News Human Rights

A Moratorium on Mutilation: Community Organizations Find Their Own Path To Ending a Dangerous Practice

Jessica Mack

While the UN is still celebrating International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation, Tostan, a global rights and health organization, and others are enjoying “International Female Genital Cutting Abandonment Day.” The difference in phrasing is subtle, but the significance is huge.

Yesterday was International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), a UN-sponsored day dedicated to raising awareness of the thousands year-old practice whereby a girl or woman’s genitals are cut. The WHO estimates that about 140 million women worldwide are currently living with the consequences of FGM. It’s considered by many to be harmful to a woman’s health and rights, as consent is rarely involved and the procedure is rarely done in hygienic settings.

The practice is often described in the most cringe-worthy and heart string-pulling ways (think legs tied down, shards of glass cutting at a young girl’s genitals, for example) and has roots that are centuries old and spread round the world. The act is not religiously based – though it’s often (mistakenly) attributed to or equated with Islam – but rather based in historical cultural concepts of women’s worth and value.

Notably, the most successful campaign in history to end FGM is run by a global organization called Tostan, whose efforts in Senegal to support community-led resistance to the practice have hinged on refraining from paternalistic tsk-tsking of the practice. They don’t call it FGM, but rather FGC – female genital “cutting” – a term just as accurate but devoid of judgment that could put community members, deeply attached to the practice, off. (It is also sometimes called female circumcision.)

While the UN is still celebrating zero tolerance on FGM, Tostan and many others are enjoying “International FGC Abandonment Day.” The difference in phrasing is subtle, but the significance is huge. Rather than approaching FGC as a cultural cancer that must be eradicated, Tostan and others have approached it as a choice that can be changed, or “abandoned,” as new figures, facts, and attitudes come to light. Agency is protected and the power of community is respected. The idea is that this must happen at the grassroots level, driven by the community themselves.

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Through an education initiative that places FGC in the context of broader health and human rights, Tostan has engendered one individual advocate after another, who have gone on to organize themselves in consensus to abandon the practice. In just about a decade, there has been major headway in Senegal to disavow the practice, with a domino effect that keeps going.

While community education efforts have been hugely successful, global media has played a surprisingly central role in magnifying its effects. In a her recent book, “Kill the Messenger: The Media’s Role in the Fate of the World,” Maria Armoudian explores a number of case studies from around the world, in which media has played an integral role in driving social change. In particular, Armoudian highlights the importance of global media coverage in complementing Tostan’s work.

Coverage of FGC has broadened and diversified from simply horror stories about the practice to depictions of what is working. This is important. Armoudian writes that while,

“Media coverage alone may not have attained the same results in such a short period of time […] the media were essential for three critical reasons: they created awareness about the bigger concepts; they lifted the issue from secrecy; and they associated FGC’s end with important goals that protected girls and advanced human rights. […] By demonstrating the growing acceptance of FGC’s renunciation, mass media coverage prevented the social shunning of a people accepting change.”

This last point is critical. The stigma against not having your daughter cut – that she would be unclean, unattractive, or un-marriageable, is a collective one that is refracted through communities. When individuals are given the space to decide not to participate in FGC, and then see that choice echoed elsewhere, the validation is powerful.

Global media coverage of successful anti-FGC efforts such as that of Tostan in Senegal wield cross-cultural power as communities around the world start similar movements. While the practice is often widely discussed as an “African problem,” far less attention has been paid to is as it exists in countries like Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan and across the Middle East, and very little research on it there exists.

Efforts there to organize renunciation are burgeoning, with the first-ever conference on FGC in the Middle East took place in Lebanon last month. The meeting’s goal was to establish an anti-FGC network and begin developing a strategy for its abandonment. However, while the Arab Spring could provide space for new discussions and new research, a recent article from the Stonegate Institute suggests the converse: “with the political ascendancy in Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood, with which Al-Qaradawi has been associated, there is a real danger that FGM will increase as a feature of the ostensible “re-Islamisation” of Egypt.”

Anti-FGC efforts in the Middle East may be uphill, but then again, when is it ever easy to change cultural beliefs and attitudes? It will be interesting to see whether any lessons learned from Tostan’s successes or more matured anti-FGC efforts elsewhere in Africa provide a road map for nascent efforts in the Middle East.

