Eliminating Female Genital Mutilation—A Public Health and Cultural Perspective

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.

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.

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  • MissAfrica


  • paminpa666

    Culturally sanctioned symptom of generalized misogyny. Men and their sexual entitlements are at the core of the suffering brought on a whole people.
    Education is the ticket to freedom from this oppression, which is why so many fight against girls’ and women’s education. Culture & religion will always align against women’s empowerment, b/c it signals the lessening of their own ill-received and abused powers.

  • CoralSea

    Thank you for writing this piece. I, too, consider the rampant use of breast implants by women who feel compelled to achieve a certain “ideal” to be indicative of their response to misogyny. It is one thing for women to have reconstructive surgery, if they so desire, after a mastectomy, or for a very flat-chested woman to want to look “normal,” but when women are so insecure about their own, perfectly normal breasts to feel that they have to go under the knife is sad.
    And this brings us to some of the other “current trends” in the presentation/appearance of “lady parts.” Brazilian waxing? If my boyfriend insisted on that, I would insist that he go first. And the latest craze, “the Barbie,” surgery to remove the inner labia so you look like a doll? What the hell? Why should women or girls look like dolls? We are beautiful as we are.
    At one point does fashion or clinging to an ideal turn into a norm that we must all achieve, even if it requires medically unnecessary body modification to achieve it? I believe that this author has asked and answered that question.

  • http://www.facebook.com/cheywardspence Candice Heyward-Spence

    Why compare a woman Choicing for herself (if misguided yes) to augment her physical appearance with fake boobs to a practice that is far more barbaric and forced upon many girls? Genital Mutilation is more comparable to rape. A violation of bodily autonomy that is very FORCED. sorry I will call it what it is Genital Mutilation (I include male circumcision in this) because to fix a problem it needs to be called what it is.

  • http://www.facebook.com/biasiollia April Biasiolli

    Thank you for this article. I think it is important that we acknowledge that female genital cutting (FGC) is not confined to Africa. As you mentioned, breast implants are a form of FGC and performed largely for the same reason — to make a woman more attractive to men. The fact that women willingly undergo the procedure is irrelevant — many African women are willing participants, as well. The fact is that both are cases of cultural beliefs about how women ‘should be’ leading to their bodies being cut.

    I would also argue that unnecessary episiotomies and c-sections (which is to say, between half and two-thirds of c-sections performed in the US) constitute FGC. This is another case of our beliefs about women’s bodies — in this case, that they are essentially defective and unable to perform normal functions properly — leads to cutting of the female body. I hope that a call for a moratorium on FGC can include these kinds of cutting as well.