“It was just something to do…like getting your hair braided,” says Kayowe Mune, describing the mindset held by many communities about female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C).
Mune, now 42, is a content creator based in Toronto and was cut when she was six years old, as part of what’s known as vacation cutting, which often happens during the summer when school is out. Mune was born in Somalia and was living in Saudi Arabia with her parents at the time. While spending the summer at her grandmother’s house back in Somalia, Mune was taken to a hospital to be cut. Since her cousins were already going, her grandmother added Mune to the group, accompanied by her aunt.
“It wasn’t like the village lady…shrouded in scars came with a…razor,” says Mune. She explains that she was taken to a “really nice” hospital, where a lineup of other girls also sat waiting for their turn. While the hospital may have been welcoming, the procedure was done without anesthesia.
“I remember sitting outside waiting for [my] turn, and that part was pretty scary because you can hear them screaming,” Mune says. In the days that followed, all that Mune recalls is feeling dissociated from her body.
A tradition in many African cultures, FGM/C is viewed as a way to protect a girl’s chastity and ensure that she gets a good husband, explains Mune. Older generations often don’t see anything wrong with the practice and it’s frequently equated to male circumcision, which isn’t comparable at all, according to Giselle Portenier, co-chair of the End FGM Canada Network. Portenier, who is also a journalist, learned about the abuse of women’s human rights through her documentary work. She co-founded the End FGM Canada Network after realizing how big and under-reported an issue this is in Canada. Portenier explains that the equivalent of this kind of genital mutilation/cutting performed on males would consist of cutting off the head of their penis.
“There is no comparison,” she says.
Female genital mutilation/cutting is classified into four types, per the World Health Organization. Type I, also known as a clitoredectomy, involves the partial or total removal of the visible part of the clitoris and/or the prepuce/ clitoral hood, which is a fold of skin surrounding the clitoris. Type II, also known as an excision, is the partial or total removal of the visible part of the clitoris and the labia minora, the inner folds of the vulva, with or without the removal of the labia majora, the outer folds of the skin of the vulva. Type III, also known as infibulation, involves the narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the labia minora, or labia majora, sometimes through stitching, with or without removal of the clitoral prepuce/clitoral hood and glans. Type IV includes all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, such as pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area.
FGM/C is not something that affects only those in African countries. While there’s no official study detailing the prevalence of FGM/C in Canada, vacation cutting affects survivors living in Western countries, too. It is practiced and/or affects those living in 92 countries across every continent but Antarctica, and this number is only growing as more survivors are discovered.
Often, girls who are born in Canada are taken to their parents’ home country, usually in African nations such as Somalia or Egypt, to be cut and then brought back home to Canada. In other cases, such as Mune’s, girls immigrate to Canada with their families having already experienced FGM/C. This happens despite the fact that female genital mutilation has been identified as a form of aggravated assault in Canada’s Criminal Code since 1997, a move the Department of Justice says was made in keeping with Canada’s commitment to support the 1993 United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the 1995 Platform for Action of the Fourth World Conference on Women. These recognized that violence against women, including FGM/C, violates their human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Still, according to Portenier, there are over 100,000 survivors of FGM/C in Canada and thousands of girls at risk. This figure is based on End FGM Canada’s analysis of immigration from 29 FGM/C practicing countries in the Middle East and Africa as reported in the 2011 Canadian Census. Yet, “there [is little support] for them in Canada, largely because there is a culture of silence and silencing about this issue here,” says Portenier.
The silence is often due to a fear of causing offence around other people’s traditions. In May 2023, a daycare worker alleged that a two-year-old child’s genitals had been mutilated and alerted Quebec’s youth protection services, which reportedly replied that the case was too delicate for the agency to handle. (The child was later examined by a doctor, and the case has since been declared unfounded.) In response to This Magazine, Quebec’s Human Rights Commission refused to comment as this case involved a minor.
Canada is also the only Western country, besides New Zealand, lacking in official statistics on FGM/C, according to a 2020 report by Equality Now, a human rights association dedicated to the welfare of women and girls. “Efforts to get statistics and be [funded] by the Canadian government on statistical analyses have failed on several occasions,” says Portenier. While the government has attempted to calculate estimates, their most recent September 2023 report still states that “the results should not be interpreted as official estimates of FGM/C in Canada.”
Despite the failure of the federal government, last year Alberta was the first and only province to date to pass a bill strengthening existing laws that ban female genital mutilation in the province. The bill states that health professionals who practice or facilitate FGM/C in the province will be removed from practice if convicted. Additionally, those convicted in other jurisdictions will not be permitted to practice in Alberta.
When asked how things can be improved for survivors in Canada and those who are sent for vacation cutting, Women and Gender Equality Canada stated that they strongly condemn FGM/C and under the federal Gender- Based Violence Strategy they “provide funding to various community-based initiatives that address FGM/C nationally” and will “continue to work together with [their] provincial and territorial counterparts as well as with academics and service providers to ensure a multidisciplinary approach so that impacted women and girls have access to culturally safe services.”
