Trauma and Female Genital Cutting, Part 5: The “C” Word… and I Don’t Mean Circumcision

Since the ritual of Female Genital Cutting (FGC)  involves the clitoris, it seems important to learn more about this organ and its function. But first a bit of history, or—more appropriately—herstory.

In over 5 million years of human evolution, only one organ exists for the sole purpose of providing pleasure — the clitoris. Yet, from ancient times to the present, the anatomy of the clitoris has been discovered, repressed, and rediscovered. Hippocrates, the Greek physician, born circa 460 B.C., called the clitoris “columella”: the little pillar. About 500 years later, Galen, an anatomist renowned in Rome, denied its existence. Centuries later, the 1901 edition of Gray’s Anatomy included a drawing of the female pelvis in cross-section, showing a small protrusion with the label “clitoris” (Gray, 1901). In the 1948 edition of Gray’s Anatomy, there is an analogous illustration of female genital anatomy (Goss, 1948). Yet, the label of the clitoris is now gone. The clitoral protrusion of the older illustration is also removed. As a result, the clitoris has now been erased (Moore & Clarke, 1995).

Just The Tip of The Clitoris

In reality, what we generally think of as the clitoris—what we can see and feel—is just the pea size tip of the clitoris, called the “glans”. The glans, located at the top of a woman’s vulva, at the point where the labia majora meet (near the pubic bone), contains approximately 8000 sensory nerve fibers—more than anywhere else in the human body. In fact, the amount of sensory nerve fibers in the glans is twice the amount found on the head of a penis.

More Than Meets The Eye

Many people assume that all there is to the clitoris is the glans, but with the clitoris, what you see is not what you get. Helen O’Connell, an Australian urologist, and her colleagues have corrected that misconception (O’Connell, Sanjeevan, and Hutson, 2005). Using modern imaging techniques such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), O’Connell has shown that there is much more to the clitoris than what meets the eye. They discovered that the glans of the clitoris is simply the tip of an extensive organ.

In fact, three-quarters of the clitoris is inside the body. As shown below, the clitoris is a wishbone-shaped structure that is about 3 ½ in. (9 cm) in length and 2 ½ in. (6 cm) in width. The glans extends backward into the clitoral body. The glans then split into the two leg-like parts, the crura, which are composed of erectile tissue and are next to the vagina and urethra (see MRI photo below of internal clitoris). The vestibular bulbs are two elongated masses of erectile tissue situated on either side of the vaginal opening.

The Clitoris and Its Place within the Vulva

The vulva is a single term used to describe all the external female genital organs. These organs include the labia majora, the labia minora, the clitoris, the vestibule of the vagina, the bulb of the vestibule, and the glands of Bartholin. The two sets of labia (lips) form an oval shape around the vagina. The labia minora are smaller and surround the vagina. The labia majora are larger, and, after puberty, the outer part of the labia majora is covered with pubic hair.

Since there are large portions of the clitoris extending through the pubic area, sexual responsiveness is not limited to direct or indirect stimulation of the clitoral glans (Wallen and Lloyd, 2011). Due to this extended internal structure, the clitoris can respond to stimulation of the external vaginal labia, the vagina itself, and the anus. As a woman draws closer to orgasm, the clitoris can swell by 50 percent to 300 percent. According to O’Connell, “The vaginal wall is, in fact, the clitoris.” If you lift the skin of the side walls of the vagina you will find the bulbs of the clitoris (O’Connell 2008). O’Connell proposed the notion that during vaginal intercourse it is the “clitoral complex” that is stimulated.

Clitoral anatomy and FGC: Removing the glans of the clitoris does not mean the whole organ is destroyed.

The issue of clitoral anatomy is also significant concerning the practice of clitorectomy. Type 1 FGC: Often referred to as clitoridectomy, is the partial or total removal of the clitoris (a small, sensitive and erectile part of the female genitals), and in some cases, only the prepuce or hood (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoris). The clitoral hood varies in size, shape, thickness, and other aspects of its appearance from woman to woman. Some women have large clitoral hoods which appear to cover the clitoral glans. Others have much smaller hoods which leave the clitoral glans exposed. While the biological function of the clitoral hood is simply to protect the clitoral glans from friction and other external forces, this body part is also an erogenous zone. It provides natural lubrication, which makes stimulation of the clitoral area more pleasurable. As the clitoral glans itself is often too sensitive to touch, many women gain pleasure from having the glans indirectly stimulated through the clitoral hood. 

