Shaunagh Leahy Long – Module SSC231: Gender Diversity & Human Rights: Global Perspectives
Female Genital Mutilation
By Shaunagh Leahy Long
Shaunagh Leahy Long
I’ve always had a passion for helping people, especially those less fortunate and having gone to school in a socio-economically disadvantaged area and witnessing the effects this had on others I decided to go back to study. The deeper we’ve delved into the modules throughout the course however I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the modules which explore global human rights issues. I’m hoping to work with individuals living in direct provision once I graduate, though I am also looking into masters degrees.
This is an example of my course work that I have submitted for module SSC231: Gender Diversity & Human Rights: Global Perspectives
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a procedure whereby external female genitalia are partially or fully removed for cultural purposes (WHO, 2001). The severity of the procedure and the age at which it’s performed is dependent on a number of factors including a female’s ethnicity and their socio-economic background (EndFGM, n.d.). For many, it is seen as an initiation process, allowing females to transition from childhood to adulthood, in preparation for marriage. While often viewed as a religious obligation, neither the bible nor the Koran mention female circumcision. Furthermore, the practice is seen as a socio-cultural practice in many countries in Africa and the Middle East, however, it is also a symbol of gender discrimination and can have grave implications, both physically and psychologically.
FGM violates both constitutional rights, and International human rights as outlined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (UN General Assembly, 1948), namely Article 5 which states that “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. Through the continuation of this practice, those involved are contributing to the subordination of women in patriarchal societies further strengthening the gender divide. This is in direct violation with numerous articles within the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) which aim to promote equal rights among men and women.
Organizations including the United Nations (UN), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the WHO have devised initiatives to help eradicate the global practice of FGM. However, authors such as Newland (2006) argue that eradication, namely in the form of zero-tolerance policies, serves as cultural imperialism. Others favour the criminalization and/or the medicalization of the practice (28TooMany 2020, Galeotti 2007). Monahan (2007) discusses the nuances, yet one can clearly see how education, intra-cultural resistance, cultural sensitivity, and gender transformation are key to a rights-based approach.
28 Too Many is an organization which seeks to create global change surrounding the practice of FGM. They released a report in 2020 in collaboration with TrustLaw and a number of international law forms which sought to act as a guideline for policymakers in criminalizing FGM. The report, the FGM Law Model, claims that criminalizing the practice is demonstrative of commitment to eradicate (28TooMany, 2020). This Report identified as the minimum standards for anti-FGM legislation to be effective these include:
- Provide a clear definition of FGM;
- Criminalise the performance of FGM;
- Criminalise procuring, arranging and/or assisting acts of FGM;
- Criminalise the failure to report incidents of FGM;
- Criminalise the participation of medical professionals in acts of FGM;
- Criminalise the practice of cross-border FGM (28TooMany, 2020, p11).
These benchmarks are controversial because Treaty Monitoring Bodies (TMBs) highlight that reactions by nation states that primarily rely on legislation and prosecution potentially discourage those who are in greatest need of education, awareness-raising, social and legal support, along with health services (Khosla et al., 2017). Khosla and colleagues (2017) outlined that Treaty Monitoring Bodies have raised concerns that the criminalization of FGM may place girls and women at greater risk of state violence. They highlighted that victims of FGM will fear being exposed and may only utilize health services in situations of emergency. This places more danger on themselves and increases the complexity and urgency of treatment for healthcare providers. Khosla and Colleagues (2017) detail that Treaty Monitoring Bodies have highlighted that attempts to withstand and abandon FGM demand multi-sectoral approaches that encompass both gender and culturally sensitive responses and that works across sectors, communities, and generations.
Berer (2015) argues that criminalizing FGM has a social cost and has led to extreme measures in some countries. While attempting to arrest two men in relation to FGM in Uganda, police officers were attacked and apprehended by members of the tribe. After the criminalization of the practice in Tanzania in 1967, members of the population claimed that female genital mutilation was the only cure for ‘lawalawa’ (ailments including urinary tract infections) and thus, FGM was re-invented. It’s crucial to take into consideration the vast differences in the way FGM is both practiced and criminalised across countries. Where you are in the world has different implications for the severity of the circumcision, the beliefs surrounding the practice, and whether or not the act is punishable by law. Burkina Faso’s FGM Law 1996 states that the penalty in the event of death as a result of FGM, is 5 to 10 years imprisonment. Whereas under Edo State FGM Law, the perpetrator is sentenced to 6 months imprisonment for the same crime. Such lenient measures do nothing to discourage the abandonment of FGM and as such, the adequacy of such laws is in doubt (Yerima, 2016).
