Researchers: Female Genital Mutilation ‘Prevalent’ in Southern Philippines

Aie Balagtas See
Researchers: Female Genital Mutilation ‘Prevalent’ in Southern Philippines Muslim women congregate in the southern Philippine city of Cotabato, November 2014.
Mark Navales/BenarNews

Female genital mutilation is being performed in the Philippines – particularly in the Bangsamoro region in the south – even as this type of circumcision is called unnecessary by the World Health Organization, research findings show.

Professor Aminoding Limpao of Mindanao State University, one of the lead researchers, said his group’s study did not establish when southern tribal leaders started the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), but it has been performed for years under the belief that women and girls need circumcision to be considered pure and clean.

“FGM is prevalent in Bangsamoro. Four in every five females who participated (in the study) underwent the process,” Limpao said Friday during an online presentation of research funded by the NGO CARE Philippines.

“They are practicing this even in the time of COVID,” Limpao said, referring to an autonomous Muslim region in the south.

The study, “Exploratory Action-Research on Female Genital Mutilation Practices in the Philippines,” was conducted from March until the beginning of this month and involved women of different ages in 15 municipalities in the provinces of Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur.

FGM is the partial or total removal of the female genitalia for non-medical reasons. The World Health Organization (WHO) considers the practice a public health concern because of its negative effects on women’s physical and mental health. The practice is performed in Africa, Asia, the United States and some parts of Europe.

“FGM is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. It reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women,” WHO said in fact sheet posted on its website earlier this year.

In the Philippines, the procedure is done in an “arbitrary” and “unhygienic” manner, Limpao’s team found.

“There was no uniform process. Depending on the province, depending on the tribe, you can just actually make your own practice,” Limpao said.

“Some use bamboo strips, blades, nail cutters, needles. Some use a small knife, some use cotton. Some use scraping, some use poking,” he said.

Rooted in religion

Limpao and co-researcher Shalom Tilliah Allian spoke with religious leaders and government officials to understand this tradition, which, they said, was not well documented or well researched.

The tradition is called “pag Islam” or “pag sunnat” and it is “deeply connected to the Islamic faith,” Allian said.

It usually is performed on girls before their first menstrual period and approval to do it almost always comes from mothers, grandmothers or aunts, Allian said.

Despite being rooted in religion, Muslim leaders have no united stand on the issue, Limpao said. 

“Some support it, some are against the practice. Some call it un-Islam,” he said.

What was certain, he said, was no verse in the Quran said women must go through this procedure.

Religious and government leaders in the southern region did not immediately respond to BenarNews requests for comment.

Aside from religious beliefs, the practice also stems from cultural traditions passed on to girls by their family matriarchs. 

Sometimes, there was no other reason for girls to do it other than older women in their families have done it. Sometimes, marriage plays a part because men in Bangsamoro expect their future wives to be circumcised, the study determined.

Limpao said the practice, which can result in unnecessary pain and trauma, must be “stopped and eradicated” because of the risks posed on one’s physical and mental health. It brings no benefit and violates women’s rights.

In addition, women and girls are exposed to infection, Limpao said.

“The process of scraping and pricking of the clitoris and labia causes bleeding to some. It is an abusive practice. The procedure puts the girls and women in a risky situation wherein there is the possibility of physical and psychological harm,” he said.

“Some run away while some were restrained for it to be performed. Some were crying, some were screaming,” he said noting not all suffered from these types of experiences.

Nathalie Verceles, director of the University of the Philippines Center for Women’s and Gender Studies, said the practice violated women’s health and sexual rights and must be eradicated for good. 

She said FGMs prevent women from having a pleasurable sex life and “subject women to unjust relations of power authority and control.”

Creating laws and promoting awareness will help stop the practice, Allian said, noting that residents in the town of Datu Saudi Ampatuan in Maguindanao had acted to end the tradition.

Meanwhile, Limpao blamed the lack of awareness for allowing the procedure to continue.

“Many people in the Bangsamoro communities are unaware of the harm of FGM to the well-being of the girls and women,” he said.

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