Although female sexual pleasure is often hindered by clitoridectomy, many women report that they are still able to enjoy sex (Lightfoot-Klein, 1989, Kelly and Hillard, 2005). One researcher has found that even infibulated women may still have the ability to achieve orgasm. Dr. Lucrezia Catania, who has studied and treated FGC-affected women in Italy for two decades, has found that when some of the sensitive tissue of the labia minora and clitoris remain intact, infibulated women can experience orgasm, while others cannot and instead feel pain.

Pelvic Nerve

The clitoris has enormous potential for arousal, but what may affect sensitivity is the supply of nerve endings and the individual pattern of each clitoris, which explains the variation in women’s preference for stimulation. The pelvic nerve branches in individual ways for every woman. The pathway distribution is quite different and far more diffuse from male sexual wiring, which is much more uniform.

Some women’s nerves branch more in the vagina while other women’s branch more in the clitoris, or in the perineum (the skin between the anus and vagina) or in the mouth of the cervix. No two women—not even identical twins—have the same pattern and distribution of nerves. This complex system of nerve endings extends into the pelvis and is in fact far larger on the inside than it is on the outside. When stimulated, the erect clitoris tightens around the vagina. This means that “vaginal orgasms” are actually caused by the clitoris, not nerves on the vaginal walls themselves. Whether brought on by penetration or external stimulation, all orgasms are clitoral. 

Not only can the anatomical facts of the clitoris help alter cultural biases and mythologies, but correct knowledge of clitoral anatomy may help enhance a woman’s appreciation and experience of her body.

The information for this article was sourced from:

  • Blechner, Mark, J., “The Clitoris: Anatomical and Psychological Issues.” Studies in Gender and Sexuality, 18:3 (2017): 190-200.

  • Wolf, Naomi. Vagina A new Biography. New York: Harper Collins, 2012

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clitoris

The images included were researched from internet sources.

This is part five of a seven part series. Check back for Trauma and Female Genital Cutting, Part 6.

Trauma and Female Genital Cutting, Part 4: Psycho-sexual functioning

When discussing psychosexual functioning following FGC, it is critical to acknowledge and recognize that many women who have undergone FGC will not experience sexual health problems. It is also important to note that many women with intact genitals do experience sexual difficulties. Female sexuality is a complex integration of biological, physiological, psychological, sociocultural and interpersonal factors that contribute to a combined experience of physical, emotional and relational satisfaction.

Nevertheless, symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can interfere across the continuum of sexual behavior affecting desire, arousal, physical and/or psychological pleasure. The amygdala is the organ in the brain that alerts us to possible danger and responds to the danger by triggering the fear response along with the release of the stress hormones.  A state of negative hyperarousal persists for those who have been re-triggered by some person, place or memory associated to the original trauma while suffering from PTSD (see The Body and The Brain). 

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For some women affected by Female Genital Cutting (FGC), re-traumatizing triggers can be their initial (and ongoing) sexual experiences. Not only can the physical position (identical to that required for FGC) induce a flashback, but the already traumatized genital area can feel repeatedly violated with sexual activity, gynecological exams—or childbirth itself. [Note. in Sahiyo’s Exploratory Student on FGC in the Bohra community, 108 women reported that their FGC (khatna) had adversely affected their sex life – See Graph below] 

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When these flashbacks occur the brain’s fear circuitry takes over and the hippocampus can no longer communicate effectively with the amygdala to allay its fears. This condition often leaves those affected feeling emotionally charged with generalized fear(s) that persist even after the traumatic event has passed. (See also ‘The Clitoral Hood – A Contested Site’) 

There are 3 primary psycho-sexual complications commonly associated with FGC:

  • painful intercourse (may be due to narrowing of vaginal canal; or excessive scarring, or clitoral neuromas, or infibulation or chronic infection);

  • difficulties reaching orgasm;

  • and, absence or reduction of sexual desire.

Sexual difficulties can occur because for FGC survivors, positive sexual arousal mimics the physiological experience of fear. Once these hormonal and neuroanatomical associations have been forged through the intense experience of trauma and the associated PTSD symptoms, it can be difficult to uncouple them. 

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In these instances, arousal frequently signals impending threat rather than pleasure. Thus, the biology of PTSD primes an individual to associate arousal with trauma and this impairs the ability to contain the fear response—which in turn impedes sexual functioning and intimacy.