Furthermore, studies have shown that criminalization alone will not lead to the eradication of FGM and may lead to driving genital cutting further underground and to decreases in the age for marriage (Pells & Robinson, 2014). In an attempt to reduce the harms, some states have turned away from criminalization and towards medicalization to transfer the practice from traditional practitioners to healthcare professionals.
Anna Elisabetta Galeotti is an Italian University Professor whose controversial 2007 journal article caused heated discussions around the subject of FGM. Galeotti proposes the theory of toleration and a harm reduction approach to the practice of FGM, proposing the idea of symbolic circumcision as a compromise to mutilation. Her stance on the issue caused public outrage as it is seen as perpetuating the subordination of women in patriarchal cultures. She suggests that this negative response to the proposed alternative stems from “an aggressive post-9/11 attitude towards Muslims and immigrant practices” (Galeotti, 2007). While there’s no doubt that the 9/11 attacks in the US have had a profound impact on the way Muslims are viewed around the world, this can be seen as exploiting the oppression of minority cultures to gain support. Postcolonial scholar Ratna Kapur (2002) discusses a tragedy of victimization as a symptom of post-coloniality whereby women, particularly in the Global South, are displaced and portrayed as being victimized by their culture. She posits that the International human rights movement reinforces the victimization of women through their focus on violence, and as a result, this strengthens gender and cultural essentialism.
Ruderman (2013) argues that while total abandonment of FGM is an ideal goal, it is also unrealistic, certainly for the near future. In agreement with Galeotti, she argues that criminalizing FGM fuels the clandestine practice of it, thus increasing the risk of harm for those involved. As such, they argue that symbolic circumcision is a relatively safe and short-term solution. However, while this may be seen as a less harmful approach, such a ritual still legitimizes the subordination of women. Furthermore, while her theory proposes agency, some would argue this is not agency but false consciousness and a form of patriarchal bargaining.
Galeotti questions the universalistic approach to FGM, suggesting that individuals have the right to culture and to freedom of choice, and goes as far as suggesting that the symbolic circumcision does not infringe on any rights. What can be perceived as Galeotti’s complete lack of moral conscience has caused quite a reaction. Laegaard (2008) is vehemently opposed to her theory of toleration, arguing that it ignores the fact that the practice of female genital mutilation, regardless of a harm-reduction approach, is a direct violation of human rights and not simply a difference of cultures. Furthermore, Galeotti proposes the idea of harm as instrumental to future good. While she argues that her approach is culturally sensitive, there are many other proposals which do not result in the physical harm of females. By supporting a harm reductionist approach there is also an acknowledgement that harm is still being done, just on a reduced level and as such can still be viewed as a human rights abuse.
Leye and colleagues (2019) argue that medicalizing FGM can result in legitimizing the practice and undermines International efforts to end it. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) have both raised concerns over this and Treaty Monitoring Bodies (TMBs) have called for States to confiscate medical licenses should the practice be carried out in medical establishments (Khosla et al., 2019).
Laegaard (2008) critiques Galeotti’s universalist liberalist approach arguing that her perspective is symbolic of the problems within liberalism and does not rightfully acknowledge the importance of transforming societal standards. This is why many are so strongly opposed to medicalization because it will ultimately lead to the reinforcement of the cultural and gender-based norms and attitudes that research has revealed are at the root of the practice.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) (2014), are working in unison toward the eradication of female genital mutilation. Their joint programme, launched in 2008 in 17 countries and works to remodel pre-existing social norms from within. The programme aims to work in partnership with governments to transform their individual legal frameworks, promote awareness and support broader accountability surrounding the practice of FGM (UNFPA–UNICEF, 2014).
While the policy brief seeks to advocate for the eradication of female genital mutilation on the basis that the practice is a human rights abuse, many argue that it’s a move toward cultural imperialism. International development around the world has seen Western governments, UNICEF, and the WHO among others, oppose the practice on the basis that they see FGM as a major violation of human rights. Cornwall and Brock (2005) argue that this human rights approach to international development is actually a covertly strategic approach rooted in neoliberalism, concealing the real aim of neo-colonialism that’s still exploiting countries in the Global South and trying to impose Western values and economic approaches into these countries. Neo-liberalist strategies such as the Structural Adjustment Programme and the MDGs failed in their quest toward development and sustainability in Africa as the programmes place developing countries at the mercy of the West (Durokifa and Ijeoma, 2018). It’s been argued that the SDGs will follow in these footsteps, whereby colonial agendas are hidden under the guise of international development, perpetuating the hypocrisy of the Western International Development movement. Target 5.3 of SDG 5 on gender equality seeks to eliminate FGM by 2030 in all countries and highlights that addressing the issue of gender inequality is crucial to abandoning FGM.
