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Friday, July 31, 2009

Female Genital Circumcision: Uganda, Sudan and Western Debate

July 31, 2009 Uganda has moved to ban female circumcision with support from President Yoweri Museveni. The law will award the death penalty to anyone who performs on a circumcision on a girl who ends up dying from the process. Female genital circumcision (FGC), also often referred to as female genital cutting or mutilation, happens in some communities in Asia, Middle East, Americas and Europe. However, the majority of cases occur in various African countries. The process involves partial or total removal of external female genitalia. It is often performed as a rite of passage into womanhood. Many parents enforce the practice in order to ensure their daughters are marriage material. The procedure is done on girls from infancy to approximately 15 years of age. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 100-140 million girls and women have been circumcised and millions more are at risk each year. WHO along with other international agencies has recognized FGC as a human rights violation. Health concerns top the list of reasons why there is a movement to stop FGC from happening. A high risk of infection, infertility and complications during childbirth can result from having the painful procedure. A motive for perform FGC in preparation for marriage is to decrease the chance a girl will be unfaithful to her husband. Intercourse is painful or may even require further surgery after the initial cutting. To my knowledge there are no required procedures for men to undergo before getting married to ensure their fidelity. This shows a significant gender inequity that result in women having less control over their own bodies. This fundamental power imbalance is another argument human rights organization give for eliminating FGC. Despite the physical and psychological effects, there is significant debate about whether western feminists should enter their opinion on the subject at all. Since this is not a part of western cultural tradition then we can’t fully understand it and therefore are not making an objective evaluation. “Anti-FGM discourse perpetuates a colonialist assumption by universalizing a particular western image of a ‘normal’ body and sexuality.” - Dr. Wairimu Njambi Ideally, solutions will come organically from within a community, but it is often nudged from the outside resources that assist in that growth. An increase in education and empowerment can begin to facilitate in supporting internal community leaders. These types of action do not have assume a western slant, but can be something as simple as increasing female literacy which can promote internal community development and make it more sustainable. One argument for supporting the continued practice is about choice. The idea is that if a girl “chooses” to go under the knife then the act is justifiable. However, is it a fair choice when girls are told they will be outcasts and never marry if they don’t go through with it. Also, there is the question about what age she will be able to make a clear choice. Most girls get circumcised before their 15th birthday. In order for girls to make a choice based on free will it is essential they know and understand all the risks and consequences. There are communities of women that are finding unique ways of dealing with the issue using cultural traditions. In Sudan there have been reports of collaboration between henna artists and midwives arranging fake circumcisions. Organizations have started to train henna artists in ways to talk about FGC with clients. If a mother is concerned for her daughter and doesn’t want her to be cut then she may talk to a henna artist or even simply show henna tattoos that do the talking for her. In addition, I have recently heard a lot of debate about male circumcision. Although the effects of male circumcision are less severe it is an issue that deserves some thought. I hadn’t considered the topic in any real way until my friend got visibly upset after finding out that most men in the United States are circumcised even without it being associated with a religious tradition. There doesn’t seem to be many benefits to FGC and I do believe it should not be practiced. Ugandan President Musevent seems to hold a similar belief and has been quoted saying “Yes, I support culture but you must support culture that is useful and based on scientific information,” reported the Mail and Guardian. I would love to hear ideas in the debate about circumcision and ideas on cultural relativism and objective morals.