Due to repeated pain during sexual activity, women may develop anxiety responses to sex that restrict arousal and increase frustration—all of which can contribute to vaginal dryness, muscular spasm, painful intercourse and/or orgasmic failure. Women may actively avoid sexual activity to minimize feelings of physical arousal or vulnerability that could trigger flashbacks or intrusive memories. Others have reported that merely the fear of potential pain during intercourse and the frustration around delayed sexual arousal contributes to the lack of sexual desire. Recurring pain triggers memories adversely affected by the cutting. Chronic pain and distasteful memories reinforce each other and create a situation of mutual maintenance.

Emotional and/or physical pain during intercourse diminishes the enjoyment of both the woman and her partner. Complications such as these can contribute to feelings of worthlessness, inhibit social functioning and increase isolation. In fact, many women have expressed feelings of shame over being different and ‘less than’. Some may experience their circumcised genitals, now deemed ‘different’, as shaming. Others may feel responsible for the relationship distress that results and carry a burden of guilt for being unavailable to “provide” sex. They may perceive their anxiety and difficulty about permitting penetration as something they must overcome.

The psychological issues for younger women who have undergone FGC and are living in Westernized societies may be especially complex. These women (and their partners) are subjected to different discourses of sexuality that centralize erotic pleasure and frame orgasm as the endpoint of sex for women and men. Some women may struggle with what are deemed irretrievable losses. Feelings of aversion may extend beyond sex to physical closeness or even intimate relationships in general. In other situations, a woman may feel inferior to other women or less entitled to positive relationships, so that she may engage in an unsatisfactory or even damaging relationship which could further diminish her self-esteem. Another underlying belief behind FGC is that women’s genitals are impure, dirty or ugly if uncut. As a result of this perception, the female body is viewed as flawed—forcing women to modify their physical appearance to fit standards far removed from health, well-being and gender-equality objectives.

Unfortunately, the very nature of this subject often doesn’t allow for much insight, since FGC has always been shrouded in secrecy. Women may be reluctant to disclose because of the fear of being judged, since FGM/C is perceived by outsiders to be illegal, and abnormal. The belief that sexual matters are to be kept private also makes FGC-affected women inclined to keep quiet about their symptoms and suffer in silence or attribute their pain to other sources. However, healing from the trauma through talk therapy as well as open discussions about strategies for obtaining sexual pleasure after FGC can be critical for women to regain control of their sexual identity.

This is part four of a seven part series. For more information about the Psychosexual Consequences affecting the Clitoris, check out Trauma and Female Genital Cutting, Part 5: The “C” Word.

Trauma and Female Genital Cutting, Part 2: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-Traumatic Stress is the name given to a set of symptoms that persist following a traumatic incident and may be especially severe or long when the stressor has been of human design, such as in a violent personal/sexual assault (as in rape, torture, or Female Genital Cutting). These symptoms, which recreate the physical reliving of the trauma, can affect the way we think, feel and behave and, if experienced frequently, the condition that develops is called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

PTSD is a complex psycho-biological condition that develops differently from person to person because everyone’s nervous system and tolerance for stress is a little different. While you’re most likely to develop symptoms in the hours or days following a traumatic event, it can sometimes take weeks, months, or even years before they appear.

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The specific symptoms of PTSD can vary widely between individuals, but generally fall into the categories described below.

Re-experiencing

Re-experiencing is the most typical symptom of PTSD and occurs when a person involuntarily and vividly re-lives the traumatic event in the form of a flashback.

Flashbacks appear as memories or fragments of memories from recent or past events and can leave you feeling fearful, confused and distressed. Jarring and disruptive, they can last a few brief seconds or involve extensive memory recall.

Below are the categories and some examples of flashbacks:

  • Visual Memories: various related images
  • Auditory Memories: sounds of breathing, doors shutting, footsteps.
  • Emotional Memories: feelings of distress, hopelessness, rage, terror or a complete lack of feelings (numbness).
  • Body Memories: physical sensations like genital pain, nausea, gagging sensation, difficulty swallowing, feeling of being held down.
  • Sensory Memories: of certain odors (e.g. perfume, body odor, alcohol) or tastes (e.g. sweat, blood).

For some women affected by Female Genital Cutting (FGC), re-traumatizing triggers can be their initial (and ongoing) sexual experiences. Not only can the physical position (identical to that required for FGC) induce a flashback, but the already traumatized genital area can feel repeatedly violated with sexual activity, gynaecological exams or childbirth itself.