Korieh (2005) claims that Western ideas around FGM are reflective of Eurocentric ideas of individualism and sex valued in Western societies, with little attempt to understand women in the Global South. Thus, this arrogance has caused the continuance of the practice as an act of defiance. Western feminists have become increasingly concerned with female genital mutilation and the idea that it reinforces patriarchal dominance through controlling women’s sexuality (Knox, 2021). Walby (1990) defines patriarchy as a system of social structures, and practices in which women are dominated, oppressed, and exploited by men. However, Western feminist views have created tension with feminists from the Global South. Nnaemeka (2005) purports that Western feminists make assumptions about women in the developing world, ensuring the West has ultimate authority over cultural values. Mohanty (2003) argues that ideologies from Walby for example, must be understood in the context of global hegemony.
In their study, Pells and Robinson (2014) highlight important considerations from separate studies carried out by Oxford University and World Vision. Both suggest that criminalization and advocacy are insufficient and may lead to driving genital cutting further underground and to decreases in the age for marriage. While enforcing legal ramifications may be effective in the short term, the reality is that criminalizing FGM results in clandestine practice and may invoke greater risk for those involved. In Somaliland, a reduction in the severity of the type of FGM carried out led to an increase in the number of child marriages. This is due to the belief that females who are not infibulated are more promiscuous and so females enter into marriage at an earlier age for social protection. In Kenya, females are given the opportunity to create an alternative rite of passage, unique to them, to replace FGM minimising the risk of perceived Western imperialism (Pells and Robinson, 2014). In places such as the UK and Europe, it can be much more difficult to tackle these complex social and gender norms as female genital mutilation being a deeply rooted socio-cultural tradition may serve as a connection to a family’s native country (Williams and Robinson, 2014).Thus, interventions need to be culturally sensitive because the attitudes underlying the practice vary by culture.
Non-Governmental Organisation Sahiyo, renowned internationally for its community-based approach, seeks to find a solution to end FGM through research, campaigns, and advocacy initiatives (Sahiyo, 2018). They recently held a webinar to discuss the role of male allies in this process, giving viewers a powerful outline of the practice from a male perspective. One suggestion made was to focus first on ending FGM within a patriarchal system and then focus on ending the patriarchal system (Sahiyo, 2021). However, this patriarchal hierarchy executes control, and many argue that it needs to be dismantled in the first instance to effectively eradicate FGM.
A study carried out by Strid and Axelsson (2020) explores the role of men in the practice of FGM by applying Connells theoretical lens on masculinity. They purport that FGM is symbolic of honour-based violence within a gender order (Connell, 1995). They take a social norms approach to understanding Connell’s (1995) concept of complicit masculinity whereby failing to challenge gender order, men can reap the benefits of a patriarchal society. Sahiyo (n.d.) urge men to use this patriarchal power positively as men are important agents of change.
Judith Butler (1990, cited in Morgenroth and Ryan, 2018) argues that gender is an idea encapsulated by societal norms and should an individual not act as their gender suggests, they will face consequences. Therefore, men who challenge the gender order may be perceived as failing in their ‘performance’ of their role as men. However, deconstructing gender norms may be difficult as they’ve been internalized early on in life. For example, many men and women (patriachial bargaining (Kandiyoti,1988)) would rather have the females in their family undergo female genital mutilation than experience the social sanctions that refusal of the practice would bring (Monagan, 2010). Ultimately, their views on social norms outweigh the physical and psychological impacts of the procedure.
UNICEF (2020) highlights the importance of intersectionality in their publication on Gender Transformative Approaches. They propose an Intersectoral Approach within a gender transformative framework which seeks to go beyond increasing awareness and tackle the power structures that uphold the practice. In Nigeria, the MenEngage Alliance was set up in to address the systemic gender inequality in the fight for social change, through male peer to peer advocacy (UNICEF, 2020). In Kenya, the Maasai community are challenging the tradition of FGM by focusing on the intersection of gender, culture, ethnicity, and place. Many argue that awareness of these intersections is key to changing social norms around FGM (Van Bavel, 2019).
Female genital mutilation is described as a manifestation of gender inequality and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women. Yet for many, it is a deep-rooted socio-cultural tradition and attempts to eradicate the practice can be seen as cultural imperialism. It’s been argued that to push universality, especially forces from the West pushing assimilation in the Global South, is a form of global hegemony and suggests that there is a more sinister reason behind International development. Feminists from the Global South posit that eradication of the practice would lead to re-westernisation and a new form of colonial power. However, FGM goes against fundamental human rights and freedoms, perpetuates the gender divide, and promotes violence against women.
