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Female Circumcism in Africa

In: Social Issues

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Female Circumcision in Africa
Amber Triplett
June 23, 2015
Diversity: Dr. Saleem

There are an estimated 130 million girls and women alive today whose human rights have been violated by female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). This harmful practice not only affects girls and women in Africa and the Middle East, where it is traditionally carried out, but also touches the lives of girls and women living in migrant communities in industrialized countries. Although collaborative advocacy has worked over recent decades has generated widespread commitment to end this practice, success in eliminating FGM/C has been limited, with some significant expectations. This harmful practice is a deeply entrenched social convention: when it is practiced, girls and their families acquire social status and respect. Failure to perform FGM/C brings shame and exclusion. Understanding how and why FGM/C persists is crucial for developing strategies that are most likely to lead to the abandonment of the practice. FGM/C affects far more women than previously thought. Recent analysis reveals that some three million girls and women are cut each year on the African continent (Sub-Saharan Africa, Egypt, and Sudan) (Yoder, 2004).

What is female circumcision?
Female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) includes a range of practices involving the complete or partial removal or alteration of the external genitalia for nonmedical reasons. The procedure may involve the use of unsterilized, makeshift or rudimentary tools. When the practice first came to be known beyond the societies in which it was traditionally carried out, it was generally referred to as “female circumcision”. This term draws a direct parallel with male circumcision and, as a result, creates confusion between the two practices. With girls and women, the phenomenon is a manifestation of deep-rooted gender inequality that assigns them an inferior position in society and has profound physical and social consequences. The use of the word mutilation reinforces the idea that this practice is a violation of girls and women’s human rights, and thereby helps promote national and international advocacy towards its abandonment. However, at the community level the term can be problematic. Local languages generally use the less judgmental term cutting to describe the practice; parents resent the suggestion that they are mutilating their daughters.
Where is FGM/C practiced?
The majority of girls and women at risk of undergoing FGM/C live in some 28 countries in Africa and the Middle East. In Africa, these countries form a broad band from Senegal in the west to Somalia in the east. The practice of FGM/C is no longer restricted to countries in which it has been traditionally practiced. Education, especially of women, can play an important role in safe guarding the human rights of both women themselves, and those of their children. Overall, daughters of mothers who are more highly educated are less likely to have undergone FGM/C than daughters of mothers with little or no education. Women’s education may contribute to the reduction of the practice, but alone it is not sufficient enough to lead to its abandonment.

