A critical approach to ‘Zero Tolerance to FGM Day’

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

Tools used in FGM

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.


Filed under Health, Human rights

6 responses to “A critical approach to ‘Zero Tolerance to FGM Day’

  1. There IS in fact something we can all (in the UK) do, I hope people will be pleased to know! I’ve added an e-petition at the end of this piece which I’d really hope everyone will sign, please.

    It’s too easy, surely, to make suggestions that FGM is a matter of ‘culture vs crime’? There has to be some segmentation of the message, as in any other marketing process… for the NoFGM message is just that.

    It may be OK to use the word ‘cutting’ to explain what you’re talking about to people in traditional practicing communities, but the reality is horribly cruel child abuse – i.e. mutilation – and I defy anyone to say that needs to be ‘understood’, beyond the recognition that in deeply patriarchal societies that has over the centuries been the rationale for FGM.

    As someone says above, what about the men? Tell them very firmly indeed that FGM (in Britain) is a really serious crime and dreadfully damaging, sometimes lethal – yes, some of them already acknowledge that, but some don’t.

    The Prime Minister and some of his colleagues still use the word ‘cutting’ in their speeches to mainstream audiences. That must stop. It avoids many of the issues and gives a mixed message.

    In such a context it looks like a euphemism to avoid the embarrassment of the speaker and others, not a helpful contribution to grown-up discussion – and it simply does not remind everyone that the penalty for this ‘custom’ is (if it were ever at last to be applied…) up to 14 years in prison, plus life-long damage (or death) to young children – i.e. abuse

    There are numerous harmful ‘traditional customs’ which have been abandoned over the centuries, and in every case there has had to be a migration of vocabulary to firstly explain, and then secure, the change. That’s the point we’re at now, at least in the western world, with FGM.

    There is an e-petition to demand serious action on FGM in Britain which any UK resident or citizen can sign. Please consider doing so:


    Thank you! #NoFGM : @NoFGM1


  2. Great post Steve, and the responses are also illuminating. I’m glad you have cited Tostan, as they are an organisation which has yielded the most successful results through their non-punitive, educational approach. With reference to the study which cited positive responses from women who have experienced FGM, it is noteworthy that many FGM sufferers have the opposite viewpoint! I have personally met a number of women who have told me of their experiences and Waris Darie is the most famous example. Being a worldwide famous super model she is of course able to give a voice to the countless voiceless victims of FGM. There does seem to be a trend that when young women have left the practising FGM country and culture, often for different human rights violations, rape or in the case of Waris, forced childhood marriage, it is then that they become anti FGM activitsts. I interviewed some young anti FGM activitsts in Bristol (they belong to the charity “Integrage Bristol”). They come from Somalia, Ethiopia and some from the middle east. They have taken a very brave stand against FGM in the UK and most definitely have a “zero tollerance” yet educational approach. It can be post possible to do both (!) as the French model has shown in most cases. Integrate Bristol will be the first tell you that 1. PSHE needs to be mandatory, 2. FGM must be part of the curriculcum 3. If you mutilate the genitals of a child in the UK- for whatever reason – you will have to face the consequences as it is illegal. Importantly, I feel the conversation on FGM needs to go wider and extend to the attitudes of men who support it. The reasons why many mothers practice FGM is because they know their daughter will not be “marriage material” unless she is cut. The men of Somalian communities generally believe a girl who has been cut is a) a virgin b) not promiscuous. Perhaps we should start educating men who deem this necessary for a life partner that these are not apparent prerequisites for potential husbands so why should they apply for potential wives? I feel it is about breaking down the wider barriers of patriarchy and inequality. If you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend Nick Kristoff’s “Half the Sky” – a game changer of a book – which discusses the many human rights violations practised against women and girls worldwide, including FGM, and a way forward for the survivors of gender based violence.


  3. This brings memories of our debates in the Politics of Culture seminars 🙂
    I like the word you have used: “empathise” with those practising FGM. That is the first step to start working. We need to understand that families who abstain from this practise can be stigmatised and their life can be a hell in small rural communities (of course, this hell is probably a tiny amount of the hell that girls go through when their body is mutilated). I remember when I was working for Plan that they started to work in FGM in Egypt. The first step was very basic: talking about it at different levels, but mainly at a local one. Then the capacity building strategies they used always involved local associations, boys, girls, mothers, elderly people…
    I haven’t really followed the success of their activities but think that the first step is always to talk about things, to break taboos. Domestic violence against women was something that was never spoken about in Spain until the end of the nineties. Suddenly, state approaches changed and society started to talk about the issue as a real one. It hasn’t stopped the practise totally but it was a first step.
    I take this opportunities to send you a big hug from the UK.


  4. Leah Levane

    very thought provoking. Certainly a difficult problem, but I have always stood with education – as you say mostly this is carried out because of love, but the health risks are huge and the positive views of many women who have experienced it is unsurprising; since it is part of their initiation into the world of women and into their co,,unity and without it, there is likely to be ostrcacism at least – and for the family as well as the daughter. So for me, as well as educartion about health problems, (and perhaps the oppressive nature of men’s ideas about how tight a vagina is meant to be and also the absence of any rule about this in the Quran, the really important thing is to stand with those women who oppose it. They have tremendous courage and are the ones whgo will make the difference…..


  5. I understand why you find these questions challenging. It’s particularly difficult perhaps in the case of another country where one might feel there is little, in practical terms, one could do. But my instinctive response to your conundrum WRT the two mothers is that they should both be treated – if not quite the same – then not too differently either, in the UK. For the individual child, the legal process may make things worse rather than better – but unless this procedure is punished appropriately – and unless suspected cases are pursued – what is to stop hundreds more doing the same? I don’t think most of us would think this an acceptable thing to happen to us, or our children. Here’s a key quote:

    ‘If a white girl is abused, the police come break down the door. If a black girl is mutilated, nobody takes care of her.’


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