International: Eradicating female genital mutilation: sexuality rights vs cultural relativism

Do FGM eradication interventions address the sexuality rights of women?
Every day, nearly 5,500 girls undergo female genital mutilation (FGM) (PATH 1). The age-old practice persists, primarily in Africa, despite the fact that attempts to eradicate it began more than a century ago due to the influence of missionaries and colonial authorities.
Various reasons are given for female circumcision [1], from assertions that it is a religious imperative to claims that women's genitals are ugly and unclean, and that uncircumcised women are promiscuous. The tradition is often clouded in myth. For instance, some communities in Nigeria believe that if the head of a baby touches the clitoris during childbirth, the baby will die (PATH 4). These myths obscure the fact that the core purpose of FGM is about controlling the sexuality of women. According to Dr Asha Mohamud, ''the three overlapping reasons for the practice … - spiritual and religious reasons, sociological reasons, and hygienic and aesthetic reasons- seem to indoctrinate society into the practice without explicitly addressing women's sexuality.'' Once the myths are dispelled, ''larger, more encompassing psycho-sexual reasons emerge that directly focus on the sexuality aspects …'' (qtd. in PATH 3 ).

Interventions against FGM have taken different approaches. Saida Ali is a women's rights activist who for several years worked with CARE Kenya in the refugee camps in north-eastern Kenya on a programme aimed at combating FGM. According to Ms Ali, at first programmes to eradicate FGM primarily raised awareness about the need to stop the practice, but this did not necessarily lead to its cessation. These kind of initiatives focussed heavily on the negative health implications of the practice, which has indeed cost many girls and women even their lives. However, the focus on the health risks has had the effect of leading to the medicalization of FGM in some places, where parents elect to take their daughters to medical clinics or hospitals to ensure that the operation poses minimum physical danger to girls' life, their ability to heal, or their risk of suffering complications during labour or childbirth. It was found that changing the mindset and behaviour of a community to turn from a deeply embedded tradition involved addressing certain complexities.

Anti-FGM interventions began to adopt the 'communication for behaviour change' approach which took into account the whole socio-psychological process an individual goes through before actually changing his or her behaviour patterns. This approach attempts to take into account the cultural realities of communities practising FGM. Measures such as alternative rites of passage in communities where FGM was regarded as a necessary passage into womanhood have been introduced, by which the ceremonies attendant to a girl becoming a woman are modified to do away with the actual circumcision of the girl, but maintaining other rituals associated with the practice. These serve to perpetuate the understanding of a woman's sexual role and expected norms of behaviour within the community.

FGM is a measure to control women's sexuality, but interventions against it are not made from a sexuality rights platform. The main messages in interventions tend to be that FGM has negative health consequences, that FGM is a harmful practice and that it spreads the risk of contraction of HIV and AIDS (PATH 43). For the past few years a rights-based approach has been introduced to the array of interventions against FGM. The custom clearly violates a number of human rights, with the right to life and the right to education (as many girls have to abandon their education after getting circumcised in order to get married) being among them.

According to Ms Ali, what is not so clear to communities practising FGM is that it violates the sexuality rights of women. FGM is not being tackled from a sexuality rights viewpoint. This is not to say that quite apart from the religious reasons or those founded in myth that are advanced for the practice, the community is not aware that most circumcised women find it difficult to achieve sexual fulfillment or satisfaction. Rather, they find an advantage in this. She says that traditionally rites of passage served to instil in a girl the role the society placed on her as a woman, including dictates upon how her sexuality was to be expressed, or more aptly, contained. Not only did she receive instruction during the circumcision period about how to conduct herself sexually, but the physical circumcision itself had the effect of lowering her sex drive.

Ms Ali says that communities carrying out FGM tend to make it their business whether a girl or woman is conducting herself according to their sexual mores. FGM is inextricably linked to virginity before marriage and to the containment of sexual expression thereafter. She cites an incident that she witnessed in the Dadaab refugee camp near Garissa in Kenya, whereby community members held a demonstration to demand that a girl who was romantically attached to a man from another ethnic group, and who happened to have undergone FGM, be examined by a doctor to determine whether she was still a virgin and therefore marriageable and 'of value.' Although the doctor in question asserted that it was not his business to conduct such an examination, the girl insisted that it be done to prove that she was a virgin, showing that she felt that it was important for the community to know that she had conducted herself according to their expectations.

Ms Ali feels that it is time that FGM was addressed from a sexuality rights standpoint. She says that most interventions try to fit in with the culture of communities practising FGM. She says, ''It is all well and good to take into account the culture of the community, but does cultural relativism supercede the inherent sexuality rights of women?'' The worldwide community of nations has agreed on certain human rights norms and these include sexuality rights. However those working to eradicate FGM have had to face the risk of alienating extremely conservative communities and have accepted the perpetuation of the image of a 'good' woman in the society in order to achieve the end of eliminating FGM. Ms Ali does not see the sexuality rights agenda taking prominence in the fight against FGM for some time to come. She says: ''Women have a right to choose when, how and if at all to express their sexuality. Ideally, FGM eradication programmes should address the sexuality rights of every girl and woman. We cannot ignore the cultural mindset of communities that practise FGM and this has tended to take priority over the assertion of sexuality rights. However, it is possible by concerted efforts, to replace the community and its slanted values with the individual woman and her personhood, with her attendant inherent human rights at the centre of the FGM discourse.''


1. The terms 'female genital mutilation' and 'circumcision' are used interchangeably here.

Resources: Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH) ''Improving Women's Sexual and Reproductive Health: Review of Female Genital Mutilation Eradication Programs in Africa'' Washington: PATH, 1998.