Fighting FGC requires greater understanding

08May 2016
Mboneko Munyaga
Guardian On Sunday
Justice Africa
Fighting FGC requires greater understanding

Within Africa’s human rights circles, The Gambia is best known as the host country for the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (AFCHPR).

It was therefore more than welcome news when the tiny West African state passed a law recently that bans female genital cutting (FGC), which is widely viewed as a serious violation of women’s rights.

Ironically, parents in communities where FGC is practiced, never intend to willfully “mutilate” the genitalia of their daughters but rather to boost their social standing as women and protect them from being ostracized in society. This writer is one of many people who detest the term “female genital mutilation” or FGM both as being judgmental and disrespectful to communities that practice the culture.

For more or less the same reasons, the author also doesn’t accept the term “female circumcision,” which tends to equate the removal of the external female genitalia to the practice of cutting the male organ’s hood.

The former has no known medical or heath benefits while the later has quite a number of health and pleasure pluses for its practice.

They include reduced risk of urinary tract infection, decreased risk of some sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS, protection against penile cancer and reduced risk of cervical cancer in female sex partners.

There are no known health benefits for FGC. On the contrary, the practice leads to lifetime harm, including depressed libido in women.

So, while hailing legislation against FGC, because that is the only way governments have to enforce their decisions, on the other hand, fighting the practice calls more for educational campaigns and engaging members of the communities about new perspectives on what constitutes female cleanliness and sexuality in general.

FGC is by and large, a question of long held societal values that cannot be surgically removed by legislation without replacement with what amounts to superior norms.

In The Gambia, those who break the law against FGC could be fined $1,250 or go to prison for up to three years. Those who cause death by FGC the law makes them liable up to life in prison.

It is indeed a major coup in the fight against FGC. Yet, there is need also to address the motivation and the other compelling factor for FGC. We have only got to look at Egypt for inspiration.

The campaign against FGC there started in 1920, almost a hundred years ago. Yet, the country has FGC prevalence of 91 per cent close to Africa’s highest of 98 per cent in Somalia.

There is no doubt FGC is a serious women rights issue and one needs not be apologetic about it. Yet, understanding the motivation behind the practice and working from a point of dialogue and engaging the communities more, could lead to even greater milestones in the determination to abandon the practice.

The United Nations has designated February 6 as International Day for the Abandonment of Female Genital Cutting (FGC). However, there is less awareness about the day compared to say, International Aids Day, which tends to have a flurry of activities to sensitize against the problem.

In societies where FGC is practiced, “community members will not eat food cooked by a woman who is not cut, will not accept water from her and will not even sit with her. She will have difficulty getting married.

“An uncut woman is viewed as unclean and therefore unable to participate fully in the community.

“With these social pressures, if a family chooses not to cut their daughter, they will severely damaging her social status. To imply that parents are actually “mutilating” their daughters through a decision made with love and concern for her well-being is unfair to them and risks alienating and offending them rather than convincing them to abandon the practice,” reads an article in the blog of the Orchid Project, a British charity that campaigns to end FGC in Africa. The author quite agrees with them.