I have long felt an obligation to write about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), a widespread practice in many parts of the Middle East and Africa, and have been hesitating far too long. I lived for a brief period during my early teens in a country where it was a nearly universal norm, but I missed my opportunity to become involved in the issue then. And now, here in the comfy U.S., I am not sure what I can say or do to help in the struggle to end the ongoing torture of young girls and women by FGM. After all, I have no doubt that my readers already agree that FGM is an awful thing.
Of course, as Samhita at Feministing recently noted, FGM is practiced in the West as well, among immigrant groups arriving in places like Britain, and I am sure the United States and Canada also. Samhita asks:
The fear of losing cultural identity does indeed exaggerate practices, cultures and beliefs, indigenous to immigrant groups . . . At what point can Westerners say anything on such a complicated issue? And should they be allowed to?
The response on the comment thread was essentially: "Hell, yeah!" Any of you who read my blog regularly know that I adamantly agree. I believe in respecting and learning from other cultures-- trying different foods, admiring different modes of dress, understanding different types of manners, listening to critiques of some of the weaknesses of western culture, and appreciating the spiritual value of a Ramadan fast or the beauty of a Christian communion ritual, to give just a few examples. But at some point, I also think you can draw a line in the sand and say, "Such-and-such practice is WRONG in an absolute sense and I have a right to say so, not because I am a westerner or not a westerner, but because I value human rights."
Besides, when it comes to FGM, it is NOT just paternalistic westerners coming down from on high to teach those whom they view as unwashed heathen right from wrong. There is plenty of anti-FGM activism by women who were born into cultures where FGM is practiced. In the country where I lived back in the mid-1980s, there were several groups of woman-run organizations dedicated to public education about the evils of FGM . Such efforts deserve the support of those of us who may be in a position to give it.
This morning, I decided to do some research as to the state of anti-FGM activism abroad. I chose to focus on Somalia, a war-torn Islamic country bordering Ethiopia and Kenya in eastern Africa. "Somalia has one of the highest prevalence rates of FGM in the world, with more than 98 percent of Somali girls between the ages of seven to 12 being cut," according to Christian Balslev-Olesen, head of UNICEF Somalia. Despite the devastation wrought upon Somalia after years of war, however, there actually appears to be a well-organized network of Somali women's organization campaigning to end FGM.
There are three involved Somali organizations: Nagaad (an umbrella organization for groups dedicated to "Overcoming Cultural Barriers: Promoting Gender Equality and Equity"), WAWA (We are Women Activists), and COGWO (Coalition for Grassroots Women's Organizations). They receive support from Oxfam Novib.
In October 2004, Nagaad, WAWA, and COGWO produced an excellent, comprehensive 43-page report entitled Knowledge, Attitudes, Beliefs, and Practices of Female Genital Mutilation in Somalia/land based in large part on surveys of and discussions with representative samples of various groups of Somalis, including young girls of the very ages at which FGM is performed, mothers, older women (over 45), young men of marrying age, and religious leaders (Islamic). The report revealed:
-- Most FGM is performed in Somalia without anesthesia, but the use of anesthesia is becoming an increasingly common practice. Nonetheless, even with the use of anesthesia, the practice involves a great deal of pain during the recovery period, not to mention continuing side effects throughout life. Without anesthesia, as one girl described it, the pain is "unforgettable."
-- The adults surveyed were quite aware of the likely side effects of FGM. Presumably they had experienced those side effects or knew women in their lives who experienced them. The respondents were thus not at all unaware or in denial that this practice often causes such problems as: infection, hemorrhage, and even death; problems with urination; problems with menstruation; severe pain and bleeding during intercourse; severe complications during childbirth; and psychological trauma and permanent emotional damage (and that's not even a complete list, folks).
-- Nonetheless, many of the adults, particularly the women, viewed the practice as "very important" to ensure their daughters' purity and marriagability. It is generally the mother, with input from other female relatives, who decides whether the daughter is to undergo FGM. However, depending on the region, between 65% and 97% of the young men of marriagable age said they would not marry a woman who had not undergone FGM. Thus, it easy for a man to say (as did a man I once knew) that he is indifferent to whether his daughters were circumcised and that it is up to the female members of the family. But the women's decision is driven in large part by a fear that the daughter will end up unmarried and destitute. The silver lining, however, is that the study found that as many as 17% of mothers in certain regions of Somalia have determined not to circumcise or infibulate their daughters, despite the social pressures to do so.
-- The survey revealed a growing understanding among Somalis that FGM is a cultural practice, rather than a religiously sanctioned one. The report speculates that this trend may be the result of past educational campaigns. Nonetheless, the practice is widely connected to Islam in the minds of many Somalis.
-- One group, however, that completely dissociates the practice from Islam were the Somali Islamic religious leaders. The religious leaders universally understand that this is NOT a practice mandated by Islam and that Islam even prohibits many types of FGM. Between 89% and 97% of the religious leaders surveyed believed that FGM should be eradicated.
The study concludes with a number of recommendations as to a strategy for eradicating FGM in Somalia, including: (a) focusing on and supporting those mothers who are committed to not inflicting FGM on their daughters; (b) perhaps using these mothers as role models at some point in future campaigns; (c) enlisting the assistance of Islamic religious leaders to address the misperception that FGM is an Islamic practice; (d) conducting public campaigns to address fears of women's sexuality; and (e) focusing on the devastating side effects women suffer as a result of FGM, as this is most widely cited as the factor that persuaded those who now oppose FGM.
There is reason for optimism. According to this article, the Somali government seems to support the campaign to end FGM:
Abdilaziz Sheikh Yusuf, health minister with the Transitional Federal Government, said, "I call on all Somalis to end this practice because of the problems it brings especially for women. All Somalis must come to know that it is a bad practice."
Furthermore (and this was news to me):
Countries such as Senegal and Guinea succeeded in ending the practice through community empowerment, legislative and policy measures, public discussion, culturally sensitive messages, and the support of religious and other leaders.
Here in the west, I certainly support legal intervention to protect young girls who are subject to these practices in their communities and families. Of course child protective services organizations should act when they have information to indicate that a young girl is going to be mutilated. Under child abuse reporting laws, doctors, teachers, and counselors in many, if not most, jurisdictions are required to report instances of young girls who have been or will be subject to FGM. Furthermore, FGM can and should be prosecuted under child abuse and felony assault statutes. I understand that this is a deeply embedded cultural practice, but that is not a reason not to abide by the law of the country where one is residing. It is important to remember, however, that intervention and prosecution are far from being the whole solution. Culturally sensitive educational campaigns, preferably spearheaded by Islamic religious leaders and members of the culture at issue, are a far more effective means of changing behavior over the long term than interventionist and punitive measures.
Anyone who knows more than I do about this issue, and has any knowledge about effective ways average westerners can provide assistance, please advise!