Approximately 18% of women surveyed at clinics in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, have undergone some form of female genital mutilation (FGM), according to a medical study recently published by the British Medical Journal.
The results of the study, which surveyed 963 women between the ages of 18 and 75 at clinics over a nine-month period, have surprised human rights advocates.
“We knew women and girls were being cut in Saudi Arabia but not to such a large extent,” Suad Abu-Dayyeh, an expert on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region for nonprofit Equality Now, told Global Citizen.
The harmful practice, in many cultures, is perpetuated by the misguided belief that a girl or woman’s value is directly related to her virginity. In places and communities where FGM is prevalent, young girls are often forced to undergo FGM in order to control their bodies and sexuality, according to the UN.
Considered a form of gender-based violence, FGM is a purely cultural practice, though it is often mistaken for a religious one. However, no religion requires girls to undergo FGM.
Activists have been aware of FGM happening in Saudi Arabia, but precise numbers of those affected have been hard to come by, making it hard to gauge the size of the problem. Without better data, Abu-Dayyeh said it is challenging to develop effective approaches and interventions to stop the abuse.
So, while limited in its scope — the study surveyed women who came to clinics and was not able to gather a representative sample — the data is still a key step in the battle to end FGM in the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia’s restrictive male guardianship system also poses unique challenges to combating the practice. The system requires a woman to gain the permission of her male “guardian” — typically her father, husband, or son — in order to travel, open a bank account, or have surgery. These restrictions can make it difficult for a girl or woman to seek help when she is at risk of experiencing violence or undergoing FGM.
“People aren’t talking about FGM publicly and this culture of silence makes it extremely difficult for women and girls to speak out against being cut, nor do they have anywhere to turn for help,” Abu-Dayyeh said.
“Until women are given the right to control their own body, it is hard to envision how they would be able to take a stand against FGM,” she said, adding that eliminating the male guardianship system is key to eradicating FGM in Saudi Arabia.
More than 200 million girls and women living around the world today have undergone FGM, according to the World Health Organization. The practice is most prevalent in West Africa, East Africa, and the Middle East, but affects girls and women from the US and the UK to Indonesia and Australia.
The study found that, in addition to Saudi women, Egyptian, Somali, Yemeni, and Sudanese women living in the country had also undergone FGM. However, the Saudi women surveyed had often being subjected to FGM at a younger age than their peers.
“FGM is a human rights violation affecting both Saudi and immigrant women and girls but nothing is being done to tackle the problem and there are no support services available,” Abu-Dayyeh said.
“Regional governments need to recognize there is a problem and work to end it. This includes supporting in-depth research to verify the nature and extent of FGM and working in partnership with women’s rights organizations to end it and provide support to women and girls who are affected.”