Approaches to eradicate the practice include the medicalization and the criminalization of FGM however, these do not address the patriarchal system that upholds the practice. It’s been argued that while having a comprehensive legal framework is essential, it is not sufficient in tackling the practice on its own, explaining that legislation may help with prosecution but in terms of prevention it is lacking.
Furthermore, globalisation has resulted in more awareness being brought to FGM and the production of global policy responses. Due to such policies and awareness, there has been a decrease in FGM over than last three decades. However, there is no quick or easy solution and local, national, and global actors are required to address the issue successfully.
Engagement is needed at community level in order to address the social norms and consequences underpinning the practice. A gender transformative approach is needed to eliminate FGM, by dismantling power structures that support patriarchy across the world. In order to successfully abandon FGM, countries must first tackle gender and social norms promoting a move beyond awareness towards action to diminish gender inequalities relating to FGM.
Barry, A-M. (2012) ‘Sociological theory: explaining and theorising’, Understanding the sociology of health, 3, London: Sage Publications Ltd, pp. 3-19.
Biermann, F., Kanie, N., Rakhyun E Kim, R.E. (2017) ‘Global governance by goal-setting: the novel approach of the UN Sustainable Development Goals’, Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 26–27, pp. 26-31. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cosust.2017.01.010 [Accessed 01 Dec 2020]
Boorse, C. (1997) ‘A Rebuttal on Health’. In: Humber J.M., Almeder R.F. (eds) What Is Disease? Biomedical Ethics Reviews. Humana Press, Totowa, NJ. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-59259-451-1_1 [Accessed 01 Dec 2020]
Borrell-Carrió, F., Suchman. A.L. & Epstein RM. (2004) ‘The biopsychosocial model 25 years later: principles, practice, and scientific inquiry’, Ann Fam Med. 2004 Nov-Dec;2(6):576-82. Available from: doi: 10.1370/afm.245. PMID: 15576544; PMCID: PMC1466742.
Boyd, K. (2000) ‘Disease, illness, sickness, health, healing and wholeness: exploring some elusive concepts’, Med Ethics: Medical Humanities, 26, pp. 9–17. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/mh.26.1.9 [Accessed 01 Dec 2020]
Conrad, P. & Barker, K. K. (2010) ‘The Social Construction of Illness: Key Insights and Policy Implications’, Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 51(1_suppl), pp. S67–S79. doi: Available from: 10.1177/0022146510383495 [Accessed 30 Nov 2020]
Eurohealthnet (2017) Making the link: Gender Equality and Health, Policy Precis, published online, Available from: https://eurohealthnet.eu/sites/eurohealthnet.eu/files/publications/PP_Gender_Digital%20Version.pdf [Accessed 02 Dec 2020]
IMO. (2012) Position Paper on Health Inequalities, Irish Medical Organisation, Available from: https://www.imo.ie/policy-international-affair/documents/imo-position-papers/ [Accessed 30 Nov 2020]
Lachman, P. (2013) ‘Redefining the clinical gaze’, BMJ Quality & Safety. Available from: doi: 10.1136/bmjqs-2013-002322 [Accessed 01 Dec 2020]
Marmot, M. (2015) The health gap: the challenge of an unequal world [ebook]. Bloomsbury. 2015. 9781408857984 [Accessed 30 Nov 2020]
McCartney, M., Collins C. & Mackenzie, M. (2013) ‘What (or who) causes health inequalities: Theories, evidence and implications?’, Health Policy, 113, (2013) pp. 221–227. Available from: 10.1016/j.healthpol.2013.05.021 [Accessed 30 Nov 2020]
Pang, T. & Guindon, G.E. (2004) Globalization and risks to health. EMBO reports, 5 Spec No(Suppl 1), S11–S16. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.embor.7400226 [Accessed 02 Dec 2020]
Pickett, K. & Wilkinson, R. (2010) The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone [ebook]. Penguin UK, 2010, 0141921153, 9780141921150.
Skewes, M.C. & Gonzalez, V.M. (2013) The Biopsychosocial Model of Addiction, Miller, P.M. Principles of Addiction: Comprehensive Addictive Behaviors and Disorders, Volume 1, Academic Press, pp. 61-70.
Song, M. & Kong, E-H., (2015) ‘Older adults’ definitions of health: A metasynthesis’, International Journal of Nursing Studies, Volume 52, Issue 6, 2015, pp. 1097-1106,
ISSN 0020-7489. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijnurstu.2015.02.001 [Accessed 02 Dec 2020]
W.H.O. (2020) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Available from: https://www.who.int/health-topics/sustainable-development-goals#tab=tab_1 [Accessed 2 Dec 2020]
World Health Organisation. (2020) Social determinants of health. Available from: https://www.who.int/health-topics/social-determinants-of-health#tab=tab_1 [Accessed 30 Nov 2020]