Flashbacks can be accompanied by the same physiological reactions experienced at the time of the trauma, such as dizziness, rapid heartbeat, or sweating. In response to these distressing memories people can develop breathing difficulties, experience disorientation, muscle tension, pounding heart, shaking.

Hyperarousal

Trauma is stress run amuck. It dis-regulates our nervous systems and distorts our social awareness—displacing social engagement with defensive reactions. This state of mind is known as hyperarousal and often leads to:

  • Irritability; angry outbursts
  • sleeping problems; nightmares
  • difficulty concentrating

In severe cases, many have trouble working or socializing and may engage in reckless behaviors (driving too fast; being argumentative or provocative). Others with PTSD may feel chronically anxious and find it difficult to relax or concentrate. Also, problematic for many is difficulty falling or staying asleep or suffering from nightmares; feeling always anxious and on edge (referred to as hypervigilant) –they may easily be startled.

Feeling afraid is a common symptom of PTSD and having intense fear that comes on suddenly could mean you are having a panic attack. It can happen when something reminds you of your trauma, and may trigger fearing for your life or losing control.

Although anxiety is often accompanied by physical symptoms, such as a racing heart or knots in your stomach, what differentiates a panic attack from other anxiety symptoms is the intensity and duration of the symptoms. Panic attacks typically reach their peak level of intensity in 10 minutes or less and then begin to subside. 

 

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Negative emotional states

Some FGC-affected women may feel betrayed and develop problematic relationships with their mother, or female authority figures, and suffer from low self-esteem and concerns about body image. In addition, traumatized girls and women may develop persistent negative emotional states (e.g. fear, horror, anger, guilt, or shame) and engage in distorted thinking such as “I am bad,” “No one can be trusted,” “The world is completely dangerous place.”

In Sahiyo’s online survey of Dawoodi Bohra women, conducted in 2015-16, 48% of the women who had undergone FGC reported that the experience of FGC (khatna) left an emotional impact on their adult life. This impact included feelings of being haunted/traumatized by the memory of being cut, feeling betrayed and violated by the family, feelings of distrust towards them, as well as anger and fear.  

Avoidance and emotional numbing

Trying to avoid being reminded of the traumatic event is another key symptom of PTSD.

Individuals may try to block out the anxiety or fear associated with the distressing emotional feelings, by avoiding places, people and situations reminding them of the original traumatic experience. For example, the possibility of seeing the “cutter” in a social gathering may be very distressing and re trigger re-traumatization. (See A Pinch of Skin documentary by Priya Goswami).  

Some people attempt to deal with their feelings by trying not to feel anything at all. This is known as emotional numbing. 

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Many people with PTSD try to push memories of the event out of their mind, often distracting themselves with work or hobbies. Others may engage in self-destructive behaviors (drug or alcohol abuse; eating disorders) in order to distract or numb themselves to feelings that are too painful to tolerate. Those feeling detached and numb often have trouble showing or accepting affection and, becoming isolated and withdrawn, may lose interest in people or activities they used to enjoy.

Dissociation is a mental process that causes a lack of connection in a person’s thoughts, memory and sense of identity. It is a normal reaction to trauma and can help cut off the pain, horror and terror for a person experiencing mortal danger; an attempt to be “outside” the events (outside of oneself; besides oneself) happening rather than “inside” the fearful experience. Any of us—at any age— if confronted with a life-threatening event might dissociate and out-of-body experiences, experienced during war or life-threatening disasters and medical surgeries, are well documented. The advantages of dissociating under unbearable conditions are easy to understand, but dissociative reactions can occur whereby the individual feels or acts as if the traumatic event were recurring and may confuse ordinary stress with life threatening circumstances.

PTSD can occur with or without dissociative symptoms. And, although it can occur at any age, including childhood, not every traumatized person gets full-blown PTSD, or experiences PTSD at all. PTSD is diagnosed only if the symptoms last more than a month. In those who do have PTSD, symptoms usually begin within 3 months of the trauma, and the course of the illness varies. Some people recover within 6 months, others have symptoms that last much longer. In some cases, the condition may be chronic. Sometimes, memories of the traumatic event and any accompanying PTSD symptoms don’t appear until years after the actual experience.

PTSD in children

PTSD can affect children as well as adults. It can also result from surgery performed on children too young to fully understand what’s happening to them.