In the meantime, the International Day of Zero Tolerance is providing a megaphone for global rights groups to call for tougher anti-FGC laws. Yet given Tostan’s wild success, deeply community-rooted in its nature, it is unclear whether a focus on national laws is the fastest way forward. After all, child marriage is outlawed in India though still widely practiced. While anti-FGC laws would send a powerful and clear message that female genital cutting is wrong, it is the community that has the power to actually change the reality. 

Commentary Human Rights

Eliminating Female Genital Mutilation—A Public Health and Cultural Perspective

Dr. Belkis Giorgis

Culture is one of the most sensitive aspects of people’s lives, particularly as it relates to sexual and reproductive behavior, attitudes, and norms. Therefore, when we talk about female circumcision (I still cannot call it mutilation), we should always look at this cultural practice as one of many good and bad things that happen to women universally, and not only to African women but women worldwide.

Cross-posted with permission from the Global Health Impact blog.

I was circumcised when I was eighty days old, as is the tradition in Ethiopia. My sister was three. My mother had tried to spare us, but her aunt discovered that we were not circumcised and took it upon herself to have us circumcised.

Years later, I asked my aunt why she did it. Her response was not defensive. On the contrary, she responded very matter-of-fact: My sister and I were circumcised so that we could find a husband, have children, and become women. This is the cultural ideology that most Ethiopian women believed at that time, and unfortunately, that many still adhere to in the 21st century—an ideology and practice that is detrimental to a woman’s health.

Female genital circumcision alters or causes injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. There are no health benefits for girls. On the contrary, the procedure can lead to severe bleeding, infections, and problems urinating, during sexual intercourse, and complications in childbirth, as well as later cysts and increased risk of newborn deaths—not to mention the severe pain and shock of the procedure.

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As a person working in the area of public health, I believe that the eradication of female circumcision is a priority for girls in Africa. In the 1980s, the issue of female circumcision was brought to light in the western world. As a young African feminist, I wrote and argued for not using the term mutilation when describing female circumcision. I argued this because I did not see my mother or my aunt as people who mutilated me, but as people who allowed the act to be performed out of ignorance, love, and compelling cultural traditions. They felt that for me to be a woman, to have children, and to find a husband, I had to undergo this operation. During that time, the sensationalism around these issues also made feminists and pan-Africanists like me believe that a double standard was being used in defining, denying, and indicting our culture.This is precisely why I pose this food for thought regarding the use of the term mutilation: from my cultural lens, for example, a woman who gets breast implants belongs to a culture that glorifies a woman’s youth and beauty in such a way that it forces some women to resort to operations – like breast augmentation – that are not necessary. But then again, it is hardly ever said that a woman mutilates herself when she gets breast implants …

Culture is one of the most sensitive aspects of people’s lives, particularly as it relates to sexual and reproductive behavior, attitudes, and norms.

Therefore, when we talk about female circumcision (I still cannot call it mutilation), we should always look at this cultural practice as one of many good and bad things that happen to women universally, and not only to African women but women worldwide. The manifestations of this culture are varied and the interpretation we give to each of them should be informed by a respect to how people view their culture and that of others.

While I vehemently fight for the elimination of this culture, as one who has been a victim of it and a public health professional, I challenge readers and those of us working to eradicate this practice to view it within the larger framework of how women suffer from different forms of oppression in the name of culture throughout the world – as the recent United Nations ban on Female Genital “Mutilation” articulates. The ban is a significant milestone towards the ending of harmful practices and violations that constitute serious threats to the health of women and girls. It is a very important step to bringing about cultural and attitudinal change: we cannot hide behind our cultural traditions to defend practices that harm women. On the other hand, we also cannot judge and indict people who in the name of culture perform acts out of ignorance and a lack of understanding of the harm such practices have on women.

As we commemorate International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital “Mutilation”/Cutting, we must continue to work toward eradicating the practice—even as we push toward culturally appropriate descriptions and intervention—and improving the health of women and girls in all parts of the world.

Follow LMG at @LMGforHealth and MSH at @MSHHealthImpact

Analysis Violence

One Billion Rising: Ending the Pandemic of Violence Against Women

Soraya Chemaly

#1billionrising is a global movement whose audacious goal is to end violence against girls and women on the planet, one in three of whom will be raped, beaten or killed...as the result of being female.

