Ending FGM is only possible through culture change.

The practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is an abuse of human rights, but to end it we must work with communities, and change cultures, you can’t impose it from above, says Sampurna Sarkar.

Culture lays down the invisible laws of the acceptable and the unacceptable. Culture’s contribution in shaping and nurturing ideologies and practices related to the most significant and insignificant aspects of one’s life is immense; from birth to death, marriage to divorce, appreciation of food to fashion, cultures all around the world help communities to build a sense of pride, belongingness, fulfillment and contentment. But what happens when a cultural practice stands in opposition to the preservation of human rights and the dignity of individuals? 

FGM is the ritual cutting of female genitalia. The cutting includes the removal of a minor part or all of the external female genitalia and is usually performed by traditional female practitioners. The practice is still prevalent in 28 African countries and among some groups in Asia, and the Middle East. Migration has also led to the proliferation of such practices in countries like the UK, US, New Zealand and Canada, despite their  high socio-economic indicators. While FGM is commonly performed on girls aged  4 to 12, before they attain puberty, some undergo the painful practice within just a few days of birth and others at the time of marriage. In many cultures the practice symbolises a girl’s transition into womanhood and during that period, the elder women of the household acquaint the girl to the values that she is expected to maintain as a woman. 

When cultural practice curtails human rights.

FGM, like any other cultural practice, is believed to strengthen one’s ties to their families, ancestors, communities and societies. But we, as a global community, are so engrossed in maintaining such ties that we forget to take notice of the implications of such a practice on the ‘second sex’. We overlook the gross violation of the human rights of women. 

Women can suffer major health consequences as a result of FGM;  haemorrhage (which can cause death), urinary tract infection (UTI), injury to tissues, severe pain and bleeding (which can cause anemia) among others. The practice also gives rise to feelings of insecurity, helplessness, anger, bitterness and betrayal and can cause disruptions in eating and sleeping patterns along with cognitive impairment.  FGM contravenes women and girl’s rights to be free from torture, cruelty, inhumane and degrading treatment, and their right to sexual and physical integrity and dignity. None of the young girls were given a choice in the matter, the norm was enforced upon them by their community.

World culture is sexist. 

Patriarchy is a global problem. Misogyny and gender inequality are ingrained in the culture of most communities all around the world. Patriarchy exploits women and robs them of their right to education, dignity, liberty, freedom of choice and good health and wellbeing. FGM is an expression of patriarchy. It was meant to perpetuate and preserve the social power of men by controlling female sexual desire and establish norms related to procreation. As a result of the severe pain, women are forced to drop out of schools and are robbed off the opportunity to attain educational and economic opportunities. This makes them less capable of  taking actions to secure equality, bodily autonomy and integrity for future generations too. In this way practices like FGM ensure the recreation of the conditions that breed these violent practices. 

The power of language. 

How do we fight such practices? As the book ‘From Outrage to Courage’ suggests, language is important. Language is at the heart of culture. . The term ‘female genital circumcision’, used until the 1980s, hid the injustices and toxicities of FGM drawing misleading parallels with male circumcision. 

Male circumcision involves the cutting of the foreskin of the penis. Unlike FGM, it is a religious practice and importantly does not interfere at all with one’s sexual desires, needs, urges and ability to engage in sexual activity. The term ‘FGM’ was coined by Fran Hosken in 1979 and has been widely used by the UN and other international agencies since 1991. The term ‘mutilation’ referred to permanent damage caused by an injury and to some extent manages to capture the extent of damage caused. It reflects the interwoven meshes of patriarchy, social control, expression of sexuality, and notions of gendered justice. 

The usage of the term ‘FGM’ helps to acknowledge the gross violations of the rights of women.. With this acknowledgement some communities have been able to move forward, to recognise where culture’s need to change. Côte d’Ivoire serves as an exemplary case. They have led with a Human Rights model giving this precedence over culture. Now in all sectors, including some of the traditional practitioners, there seems to be an agreement that the practice should be eliminated.

The importance of community engagement. 

However, not every country followed the Côte d’Ivoire’s example. Due to the strong connotations attached to the term ‘FGM’, a lot of human rights activists and civil society organisations have disrespected and humiliated all those communities which practice it and have attempted to end such practices forcefully. But what they seem to forget in their drive to ensure the persistence of justice is the importance of culture in people’s lives. It shapes their identity and narrates their stories. The beliefs and practices have been developed over the period of very many years and letting go of them is not simple. Because of the personal value attached to culture, it is not very easy to acknowledge its flaws. The term ‘Female Genital Cutting’ is increasingly being used by  medical professionals and all others who wish to avoid stigmatising and condemning those communities which practice it. In some contexts again it seems like a useful terminology to strengthen and reinforce the practice of FGM.

Change is rarely easy. 

To be able to truly eliminate the existence of such a practice, governments along with civil society organisations have to take long and sustained efforts to alter the attitudes and beliefs of the community as a whole and especially those of the practitioners. They have to be sensitive to their culture rather than simply pass dictums and they have to give them time to change. 

Change is difficult and it takes time to accept and adapt to any sort of change. Culture is a strong binding force but can we really let it interfere with the essential human rights of all individuals? Education is the best way to alter the beliefs of the community and highlight the necessity of human rights for all. It will take time but we can still hope for a day when FGM will no longer exist. If we want that to happen its as important, if not moreso, to change cultures as to change laws. 

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Ending FGM is only possible through culture change.

by Sampurna Sarkar Reading time: 5 min