Children with PTSD can have similar symptoms to adults, such as having trouble sleeping and upsetting nightmares.

Like adults, children with PTSD may also lose interest in activities they used to enjoy and may have physical symptoms such as headaches and stomach aches.

However, there are some symptoms that are more specific to children with PTSD, such as:

  • bedwetting
  • being unusually anxious about being separated from a parent or other adult
  • re-enacting the traumatic event(s) through their play

This is part two of a seven part series. For more information about how the brain and body process trauma, check out Trauma and Female Genital Cutting, Part 3 — Trauma: the Body and the Brain.

Trauma and Female Genital Cutting, Part 3: The Body and the Brain

Trauma overwhelms us and disrupts our normal functioning, impacting both the brain and body, both of which interact with one another to regulate our biological states of arousal. When traumatized, we lose access to our social communication skills and displace our ability to relate/connect/interact with three basic defensive reactions: namely, we react by fighting, fleeing, or freezing (this numbing response happens when death feels imminent or escape seems impossible).   

In order to understand and appreciate our survival responses, it’s important to have a basic understanding of how our brain functions during a traumatic experience, such as undergoing Female Genital Cutting or FGC.

Our brains are structured into three main parts:

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The human brain, which focused on survival in its primitive stages, has evolved over the millennia to develop three main parts, which all continue to function today. The earliest brain to develop was the reptilian brain, responsible for survival instincts. This was followed by the mammalian brain (Limbic system), with instincts for feelings and memory. The Cortex, the thinking part of our brain, was the final addition.

The Reptilian brain:

The reptilian brain, which includes the brain stem, is concerned with physical survival and maintenance of the body. It controls our movement and automatic functions, breathing, heart rate, circulation, hunger, reproduction and social dominance— “Will it eat me or can I eat it?” In addition to real threats, stress can also result from the fact that this ancient brain cannot differentiate between reality and imagination. Reactions of the reptilian brain are largely unconscious, automatic, and highly resistant to change.  Can you remember waking up from a nightmare, sweating and fearful—this is an example of the body reacting to an imagined threat as if it were a real one.

The Limbic System:

Also referred to as the mammalian brain, this is the second brain that evolved and is the center for emotional responsiveness, memory formation and integration, and the mechanisms to keep ourselves safe (flight, fight or freeze). It is also involved with controlling hormones and temperature. Like the reptilian brain, it operates primarily on a subconscious level and without a sense of time.

The basic structures of Limbicsystem include:  thalamus, amygdala, hippocampus and hypothalamus 

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The Neocortex:

The neocortex is that part of the cerebral cortex that is the modern, most newly (“neo”) evolved part. It enables executive decision-making, thinking, planning, speech and writing and is responsible for voluntary movement.

But…

Almost all of the brain’s work activity is conducted at the unconscious level, completely without our knowledge. While we like to think that we are thinking, functioning people, making logical choices, in fact our neocortex is only responsible for 5-15 % of our choices.  When the processing is done and there is a decision to make or a physical act to perform, that very small job is executed by the conscious mind.

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How the brain responds to Trauma

The fight or flight response system — also known as the acute stress response — is an automatic reaction to something frightening, either physically or mentally. 

This response is facilitated by the two branches of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) called the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) which work in harmony with each other, connecting the brain with various organs and muscle groups, in order to coordinate the response.

Following the perception of threat, received from the thalamus, the amygdala immediately responds to the signal of danger and the sympathetic nervous system  (SNS) is activated by the release of stress hormones that prepare the body to fight or escape.

It is the SNS which tells the heart to beat faster, the muscles to tense, the eyes to dilate and the mucous membranes to dry up—all so you can fight harder, run faster, see better and breathe easier under stressful circumstances.  As we prepare to fight for our lives, depending on our nature and the situation we are in, we may have an overwhelming need to “get out of here” or become very angry and aggressive (See ‘I underwent female genital cutting in a hospital in Rajasthan’ on Sahiyo’s blog). Usually, the effects of these hormones wear off only minutes after the threat is withdrawn or successfully dealt with.

