“When I entered the door of the “family friends,” I was horrified to see several naked girls on the floor who were being cut. When I realized that this was a trap, I cried out and struggled to leave the house, but it was too late. My clothes were torn off, and three women pinned me to the ground while two others used a dirty knife to mutilate me. The pain was excruciating, and I struggled and screamed throughout the procedure. I couldn’t walk normally, and I experienced recurring bleeding for several weeks after the procedure”
This was the reality of one girl who experienced ‘Female Genital Mutilation’ (FGM), but she is one of over 100 million girls who have experienced FGM. FGM is practiced in 28 African countries, Israel, Iraqi Kurdistan, Oman, Yemen, and occurs within migrant communities around the world including in the United Kingdom.
Today marks a globally coordinated effort to help eliminate this practice – the ‘Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM’. A cause that I passionately support.
Is the traditional human rights approach to tackling FGM the most effective?
FGM is undoubtedly, a violation of a girl’s human rights. It amounts to nothing short of torture, cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment as prohibited in the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
Amnesty International goes further saying it can prohibit a girl’s right to:
- Physical and mental integrity
- Freedom from violence
- The highest attainable standard of health
- Freedom from discrimination on the basis of sex
- Life (when the procedure results in death)
FGM however is a bit of an anomaly in human rights violations. It is more than possible for the violator to care for the victim. Indeed, it is possible for the perpetrator to honestly believe they are acting in the victim’s best interest.
Very few other human rights violations involve this dynamic.
Many of the women who take part in the practice will defend their actions on grounds of tradition, religion or even health.
Normally these assertions do not hold up to rational analysis. For example, the WHO has condemned the practice saying it has “no health benefits” and can have numerous long term health consequences.
Tackling FGM then is partly about education, to break down lingering myths. It is also more complicated than though as there are still many who see it as a positive act – despite the risks and pain it can involve.
My partner told me about an interesting sexual health survey she helped undertake in Sierra Leone where the women were asked to fill out sexual health time-lines with positive events above the line and negative events below. Each woman put their ‘initiation’ above the line.
Thus the problem is two-fold. It is a human rights violation where potentially neither the violator nor the violated may understand it as a problem.
This is not to undermine the fact that it is torture, and that it can, and often does, have serious long-term consequences. Nor does it undermine the girls who have stood up and campaigned against this practice.
It is simply to point out that there might be a contradiction between the west’s commitment to participatory approaches to development and our more absolutist approach to human rights. How do we reconcile this?
This isn’t the only issue…
When we are looking to stamp out this practice – something which I am passionate to do –how do we avoid the ‘double punishment’ to the victim of having their genitals cut and losing their mother? Is it in the child’s best interest to see their mother sent to prison for X number of years?
Equally, how do tackle FGM in an equal and fair manner. The academic, Marie Dembour puts forward a moral dilemma to draw out inconsistencies in western approaches to FGM.
You have two court cases involving FGM. One where the mother did it because she loved her child and it was part of her cultural upbringing. The other where the mother brutally attacked the daughters genitals and there were no cultural arguments to mitigate the action.
Should the crimes have equal punishment?
If you think they shouldn’t, how do you level the criticism that you are protecting one child more than the other? Is the deterrent less if you come from a group who traditionally practice FGM?
If you think they should have the same punishment, do you just ignore all of the mitigating ‘culturally relative’ evidence?
I have no concrete easy answers to this, or any other question I have put forward so far.
I feel uncomfortable that some of those campaigning against the practice seem uninterested in trying to understand the complexity of the arguments and to empathise with those practicing FGM.
Interestingly, one of the most positive examples of eliminating FGM came through the project ‘Tostan’ in Senegal which the founder said, “didn’t set out to end FGC” but to empower communities.
Maybe there is a lesson to be learnt.