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Reconciling Culture and Health in the Debate over Female Genital Mutilation

By Sakshi Sharma
22 Nov 2017

In a thought-provoking posted by CNN earlier this year, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is defined as “a brutal practice that’s inflicted on thousands of girls and women.” Female genital mutilation is the process of “intentionally altering” a female’s genital organs for various reasons. It can include partial or total removal of the external female genitalia. There are many moral reasons as to why this practice maybe considered “brutal,” but is it is ethical to portray such cultural practices in a negative light?

Some label this practice “brutal” primarily because of the zero health benefits that it brings. The World Health Organization has listed a whole set of health risks that come after performing this procedure on girls and women of various ages. These health risks include severe pain, excessive bleeding, shock, genital tissue swelling, among other short term risks. These health risks can extend to long term risks as well, such as urination, problems, perinatal risks, and keloids, among many other health problems– even leading to something as extreme as death. These health risks arise because this procedure of FGM  is often done by members of a society who have zero medical experience, and is carried out in unsanitized places.

In places where FGM is concentrated, such as the Middle East, Asia and Africa, FMG is mostly performed on girls in their infancy to adolescence. This brings in the concept of consent. The girls who get this procedure performed on them when they are children have no idea about what’s going on, or don’t have enough information. Hence, they clearly lack informed consent. Even worse, these girls have to live with these health risks mentioned above through no fault or choice of their own.

Finally, FGM can be looked as sexist. In the cultures where it is performed, the belief behind FGM is that the practice makes girls or women more clean and eligible for marriage. Marriage further opens up other opportunities for these women such economic stability offered mainly by the husband. Hence, going through this procedure is way to climb up the social ladder. Firstly, assuming that all girls should conform to  marriage encourages the idea that no girl is capable of surviving independently. Secondly, to say that FGM is done to make women cleaner is to assert that they are naturally filthy, which is all the more reason to argue against the practice of FGM. This is because women already face the stigma of being the inferior sex, and adding filthiness does not help change this perspective. This adds fuel to the sexism fire.

On the other hand, the voices for FGM reflect the concept of cultural relativism. To understand their perspective, we need to look at where FGM is primarily practiced. FGM is usually concentrated in around 30 countries in Middle East, Asia and Africa. The arguments against FGM are mostly made by the Western world, though not always. Just because the West does not have similar practices does not mean we have the right to use words/phrases like “brutal” and “bad practice” when discussing other cultures. We do not know the historical context like the local people who practice FGM do. Some women genuinely believe that FGM benefits them economically and socially; otherwise, they would not emphasize the continuation of this tradition.Hence, by generalizing these women’s beliefs as “bad,” we assert our own opinions about the practice. Likewise, it’s assuming that their potential to make the right judgements for themselves does not exist, which is not ethical either.

One can argue that these women have been brainwashed regarding the false and deceptive benefits of FGM. Also, it can be argued that human rights are human rights, no matter what. If the procedure is clearly inflicting pain on young girls and women, then it’s just plain wrong because no one should have to go through it.

Hence, do we owe our loyalty to human rights, or do we owe it to respecting cultures more than human rights?

Sakshi is a sophomore at DePauw University.
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