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

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