates of 76%. Therefore, it is likely that many of the survey respondents had experienced FGM/C, thereby increasing the prevalence of lower urinary tract symptoms in their cohort. In the study of women in Egypt referenced above, those with FGM/C were two to four times more likely to report urinary symptoms compared to women without FGM/C.

The connection between FGM/C and urinary symptoms can be understood from the literature on childhood sexual assault and urinary symptoms. Most women who experience FGM/C recall fear, pain, and helplessness. Like sexual assault, FGM/C is known to cause post-traumatic stress disorder, somatization, depression, and anxiety. These psychological effects manifest as somatic symptoms. In studies of children not exposed to sexual abuse, the rates of urinary symptoms range from 2-9%. In comparison, children who have experienced sexual assault have a 13-18% prevalence of enuresis (bedwetting) and 38% prevalence of dysuria (pain with urination). The traumatic imprinting acquired in childhood persists into adult years. In a study of adult women with overactive bladder, 30% had experienced childhood trauma, compared to 6% of controls without an overactive bladder. There is a neurobiological basis for this imprinting. Studies in animal models show that stress and anxiety at a young age has a direct chemical effect on the voiding reflex and can cause an increase in pain receptors in the bladder. Additionally, the impact of sexual trauma on pelvic floor musculature has been well described. Women who experience genital trauma often respond with an involuntary contraction of the pelvic floor, which can develop into non-relaxing pelvic floor dysfunction and subsequent urinary hesitancy, strained flow, retention, bladder pain and overflow incontinence.

These Conditions are Treatable

There are treatments for all of the conditions. Urinary hesitancy, strained flow, bladder pain, and urgency are often treated with pelvic floor muscle therapy. That is because many of these symptoms come from an unconscious, constant clenching of the pelvic floor muscles, which then prevents them from using their full range of motion and pinches off the nerves running through the muscles. Pelvic floor therapy focused on lengthening and stretching these muscles can completely change the way that you urinate and the sensation of pain in the pelvis. This kind of physical therapy is done by all female providers in a private room. The therapy consists of a combination of external and internal work on all of the muscles of your core and pelvic floor to release trigger points of tension and teach you how to relax and lengthen these muscles. Sometimes the therapists use biofeedback devices in the vagina to help you to recognize certain muscles groups. The sessions are usually one hour long and last for 6-12 visits. You can obtain a referral to a pelvic floor physical therapist from your local urogynecologist.

If you have urinary leakage throughout the day or nighttime, this can also be treated. Your urogynecologist can help differentiate whether you have stress urinary incontinence (leakage with coughing, laughing, exercise, lifting) or urgency urinary incontinence (leakage that follows the urge to go to the bathroom or sometimes sporadic leakage without any urge). These types of incontinence are treated differently but both can be treated with a combination of medicine, office procedures or surgical treatments. To find a urogynecologist in the Unit, you can go to the website of the American Urogynecologic Society and click on patient services.

 

About Julia Geynisman-Tan

Julia is a Female Pelvic Medicine and Reconstructive Surgeon in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Northwestern. During her residency at New York Presbyterian – Weill Cornell, she founded the Survivor Clinic of New York City, a dedicated clinic for women who had experienced sexual violence, including trafficking, female genital mutilation, and torture in war. Now in Chicago, Dr. Geynisman-Tan has founded the Northwestern ERASE Clinic for survivors of human trafficking and is an asylum evaluator for Physicians for Human Rights. She is currently a co-chair of the American Women’s Medical Association Physicians Against Trafficking of Humans Committee, on the board of the America Hospital Association’s Human Trafficking Consortium and serves on the Cook County Human Trafficking Task Force.