Monday, August 31, 2009

Female Genital Mutilation

Nick Cohen writing in Standpoint magazine shares an excellent article about the willingness of people in the west to turn a blind eye to the assault on so many women and girls worldwide when the issue arises of FGM, Female Genital Mutilation [sometimes called Female Genital Cutting], in fact Nick goes further and rallies against the apologists who have and continue to fight and argue for women’s rights in the West, but draw equivalence or relativism defending horrific practices often based on these women’s skin colour or religion of inheritance is different from their own. Feminism broke down frontiers of Christian based societies but stopped there.

I clicked to Nick’s article after seeing Prodicus had highlighted it, as well as a supporting and equally brilliant piece brilliant piece by Clive James in the same edition. Clive’s piece is on the broader veil of silence and why we are not more critical of women’s rights and inequality, all around the world. I would beg all reading this piece to go read, or to bookmark these pieces and find some time to have a read because frankly not enough is said or written about it. The World Health Organisation estimates that around 3 million girls and women a year are at risk undergo some form of FGM, and that between 100m and 140m in the world today have already undergone the procedure.

If you think that that is no big deal, perhaps you can wait for 2 minutes, watch this video and then begin to draw a conclusion.

It is not usually a good idea when Western democratic nations try to aggressively force their ideals upon developing nations, but on this issue, I think I could a compelling case can be made to be a lot more vocal in what I suspect is a shared public disdain. FGM is a widespread practice that often leaves women physically and mentally scared for life; its affects are devastating and affect every single woman in every town in all countries that allow the practice. Having seen a programme earlier in the year on television, just watching the images haunted me and my wife into a state of shock. I could not find these words here without being shown the way from the linked articles. I am glad I have finally done so, and hope that others with a platform will do the same.

We do indeed smugly claim a moral high ground in western society, and if we are to preach our standards and encourage liberty to flourish, then we should preach that we do not consider it acceptable to mutilate girls in such a horrific manner. It is liberty for all that we must seek, there is now such thing as liberty for the few.

I have also seen that the Devil’s Kitchen has picked up on the original piece by Prodicus and has drawn some typically apt and incisive conclusions. Not least that all religious exemptions recognised under UK law should be reversed and to quote the Devil, “There should be one rule for all, and everyone-everyone-should be equal under the law” I would find that a hard position to argue against.

We must not allow FGM to take place in Britain becuase we cannot legitimise in any way the forced assult of any person, whether their religion or culture demands it or not.

The debate on FGM is already being discussed in some countries where it is practiced, and I offer a few more short videos that I hope will offer a little more insight into the subject.

Make your own minds up if you have not already, but if you were not aware this was going on, at least you are now.


scunnert said...

An interesting post Daniel. FGM has been going on in Canada for some years although it is illegal. Canadian women are vociferous in their opposition to this practice and rightly condemn it as an outrage.

However, when asked for their opinions re: MGM they are supportive of the practice for medical reasons. When it is pointed out to them that their arguments are spurious they default to an aesthetics argument - "It looks nicer."

Chopping off the clitoris (or labia) is barbaric but slicing off the foreskin is aesthetically pleasing?

Stones - glass houses.

Gannon Gillespie said...

Hi Daniel,

Glad to see you addressing this topic. What we have found as one of the only organizations working successfully in this area ( is that while this practice is shocking to outsiders, to those that practice it is is "normal". Women in Africa don't do this practice to cause their daughters pain--in fact, this is a social norm, and if a girl is NOT cut, she is ostracized, called names, and is unmarriageable. So families carrying out this tradition are, ironically, doing it out of love and a wish for their daughters to be seen as normal.

At Tostan, we have engaged communities to work on this and many other development issues by starting with respect rather than judgment. This is not political correctness. It is practical reality. If you start by using the word "mutilation" and attacking people, they will simply get defensive and aggressive, which does nothing, and they will continue to carry out a practice they have done for hundreds if not thousands of years.

Legal-only approaches also fail--how can one enforce a law when literally hundreds of thousands of people in most countries practice this? They are unenforceable and thus seen as irrelevant even by those who would use them.

Instead, at Tostan we work on many different issues with every community we reach (our program covers democracy and human rights, problem-solving, hygiene and health, literacy, and management) and when communities discuss this practice we follow their lead. By allowing communities themselves to explore this issue, tell the stories of harm, and articulate how this practice does not help them reach their goals, change can happen rapidly. Most importantly, we work with them to reach out to their social networks to gain consensus on abandonment--as we have found that no one family would ever give up this practice alone. The social consequences are extremely harsh, something none of us would wish on our daughters.

So far over 4,000 communities in three countries have declared their abandonment of this practice, and a recent study by UNICEF has confirmed that people are actually stopping. This movement is now extending not only across Africa but also into the diaspora. We are no longer shy in predicting that this practice can end rapidly and universally.

Such massive abandonment will happen much faster if people take a collaborative rather than combative approach.

Interestingly, foot binding in China ended in a similar way. After judgment and attacks, blame and shame had failed, local groups came together and facilitated an accelerating process of internally-led change.

Actually, the same is also true of almost all significant norm changes, ever. Social change comes from within, and most cultures do not take well to judgment from the outside.

I remember my reaction the first time I heard about this practice. I was horrified. But since then I have learned a deeper truth: being respectful up front does not excuse or condone the practice. To the contrary, it is the only for real discussion and real, permanent change to come about.

Along the way I hope we will also ask ourselves some hard questions about our own norms and beliefs, wherever we are--I would say we ALL have work left in removing violence against women, men, and children from our communities, cultures, and societies.