Ending Female Genital Mutilation Traditions


NEW YORK, New York — Ending female genital mutilation (FGM) is a challenging task in developing nations because it is often tied to social and cultural traditions. Female genital mutilation is the practice of partially or fully removing the external female genitalia or the cutting of female genital organs. There are no health benefits to FGM and the procedure causes severe health issues such as bleeding, trouble with urination, birthing issues, infections and even death. FGM puts adolescent girls in danger, with more than three million girls at risk of mutilation per year. Roughly 200 million women and girls have already experienced FGM. FGM is heavily concentrated in Africa but also exists in some countries in the Middle East and Asia. FGM, at its core, is a violation of the basic human rights of women and girls and constitutes a form of discrimination against the female gender.

The Practice of Female Genital Mutilation

To put it simply, social norms are pervasive and hard to break. The practice of female genital mutilation is deeply rooted in tradition and most families view it as a necessary part of a daughter’s upbringing. Families often consider uncut girls “unclean” and “unfeminine.” In regions where FGM is a cultural tradition, it is believed that FGM “increases marriageability” as the procedure represents both modesty and virginity. Girls and women often undergo the procedure because they fear ostracization.

Ending Female Genital Mutilation

Social norms are hard to combat and there is no one way to end female genital mutilation. However, several theories and strategies may help girls worldwide regain the right to make their own decisions with regard to their bodies. In his essay, “Ending Footbinding and Infibulation: A Convention Account,” American political scientist Gerry Mackie explains his “convention hypothesis.” Mackie defines female genital mutilation as a “convention,” meaning that, since the whole population is participating in the practice, one has to participate in order to find a suitable mate and not be socially ostracized.

Mackie argues that in order to end a convention, a critical mass of people must all agree at once. In this case, it would mean one whole generation agreeing to not mutilate their daughters or make mutilation a requirement for marriage. This would break the convention, and in only one generation, FGM could be eliminated. In order for this theory to be successful, enough of the population, including high-status families, would need to refuse the practice of FGM.

Ending Misconceptions

The majority of the justifications for mutilating girls stem from dangerous myths and misconceptions. Most prominently, supporters of female genital mutilation believe that it is the only way to guarantee that women remain virtuous and pure. Educating the entire population about the female body and women’s rights would dispel these myths and help to end the practice. Outside of the general population, it is crucial to educate girls on the consequences of FGM and teach them that they have the right to choose what happens to their bodies. FGM comes with countless health complications, and if the women in these regions understood these consequences, they would likely protest their own mutilation and the mutilation of their daughters.

Exposing the Secrecy

Traditionally, many communities consider female genital mutilation a form of initiation for girls. FGM transitioned girls into womanhood and prepared them for marriage. However, with global scrutiny about the procedure, parents no longer perform the procedure with the whole community. Instead, it happens in the secrecy of one’s home or in neighboring villages. The procedure is often carried out on younger girls as they are less likely to speak about the experience. This secrecy allows FGM to continue privately without the judgment of the outside world. Authorities and NGOs need to tackle the secrecy on a community level, in individual households and villages, without the greater global pressure. If households and family units understand the inhumanity of the practice, FGM is more likely to come to an end.

The Desert Flower Foundation

Activists worldwide believe that female genital mutilation is inhumane and robs young girls of their agency over their own bodies. In response, several NGOs are working to end the practice. The Desert Flower Foundation, dedicated to ending FGM, was established in 2002 by Somali model Waris Dirie. The Foundation conducted research on FGM and published a report on the facts. The publication brought the issue of FGM to the forefront and encouraged many countries to develop laws and campaigns to address the issue. The Foundation has protected many girls from mutilation by encouraging parents to sign contracts declaring that they will not perform the practice on their daughters. The Foundation also helps victims of FGM with support for treatment and reconstructive procedures.

Ending female genital mutilation is far from a simple task. With the practice comes years of tradition, culture and social norms. However, with the work of NGOs, theorists and government legislation, an end is possible. Ending the practice means millions of women all around the world will regain their human rights and be free of the physical, emotional, sexual and health consequences that come with FGM.

– Georgia Bynum
Photo: Flickr


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