Research in Brief
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting in Canada: Participatory Research towards Collective Healing
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This brief is based on the report entitled “Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting in Canada: Participatory Research towards Collective Healing”, written by Sophia Koukoui, prepared for Women and Gender Equality Canada (WAGE)Footnote 1.
Female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) is when the labia majora, labia minora, or clitoris of a girl or woman is excised, infibulated, or mutilated, in whole or in part, for non-medical reasons. FGM/C is driven by gender inequality and is a way to control girls’ and women’s sexuality. It has numerous immediate and long-term mental and physical health risks, sometimes causing death. The Government of Canada condemns FGM/C and other harmful practices that threaten the well-being of women and girls and violate their human rights. In 1997, Canada’s Criminal Code was amended to clarify that FGM/C is a form of aggravated assault, and that removing a child from Canada for the purposes of FGM/C is a criminal offence.
WAGE is working to prevent and address all forms of gender-based violence (GBV), including FGM/C. WAGE has funded community organizations to work on addressing FGM/C in Canada as well as academic researchers to study this issue. The purpose of this report is to gain insight on the perception of FGM/C by individuals originally from FGM/C-affected countries who live in Canada. By conducting interviews directly with members of some affected communities, this qualitative study sheds light on the reasons, perceptions, and risk factors associated with FGM/C and identifies individual and collective factors that could contribute to FGM/C eradication in Canada, as well as supports required by women and girls who have experienced FGM/C.
This report draws on qualitative data collected from a series of interviews. A convenience sample of 120 participants was recruited for this study. The eligibility criteria required participants to be 18 years or older, for their ethnic origin to be from a country where FGM/C is practised and to reside in the province of Québec or Ontario. Each person was given a choice between participating in an individual interview (approximately 1.5 hours in duration) or a group interview of twelve people (for approximately three hours). The majority of participants (116 individuals) opted for group interviews.
A total of 75 women and 45 men participated in this study. The age range was 18-70 years old (with a mean of 37 years of age). The study was carried out among individuals who identify as Africans or of African descent, from 18 different countries. Most participants were born in the African continent (81%), while 9% were born in Europe, and 10% in North America (9% in Canada and 1% in the United States of America). The average length of residence in Canada for those born abroad was 6.5 years, with a range of three months to 27 years. Informed consent was obtained from all participants before data collection. All interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed verbatim by two trained data interviewers.
The ethics board clearance for this research project was approved by the Research Review Office of the Montréal Jewish General Hospital. The project was conducted in partnership with two well-established African associations: the African League of Canada, based in Ottawa, Ontario, and l’Association Africaine de l’Université de Montréal in Montréal, Québec.
Voices from the report
“There are also people who want to practice it [FGM/C] here in Canada. It’s something we don’t talk about, but that’s the reality (…) one woman told me ‘you know, her husband sent the daughters to Africa. They were circumcised.’ We don’t talk about it, but a lot of girls here aren’t protected.”
- Woman, 37, from Cameroon
“Patriarchy has imposed this situation which ended up becoming tradition. It’s men’s power that caused this situation.”
- Man, 57, from Benin
“In our country, woman is the mother of the land. She’s the one who unites everyone. So, if you want to kill the country, you kill a woman. You remove all her genital area and that’s how you take the country’s power (…)”
- Woman, 24, from Democratic Republic of Congo
The results of this report show there are various socio-cultural, economic, and religious factors motivating or deterring the practice of FGM/C. For example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo– the number one source country for study participants – FGM/C is used as a weapon of war. Other motivating factors include concerns about purity, honour, sexuality, family/social cohesion, and cultural identity. In contrast, reasons for opposing the practice included pain endured, violations of human rights, and concerns about women’s health, safety, and sexual pleasure. Notably, all but one participant disapproved of the practice.
While this study finds that some women who had themselves been cut are now opposed to having it happen to their daughters, there are still girls at risk of FGM/C in Canada, particularly during “vacation cutting” in their country of origin, as indicated by several participants’ testimonies. Among participants, 73% thought there was a certain risk of “vacation cutting” for young girls. Even if the parents opposed the practice, there is a risk that upon a girl’s return to her country of origin, relatives or neighbours might include her during a cutting ceremony without her parents’ consent. Cutters may visit the village during specific ceremonial times and therefore will cut all the girls of a certain age at the same time.
The report highlights the following key considerations stemming directly from the results of the research:
- Support for community-based initiatives to raise awareness and prevent FGM/C;
- All levels of government, non-profits, and academic must consider community concerns about discrimination and racism when developing policy, programs, and research;
- Provide psychotherapy for women who have experienced FGM/C;
- Develop a pan-Canadian FGM/C training program;
- The creation of an FGM/C hotline and an FGM/C informative pamphlet.
Policy and program implications
This study emphasizes the need for additional research and interventions to address FGM/C in Canada. Its results point to specific needs for women and girls who have experienced FGM/C. These include specialized health and psychosocial care, underpinned by culturally sensitive policies and programs to prevent the continuance of FGM/C in Canada. To be effective, these intervention approaches require collaboration and coordination from a range of stakeholders, including government officials, healthcare professionals, school personnel, educators, community workers, and religious leaders.
There is a growing body of research pointing to the need for culturally adapted therapeutic modalities, particularly with trauma survivors. Initiatives such as the Loba Association for women from Democratic Republic of the Congo who survived FGM/C as a weapon of war or the drum and dance Talking Circles for survivors of the Rwanda genocide have shown positive therapeutic results. The Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada or SOGC started offering a clinical practice guideline on FGM/C in 2020. The participants expressed a wish to be involved in FGM/C awareness raising and prevention and education initiatives.
Support from governments is needed for community-based initiatives aimed at awareness-raising and prevention on FGM/C, as well as for women and girls affected by FGM/C, and for coordination among these initiatives. Community organizations and agencies that serve African communities (particularly women and girls who have experienced FGM/C) would benefit from funding that would respond to their needs and provide continued support.
The study recommends that materials for awareness campaigns and engagement with survivors use culturally sensitive contexts and terminologies. Survivors must also be consulted on the development of these products. Echoing the results of other studies, this report finds that women and girls who have experienced FGM/C expressed concerns about racism and discrimination as a result of their FGM/C status. These concerns should be addressed in the design and delivery of policies and programs, action plans, and research.
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