However, when we’re terrified and feel like there is no chance for our survival or escape, the “freeze” response, activated via the parasympathetic nervous system, can occur. The same  hormones or naturally occurring pain killers that the body produces to help it relax (endorphins are the ‘feel good’ hormones) are also released into the bloodstream, in enormous amounts, when the freeze response is triggered. This can happen to people in car accidents, to sexual assault survivors and to people who are robbed at gunpoint. Sometimes these individuals pass out, or mentally remove themselves from their bodies and don’t feel the pain of the attack, and sometimes have no conscious or explicit memory of the incident afterwards. Many survivors of female genital cutting have reported fainting after being cut. Other survivors have reported blocking out their experiences of being cut (See ‘I don’t remember my khatna. But it feels like a violation’). Our bodies can also hold on to these past traumas which may be reflected not only in our body language and posture but can be the source of vague somatic complaints (headaches, back pain, abdominal discomfort, etc.) that have no organic source. FGC survivors who were cut at very young ages can be plagued with ambiguous symptoms such as these.

Neuroscientists have identified two different types of memory: explicit and implicit. The hippocampus, the seat of explicit memory, is not developed until 18 months. However, the implicit memory system, involving limbic processes, is available from birth. Many of our emotional memories are laid down before we have words or explicit recall, yet they influence our lives without our awareness. Although a traumatized person may not explicitly remember the traumatic event(s), the memory is held in the body: ‘‘What the mind forgets, the body remembers in the form of fear, pain, or physical illness’’ (Cozolino, 2006, p. 131; Van der Kolk, 1994).

The brain and PTSD

For those affected by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder — especially those who had no chance to fight back successfully or escape — the body and the brain have been blocked from responding normally and the trauma does not end.

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk (2001), a major clinician and researcher in the field of trauma notes that individuals with PTSD ‘‘are very sensitively tuned to pick up threat and respond to minor stimuli as if their life were in danger”.

What Dr Bessel is referring to is the fact that for those with PTSD, the trauma has not been able to come to a conclusion and remains unfinished. When stressors are present or familiar triggers (such as a person, place, or scent) are activated, the person can feel threatened and those fight-or-flight reactions stay turned-on, prompting the amygdala to be in a state of perpetual overactivation — in effect, hijacking the thinking process. Some FGC survivors in the Bohra community have experienced versions of such responses. For example, one young woman interviewed in the documentary A Pinch of Skin mentioned that her traumatic memories of being cut are triggered when she sees her cutter in the neighbourhood, and she ‘never wants to see that lady again’.  

When the amygdala is overactive and in control it registers only emotional and sensory information so that when the hippocampus tries to record the event sequentially it is compromised by these hormonal releases and only fragmented flashes of memory and emotional distress are remembered. This, too, is common in the way many FGC survivors remember their experience of being cut.

Why this happens

Trauma impairs the integrative functioning in the brain and neural networks get stuck in paths related to processing and encoding fear. The limbic system stores our emotional memories and replicates the response we had to the earliest time we experienced a similar situation: if we are in a state of distress we will revisit a memory of distress and that will cause more somatic sensations of distress.

PTSD reflects a condition in which the body’s natural mechanisms for recovery have failed, resulting in a prolonged state of negative stress arousal—causing increased heart rate and blood pressure, restricted flow of blood to the genitals and digestive systems—in effect making it hard to process information, eat, sleep, salivate or be sexually aroused.

This is part three of a seven part series. Check out Trauma and Female Genital Cutting, Part 4: Psychosexual Consequences of this practice.

Trauma and Female Genital Cutting, Part 1: What is trauma?

A traumatic event is defined as direct or indirect exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violence.


The incident may be something that threatens the person’s life or safety, or the life of someone close to the victim. Traumatic incidents can include kidnapping, serious accidents such as car or train wrecks, natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes, or violent attacks such as rape, sexual or physical abuse, or FGC. As defined—although culturally sanctioned— FGC is a traumatic event.

 Study conducted by  Sahiyo

Study conducted by Sahiyo

Although for some the consequences can be minimal, most of the evidence suggests that FGC is extremely traumatic and the physical or medical complications associated with FGC may remain acute or chronic. Early, life-threatening risks include hemorrhage, shock secondary to blood loss or pain, local infection and failure to heal, septicemia, tetanus, trauma to adjacent structures, and urinary retention. One of the more frequent longer-term medical consequences include adhesions or scarring, which can contribute to lingering pain and impede sexual functioning.

 It has been reported that the psychological trauma that women experience through FGM often stays with them for the rest of their lives

(Equality Now and City University London, 2014, p.8).

The focus of FGC has long been regarded from a physical and medical perspective but it is equally important to consider the psychological and emotional implications of this practice.

