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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Wrong approach to ending genital mutilation

April 14, 2010
By Caille Millner - The San Francisco Chronicle

Even from a distance of several continents, it should not be that hard to do the right thing about female genital mutilation. It's a terrible practice that has no place in a modern world. It has also proved to be one of those practices that stubbornly resists eradication - in part because it's tied up with history and tradition and all kinds of fraught concerns about that modern world, and women's place in it.

Anyone who has taken just a cursory glance at the literature about female genital mutilation should come away with some understanding about the sensitivity of the issue in the countries where it is practiced. So how did Good Vibrations, the San Francisco company that's become famous for its sensitivity toward women, manage to get it so wrong?

For its first foray into the fight against female genital mutilation, Good Vibrations has partnered with a charity called Clitoraid. Clitoraid is a charity that is sponsoring genital reconstruction surgeries at a clinic in Colorado, and has a goal of building a clinic in Burkina Faso to do the same. It's a project of the Raelian movement, whose members believe that all life on Earth was created in scientific labs by extraterrestrials. The fundraising campaign urges Western women to "adopt" an African woman's clitoris.

Where do I begin?

I suppose I'll begin by saying that I support genital reconstruction for women who have suffered FGM and that increased awareness of the issue is unquestionably a good thing. I'm sure that everyone's heart is in the right place when it comes to all of this.

I spoke to Clitoraid's public relations director, Donna Newman, and though she did not know when Clitoraid was launched nor whether it was working with any African women's organizations on the ground in Burkina Faso, I don't hold any antipathy toward anyone at Clitoraid for this fundraising campaign. People who believe that all life on Earth was created in scientific labs by extraterrestrials do not always make the right decisions.
Good Vibrations, on the other hand, should know better.

As a retailer that's prided itself on being respectful toward women, it should've hit the panic button as soon as it heard about the clitoris adoption campaign.

"I asked them what due diligence they had done and I was shocked to realize how little research they had done on this," said Professor Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg, an assistant professor of politics at the University of San Francisco. "Nobody's genitalia should be talked about in the way that these people are talking about African women's genitalia."

This kind of talk has a long and painful history. It goes back to Saartjie Baartman, also known as the Hottentot Venus, who was brought to Europe in the early 19th century and exhibited as a freak show attraction for her enlarged genitalia. The French still own this poor woman's genitalia. And this is no obscure story - it's the kind to which all related Google searches lead.

Then there's common sense. If you're seeking to help someone, why would you express eagerness to adopt their body parts? How does that engender trust, especially among people who have been victimized already?
Kamau-Rutenberg has launched a small campaign to get Good Vibrations to rethink its association with Clitoraid, and instead work with African women's organizations that have a history of success in dealing with these issues. She suggests the Global Fund for Women and the African Women's Development Fund. They don't sound as sexy as Clitoraid, but as she said, "It's much better to support African women who are trying to stop this than it is to support a UFO cult."

That sounded pretty reasonable to me, so I called Good Vibrations. They seem to have realized that this was a terrible idea, because chief cultural officer Carol Queen told me that they're "distressed by the controversy" and that there's a lot of "discussion" about what their next steps should be. My suggestion to them: Bring actual African women into that discussion. Who knows? They might have a few ideas about how they can be helped.

Caille Millner is a Chronicle editorial writer. You can e-mail her at