Every day, girls and women the world over face a broad range of assaults which, in the aggregate, inhibit equality everywhere. In the United States we are dealing with a legislative assault on women’s rights, well documented here, that few people understand as a real and violent assault on women’s physical integrity and right to bodily autonomy. More often than not, people think of the “war on women” in the United States as a politically expeditious metaphor when it is not. There is nothing abstract or metaphorical about it. That’s too squeam-inducing for many people to consider. However, in direct and more obvious, “forcible” and “legitimately” recognized ways, women in the United States  experience directly recognizable physical violence, too. Among developed nations, the United States has a higher than average rate of violence against women. This violence sits squarely in the full spectrum of violence, much more crippling and extreme, that takes place in other parts of the world. It’s all of a cloth.

Last Fall, I wrote an article in the Huffington Post called “Violence Against Women is a Global Pandemic.” If you click on the link, you can review the still relevant deplorable statistics. It goes without saying, a scant 10 months later, that data regarding the chronic and oppressive reality of systematized gender-based violence are still valid. For an updated, dynamic and mappable resource, it’s useful to explore the Womenstats database, the most comprehensive of its kind in the world.

The good news is that more and more people and organizations are working diligently to raise awareness and confront the pervasive risks that girls and women face just for being female. Among upcoming efforts are the United Nations UNITE to End Violence Against Women campaign, which recognizes the 25th of every month as an awareness raising Orange Day;Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October; The Pixel Project’s Paint it Purple initiative; and, at the end of November, the annual 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence takes place.

A visionary in this fight is Eve Ensler, who today released a short film on YouTube, One Billion Rising, to raise awareness for a Feb. 14, 2013 global strike to end violence against women. This strike is being organized by V-Day, the international organization she founded 14 years ago whose vision it is to end this violence. They are doing this by organizing a global network of activists, artists, grass-roots movements and more. The #1billionrising movement imparts – to quote a Tweet, an amazing message: “1 Billion Women Violated is an Atrocity. 1 Billion Dancing is a Revolution.”

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Do you know what the laws in your community regarding domestic violence are? Do you know what the statistics regarding rape, sexual abuse and incestdomestic violence, spousal murder sex trafficking,genital mutilation (yes, including in the United States ) and other forms of violence are and how they affect everyone?

A key component of V-Day’s mission is to utilize art as a change agent. International anti-violence awareness and fundraising projects, like this year’s The Pixel Project’s Music for PixelsPortraits for Pixels and the upcoming Paint it Purple, engage people who might otherwise be disinterested by embracing the same philosophy.

Dancing, by itself , won’t solve the problem, of course. It’s hard work to literally change the planet. Literally, change it. The truth is, too, that the idea of a rising, especially of #1billion implies violence at first glance, suggesting as it traditionally has, armed revolution against oppression. But, that’s not what’s happening here. This is a peaceful movement to end violence and to use art to do it. Its outrageous goal is that we take it seriously. One in three women on the planet are raped, beaten or worse in their lifetimes. What is unimportant, funny, incidental or marginal about that? What is there not to be taken seriously?

Our battle is in raising awareness and changing culture. It’s in getting people to understand the scope and depth of the problem. The roots of the problem. The pervasive, every day nature of it. It’s in using language that realistically represents reality, instead of cloaking debilitating violence in ‘family friendly’ terms. Or, glamorizing it in media. Or burying it in shame. Anything, it seems, but honestly considering its horrible truth.

The audacious purpose of V-Day’s #1billionrising campaign, or the Pixel Project’s art-infused initiatives, is to raise awareness, money and hope; to create concrete structures and action plans; to effect true systematized change; to empower women and girls, men and boys, in ways that transform communities. V-Day has a detailed toolkit designed to engage everyone, everywhere, in the fight to stop gender-based violence. It includes information about sharing, publicizing, hosting events and actually striking on February 14th. This means you don’t go to work, don’t go to school, tell people what you are doing and why and enlist those around you to actively get involved in ending violence in their communities.

If you are interested, share ONE BILLION RISING with your networks, sign up for updates, follow V-Day on Facebook and Twitter and tell our friends to do the same. While you are at it, consider participating in the Pixel Project Paint it Purple Cupcake campaign during Domestic Violence Awareness Month and check out the incredible work being done during 16 Days of Activism in November. These things make a difference to girls and women everywhere and, for most of us, cost very little in either time, money or effort.