 Study conducted by  Sahiyo

Study conducted by Sahiyo

Usually the girl, unprepared for what is about to happen, is taken by surprise and cannot prevent what is about to occur. Those that can remember the ‘day they were cut’ often report having initially felt intense fear, confusion, helplessness, pain, horror, terror, humiliation and betrayal. Many have suffered a multi-phase trauma; the first being forced down and cut and then second is seeing or hearing another family member endure the procedure. Even anticipating the procedure, oneself can be terrifying. Also of significance is the community and family reaction to the painful reactions experienced by these young women. Often girls can be chided for crying and not being brave while undergoing the cutting. This dismissive, non-nurturing reaction can potentially lead to another facet of the multi-phase trauma.

Some proponents of FGC actually consider that the shock and trauma of the surgery may contribute to the behavior described as calmer and docile—considered to be positive feminine traits.

FGC is a traumatic event that can profoundly rupture an individual’s sense of self, safety, ability to trust and feel connected to others—aspects of life considered fundamental to well-being. Such genital violence can interrupt the process of developing positive self-esteem. And, when children are violated their boundaries are ruptured leading to feelings of powerlessness and loss of control. Children who have experienced trauma often have difficulty identifying, expressing and managing emotions, and may have limited language for describing their feelings and as a result they may experience significant depression, anxiety or anger.

Over time, if the distress can be communicated to people who care about the traumatized individual and these caretakers respond adequately, most people can recover from the traumatic event. But, some FGC affected girls and women experience severe distress for months or even years later.

The symptoms of trauma:

Outlined below are some of the consequences that may occur following a traumatic event. Sometimes these responses can be delayed, for months or even years after the event. Often, people do not even initially associate their symptoms with the precipitating trauma.

Physical

  • Eating disturbances (more or less than usual) 
  • Sleep disturbances (more or less than usual) 
  • Sexual dysfunction 
  • Low energy 
  • Chronic, unexplained pain


Emotional/behavioral

  • Depression, spontaneous crying, despair and hopelessness
  • Anxiety; feeling out of control
  • Panic attacks
  • Fearfulness
  • Feelings of ineffectiveness, shame, despair, hopelessness
  • Irritability, angry and resentment
  • Emotional numbness
  • Withdrawal from normal routine and relationships
  • Feeling frequently threatened
  • Feeling damaged
  • Self-destructive and impulsive behaviors
  • Sexual problems
     

Cognitive

  •  Memory lapses, especially about the trauma
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Loss of previously sustained beliefs
  • Decreased ability to concentrate
  • Feeling distracted

Over time, even without professional treatment, traumatic symptoms generally subside, and normal daily functioning gradually returns. However, even after time has passed, sometimes the symptoms don't go away. Or they may appear to be gone, but surface again in another stressful situation. When a person's daily life functioning or life choices continue to be affected, a post-traumatic stress disorder may be the problem, requiring professional assistance.

This is part once of a seven part series. To learn more about PTSD, check out Trauma and Female Genital Cutting Part 2--Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Introducing forma’s featured artist

 Copyright Chiara Ceolin

Copyright Chiara Ceolin

A former educator and crisis psychologist, I found in photography my way to keep working on social issues giving louder voice to those who don't have one. Photography allows me to get close to people, to listen to them and to tell their story. Listening, sharing and building relations occupy a large part of my work. I hold a master in photojournalism (University of Westminster) and live in London.

FGC is

FGC is a highly personal and sensitive issue, and there may be reluctance among many of you to disclose information due to feelings of shame or fears of being judged as different. Although some report feelings of happiness and pride in having undergone FGC, most of our research suggests that this is an extremely traumatic event with harmful consequences. Some of you may suffer from multi-phase trauma, low self-esteem and negative self-image. Having heard a number of affected women share that they feel ‘ruined,’ our vision is to provide a resource for healing so that—although you may feel different—you need not feel ‘less than’.

The practice of female genital cutting has been followed by many different cultures and societies across the ages and continents. It is an ancient tradition, predating Christianity and Islam, involving the removal of parts or all of the external female genitalia. Although this custom is practiced in many African countries it has also been reported in Indonesia, Malaysia, parts of the Persian Gulf, and among ethnic minorities in Yemen, Oman, Iran, Iraq, Kurdistan, and Central and South America. It is also reported amongst Bedouin women in Israel and practiced by Ethiopian Jews, Coptic Christians and among Bohra Muslim populations in parts of India and Pakistan.