Creating policy, influencing action: female genital mutilation today

Trish Rooney, Vice President, Queen’s International Affairs Association

6 February 2019 - International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation

Academic debate on female genital mutilation

Academic debate on female genital mutilation


Originally practiced in the Middle East, Asia, and North Africa, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) has spread across the globe. Effective FGM prevention is a policy issue worldwide. Countries are struggling to create sound policy banning FGM when the act is so closely connected to longstanding cultural practices and traditions.

FGM  involves the partial or full removal of external female genitalia. Practitioners argue that FGM is done to control a girl’s sexual behavior, increase marriageability, transition a girl to womanhood, or as a defense against rape. “Cutting”, as it is colloquially known, usually happens while girls are between the ages of 5 and 15. Worldwide, it is estimated that 200 million women and girls have been cut, with 3 million more at risk each year. FGM is not a religious practice and is not prescribed in any religious text. There are no medical benefits to FGM. FGM complications include problems with urinary function, wound healing, menstruation, pregnancy and delivery, psychological issues, or even death. Cutting cannot, by definition, be a consensual decision, as it is most often done to children.

Unfortunately, clinics that clandestinely perform FGM do exist in some Western countries. As people from countries that commonly practice FGM move to Western countries, they bring the practice. This often results in policy challenges in their new homelands. Much has been written in the context of FGM about the protection of women’s health and bodily autonomy, as well as on feminist traditions that do not usually assimilate with typical Western norms or values. FGM is at the intersection of both.

American Academic Isabelle Gunning argues that there is not enough focus on the African women that are battling against FGM in their own communities, and that the fact that FGM has not been banned is not a sign of their failure to do it on their own, but that it is a sign of the patriarchy’s strength in those communities.

She also identifies that there is a lack of knowledge about the harm of the practice within secular communities and with people in the diaspora prone to isolation from the rest of society. She defines isolation as “more than just an inability to speak French or to find a doctor who could explain the necessity of not performing the surgeries on one's daughter in one's language. It suggests the absence of intimate others, friends, relatives, or neighbours, who understand one's situation and reaffirm one's sense of self and value”. She ends by arguing that in the US, she would like to see “the creation of anti-FGM educational activities and materials…these efforts should be done with "representatives of ethnic groups and…organizations which have expertise in the prevention of FGM. The experts we should turn to are those African feminists who have long experience in combating the surgeries”.

Gunning presents the middle ground between two common positions concerning policy creation and FGM. Australian academic Rob McLaughlin argues in his work on FGM in Australian diaspora populations that the feminist ideal of protection of women and children trumps that of multiculturalism. In her work, Kenyan-American academic Wairimû Njambi argues that without first acknowledging how colonial feminism has been ineffective in outlawing FGM, there will always be a separation between policy and action. Gunning argues for both: FGM policy should be created because FGM overall is a harmful practice that is rarely consensual. However, and most importantly, the policy should be created by the people that are actively at risk of FGM, and should be first educational.

Today, many countries and international organizations have passed FGM policies – some more effective than others. Gunning has discussed the policy debate in France surrounding FGM, dividing the debate into pro-trial and anti-trial feminists. Pro-trial feminists “want to use the legal system to pressure those who practice the surgeries to stop”. Anti-trial feminists, who are by no means pro-FGM, focus on grass-roots organizing and educating of the immigrant women who practice the excisions”. This division can also be viewed in the worldwide debate about FGM policy.

Australia falls on the pro-trial side of the spectrum. In Australia, FGM is prohibited in both legal and medical contexts, including legal regulation in every state (Mathews, 139). However, reports were released in 2010 about OBGYNs in Australia “considering the sanctioning of medically performed “ritual nicks” to satisfy the desire of some cultures for genital mutilation of young girls, while protecting them from more severe forms of the practice”. Australian politicians and doctors have agreed that “to sanction medically performed FGM would leave undisturbed the damaging assumptions motivating it”, and that it as a practice has no place in Australia. However, Australia has struggled to be pro-trial for FGM, just as McLaughlin predicted. They do not want to further victimize women or drive the practice further underground, so they have begun to look at more anti-trial measures to prevent FGM.

International organizations and agencies have adopted a more anti-trial outlook on preventing FGM.  In 2008, the FGM Joint Programme was founded as a collaborative effort between UNICEF and the United Nations Population Fund. The program focused on a combination of approaches, with the main two being connecting with local governments and putting them in close collaboration with “grass-roots community organizations and other key stakeholders, backed by the latest social science research” to introduce educational programs about the risks of FGM from people within the community, to people in the community. In 2015, The World Health Organization joined the joint program to provide more educational material to communities regarding the health complications associated with FGM to improve the health of women that had already been cut. The Joint Programme champions “collective abandonment” as the best way for FGM to be eradicated in communities, meaning that communities themselves decide to stop the practice, and come together as a community to create their own policy against FGM. When it comes to creating sustainable or applicable FGM policy, experience has shown that policy that is created with or by women within the communities that experience FGM has worked better and has had more success.

The process of creating policy and legislating FGM is a difficult one. It intersects with the concepts of women’s bodily autonomy, consent, public health, multicultural feminism, Western feminism, and cultural traditions. To date, much of the existing anti-FGM legislation is ineffective because it fails to consider all of these factors, and prioritizes the voices of Western feminists in policy creation. Clearly some protections must be put in place for children that could be unwillingly subjected to FGM because of a lack of knowledge or information about the practice. But recent experience has proven that effective policy must come from the bottom up, starting in the communities that practice FGM, instead of from the top down, possibly alienating or othering cultures within society more.  Legislation on FGM will fail the women it is supposed to protect and will continue to do so unless a reconciliation of multicultural feminism and Western feminism happens.