Social Dynamics of FGM/C
In every society in which it is practiced, FGM/C is a manifestation of gender inequality that is deeply entrenched in social, economic and political structure. Researchers seeking to understand how and why the practice of FGM/C persists are confronted with a contradiction: in many cases, parents and other family members are preserving a tradition that they know can bring harm, both physical and psychological, to their daughters. Mothers organize the cutting of their daughters because they consider that is what they must do to raise a girl properly and to prepare her for adulthood and marriage. In discussions about FGM/C, Mannika women in central Guinea explained that parents have a threefold obligation to their daughters: to educate them properly, cut them, and find them a husband (Gruenbaum, 2001). This obligation can be understood as a social convention to which parents confirm, even if the practice inflicts harm. From his perspective, not conforming would bring greater harm, since it would lead to shame an social exclusion. Social convention is so powerful that girls themselves may desire to cut, as a result of the social pressure from peers from peers and because of fear of stigmatization and rejection by their own communities if they do not follow the tradition (Shell-Duncan, 2000). FGM/C is an important part of girls and women’s cultural gender identity and the procedure may also impart a sense of pride, of coming of age and a feeling of community membership. Girls who undergo the procedure are provided with rewards, including celebrations, public recognition and gifts. In communities where FGM/C is almost university practiced, not conforming to the practice can result in stigmatization, social isolation and difficulty finding a husband. Girls and women living in immigrant communities may also value the procedure because it can play a role in reinforcing their cultural identity in a foreign context. Understanding FGM/C as a social convention provides insights as to why women who have themselves been cut and suffer the health consequences are in favor of its continuation (Carr, 1997). Individuals resist initiatives to end FGM/C, not because its abandonment it is perceived to entail loss of status and protection. This also helps to explain why individual families that voice a desire to abandon the practice still submit their daughters to the procedure. The convention can only be changed if a significant number of families within a community make a collective and coordinated choice to abandon the practice so that no single girl or family is disadvantaged by the decision.
Changing the social convention towards the abandonment of FGM/C
As with any self-enforcing social convention, FGM/C, a single family’s choice of whether or not to cut its daughter, is conditioned by the choice of others. This social pressure tends to sustain the practice, and it can also be the key to promote rapid collective abandonment. In communities where cutting is a prerequisite for marriage, if only one family abandons FGM/C, its daughter doesn’t get married. A critical mass is needed to bring about change. Once enough individuals are willing to abandon FGM/C, they will work to convince others to follow suit because this will work to convince others to follow suit because this will reduce the social stigma associated with not cutting. The crucial mass doesn’t need to be a majority, but simply a sufficient number of individuals to demonstrate to others the relative benefits of not practicing FGM/C. Individuals who have opted to abandon the practice will still face social pressure to cut their daughters. For this pressure to disappear, the number of people who have expressed their intention to abandon the practice must reach a “tipping point”. Those who still consider following the practice recognizes that the status and honor it brings to a girl and her family no longer outweigh the risks involved. Once the new convention of valuing girls physical integrity is established, it will become, like the old convention, self-enforcing. For those who have abandoned FGM/C, there is no incentive to revert to the practice, while the few individuals who continue to support FGM/C will face the disapproval of the community.
Working with migrant communities in industrialized countries
The fact that many migrant communities continue to practice FGM/C in their new countries of residence is evidence of the strength of social convention. The key elements necessary to address the issue among migrant communities in countries where FGM/C is not traditionally practiced are essentially the same as those on countries with higher prevalence. The work of Pharos, an NGO active in the field of health care for refugees, and the Federation of Somali Associations in the Netherlands illustrates the importance of adopting a respectful and culturally sensitive approach, working with group rather than individuals, facilitating discussion and raising awareness rather than imposing solutions, and investing the time necessary for communities to reach their own decisions regarding the practice. Recognizing that dialogue within a community on FGM/C must be lead by the community itself, project partners established tailored educational sessions, led by trained “educators” and “key figures” drawn from Somali communities. These are individuals who enjoy the trust and respect of their own communities, who can facilitate discussion, and who are familiar with Dutch institutions. Most of the sessions are held on weekends, when participants have free time. Sometimes men, women and youth meet separately. One of the important achievements of the project has been a series of meetings I which women and men have come together to discuss the issue. These sessions have served as a catalyst for more widespread discussion of FGM/C in the community. At the same time the sessions have shown that there are still many Somali parents who intend to have their daughters cut. The most recent assessment of the project emphasizes that awareness of the issue is increasing, but that continuity is necessary to achieve behavioral change (UNICEF, 2004).
With it being 2015 and women are still subjected to physical and psychological pain that isn’t necessary for a medical reason, is beyond comprehension. It is desolate that in order for a woman to be accepted by others in their community, they must mutilate their bodies and endure unbearable pain or be considered an outcast and unable to be married. This puts a lot of pressure on mothers to “circumcise” their daughters, which is a major factor as to why FGM/C is still done today. I feel that with educating and advocating for the young girls who don’t have a voice is the only way practicing FGM/C will become nonexistent.

References Carr, Dara. Female Genital Cutting: Findings form the Demographic and and Health Surveys Program. Macro International Inc, Calverton MD. 1997. Gruenbaum, Ellen. The Female Circumcision Controversy: An anthropological perspective. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia. 2001. Shell-Duncan, Bettina and Ylva Hernlunds, eds. Female “Circumcision” in Africa: Culture, Controversy, and Change. Lynne Reinner Publisher, London. 2000. UNICEF. Egypt. Campaigning against Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting in Egypt. September 2004 Yoder, P. Stanley, Papa Ousmane Camara, and Baba Soumaoro. Female genital cutting and coming of age in Guinea. Macro International Inc. Calverton, MD. 1999.

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