Female genital mutilation is not an easy thing to read and discuss, and it shouldn’t be. FGM and other dangerous body modifications are practices the Western world often imagines happening elsewhere. They are seen as something of another land, another culture, another neighborhood – but that is not the reality. FGM happens in front of our communal faces and we turn our eyes to shield our gaze because of culture, politics, or social discomfort. Yesterday, February 6, 2019, was the International Day of Zero Tolerance Against Female Genital Mutilation, but most people would not have a clue about this. FGM is a global issue, and if real change is desired it must be approached with global responsibility.
Recently the BBC released an article discussing the increasing practice of FGM being performed on children in UK. Evidence suggests that the practice is being performed younger and younger – even on infants only a few months old – to evade FGM laws. A 2015 report by City University London estimates that 137,000 people have been affected by FGM in England. Here in the Netherlands, doctors and researchers have had similar difficulties detecting the numbers of FGM cases due to the inability of young victims to be able to report for themselves. Pharos (the Dutch Centre of Expertise on Health Disparities) estimate that around 29,000 women living in the Netherlands are affected, while the UN estimates that 200 million women have been affected worldwide.
Sensitivity regarding the subject will always circle back to its cultural implications. Often, stricter policies are avoided to prevent isolation of nationalities where FGM is not recognized as mutilation at all, but a common practice and social right of passage. Is it right to condemn swathes of people for a practice so heavily tied to their culture, religion, and identities?
Even with this dilemma heavy on their minds, most world organizations have condemned FGM with many resolutions in place to try to ban and prevent the ritual cutting. According to Pharos, many countries including the Netherlands have general laws in place banning FGM, but this contrasts starkly with their lack of enforcement. In the Netherlands there have not been any convictions from FGM cases. The global legal system recognizes this as a human rights violation but does not treat it as such in practise.
Culture should never be ignored, but it should also never condone violent acts. There is a point where protecting human rights supersedes offending a cultural practice – and advocating for an end to FGM is way past it. It is impossible to protect all cultural practices and all human rights at the same time. Thus, the world decides when a practice must be eradicated to prevent human suffering.
Condemnation for FGM does not mean condemnation for the culture it originates from by any means. Let’s get this straight: any culture, nationality, sect, or religion is capable of committing human rights violations in the name of their beliefs. History is evidence for this. These women and their families should never be demonized; shaming and alienating people whose cultures are less condemnatory of FGM is not the rational way to go about it. Educating them to help them change the discourse in such a way that their overall culture is not dismissed in the process is the least invasive compromise.
Some anti-FGM advocacy groups follow the ideas of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the leader of the AHA Foundation, a group who pushed for legislation in the Dutch parliament. Their advocacy focuses on mandatory screening of female children from at-risk areas at annual doctor checkups. Others deem this invasive or racist. France, which has been recognized for having the most FGM convictions, also has had success in its prosecution of FGM practitioners. The BBC article discusses how France requires genital examinations of all children until age six, whereas countries like the UK do not have these examinations unless requested.
I am afraid that today, I, like everyone else, do not have all the answers. I see both sides: there is a strong urge to prevent FGM with strict policies, but alienating people based on their background does involve some elements of unfair profiling. However, one thing I believe all parties involved have acknowledged is that while focusing on prevention and care for women currently affected is the priority, this issue does require sensitivity to cultural and social identities. FGM hotlines and outreach groups should be notified if anyone suspects FGM being practiced around them. Programmes continue to require funding to increase educational outreach that focuses on cultural awareness.
Above all, we must use language and intercultural communication to connect with these communities instead of alienating them. Change and advocacy can only be implemented when the affected group is understood, and culture can develop alongside new understandings of human rights.
Ivy Wade is a Masters’ Student in Literary Studies at the University of Amsterdam. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of The Amsterdammer.
- Columnist – Winter 2019