While there are federal as well as provincial plans in place to address FGM/C, not a single prosecution has occurred since the 1997 criminalization of FGM/C in Canada. According to Global News, a leaked border services report in 2017 also showed that FGM/C practitioners were entering Canada to carry out the procedure. The lack of prosecutions in Canada come as a shock when in comparison, the U.S., the U.K., France, and Australia have all prosecuted cases of FGM/C.
Since FGM/C is generally performed without anesthesia, the first immediate side effect is the intense pain. Bleeding occurs and scar tissue forms over time in most cases of cutting. Depending on the type, menstruating and urinating can be difficult and cause pain, as can childbirth and intercourse. Female sexual pleasure is hardly taken into consideration, but this is also compromised.
Depression, PTSD, and anxiety are just a few of the psychological effects of FGM/C. Others include not being able to do things a child normally does, recalls Mune. “When you’re cut, they don’t want you to learn how to ride a bike because you can open up your stitches.” Sports were out of the question for girls, but Mune was able to rebel when she moved to Toronto and signed up for her school’s athletics program.
While immigrating to Canada helped Mune escape some of the cultural restrictions imposed on girls, she and many other survivors faced, and continue to face, a whole other set of challenges here.
“I would say white Canadian doctors are not educated, and a lot of them don’t care, especially the males,” says Mune, speaking about her experience with the Canadian health-care system. Mune has found compassionate care with doctors who are primarily women of colour, but other challenges persist. With staff shortages, difficulty in getting appointments, and medical professionals’ generally busy schedules, awareness and empathy have been hard to come by for Mune.
Over time Mune has gotten better at advocating for herself, but she wishes there was a way for doctors and gynecologists to know that they are seeing a survivor of FGM before they enter the examination room. “I think… it should be highlighted, like every [appointment] that this person is a survivor of genital mutilation…before [the healthcare provider] sees [the patient],” says Mune.
Organizations like End FGM Canada are working to create more awareness around the practice in Canada. Initiatives include educational modules designed for health-care professionals and child-protection workers. A special module for teachers is set to release in November 2023. They also created “Miss Klitty,” a campaign that promotes education about the clitoris. In the vast majority of cases of FGM/C, the clitoris is harmed. This is often due to the belief held by many practicing cultures that the clitoris is evil, explains Portenier. Thus, “Miss Klitty” was created as a way to demystify the clitoris and get people talking.
One option for those who have experienced FGM/C is reconstructive surgery. Dr. Angela Deane, an obstetrician/gynecologist at North York General Hospital and the University of Toronto, focuses on clitoral reconstruction. Deane sees up to five patients per month for consultations regarding potential treatments. She explains that in some types of cutting the clitoral glans is removed, which is the very visible tip on the vulva.
“What we can do is release more clitoral tissue from beneath all that and bring that forward to the outside. And having that new clitoral tissue on the outside is like a creation of a new gland,” says Deane. This new gland can then offer more sensation. Surgery can also include removal of a cyst or scar tissue, as well as defibulation. Depending on the impacts of FGM/C, an individualized care plan is recommended which can be non-surgical and include medications or therapy to address pain or scar tissue. Often, recommendations also include seeking mental health support, sex therapy, and physiotherapy.
Mune says one step forward is to make therapy or counselling free of cost for survivors. “It used to be hard for me… when I was younger to afford [therapy]… and I knew I needed it,” she says.
Mune also emphasizes the importance of education and a present father in a young girl’s life. Her parents were unaware of her being cut and they never would have supported it had they known. Even today, she knows Somalian families where daughters with present fathers have never heard of FGM/C, while other families send their daughters to be cut without the father’s knowledge. That’s not to say the women and other men of the families are deliberately trying to hurt their daughters, Mune underlines. “They’re not monsters…they’re doing this out of love…It’s just an old, very ancient procedure that needs to go away, and it just won’t go away.”
Anecdotal statements from Mune, other survivors and wider diaspora communities suggest that FGM/C is still a problem and while global efforts from the United Nations have been helpful, change has been slow due to its secretive nature. What sets Canada apart from other Western countries is the lack of statistics on FGM/C and its implications here.
In order to prevent vacation cutting in Canada, a first step would be to fund a project on obtaining proper statistics. Efforts at all levels of government also need to be placed on genuinely communicating with members of communities and working together to eradicate this practice from Canada rather than being afraid of offending people.
Providing coverage for reconstructive surgery under provincial health policies would also help. In Ontario, for example, coverage varies depending on a person’s needs, and clitoral reconstruction is not fully funded. Finally, law enforcement and the legal system also need to work on prosecuting cases of FGM/C, as done by most other Western countries. Canada’s culture of silence can no longer afford to continue to perpetuate this abuse.