Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a customary practice that is prevalent worldwide. It is described by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to be:
Procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.
Dexter Dias QC is a barrister from Garden Court Chambers in London. Dias is conducting research at Cambridge and Harvard into elements of social control. His initial research subject was the use of pain to control children in the UK prisons, but he is now examining how the practice of FGM as an expression of masculine domination and the control of young women.
I was able to conduct an interview with Dias in which he explained the reasoning behind the continued practice and ways in which we can contribute to the eradication of FGM. For lawyers, there are three aspects of FGM of particular interest: misconceptions about religious ties, the legal framework and the wider debates on competing issues of cultural sensitivity and fundamental human rights. This article explores the underpinning factors of FGM and outlines suggestions by Dias of ways in which we can address these factors to eradicate the violent mutilation of young females worldwide.
The key to understanding FGM is recognising that this is a practice that is deeply rooted, dating back hundreds of years. A common misconception is that its origins are Islamic. It is actually a customary practice that pre-dates Islam. Some Muslims do practice FGM, but there are also Christians and Jewish people who practice it too. Within one branch of Sunni Islam, there is commentary that suggests it is a desirable aspect of Muslim adherence. However, there is no Quranic authority to suggest this and in fact there is no religious script that advocates FGM at all. Thus, we are faced with a customary practice that is often dressed up in religious garments.
How prevalent is FGM?
There are 29 countries covering Africa and the Middle East in which FGM is heavily practiced, with the rates in countries like Somalia and Sudan in excess of around 90% of the population of young women. Twenty-four of these 29 countries have passed national legislation banning FGM, yet it is still commonly practiced. Most of the cases that come before the courts involve Ghana, Senegal and Sierra Leone. FGM has been a second-degree felony in Ghana since 1994.
The nature of this abuse means that the exact figure of how many mutilations occur each year is unknown. Estimates suggest that 3 million young girls will be mutilated next year. This is the equivalent of the whole population of Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Glasgow. If we imagine all of those 5 cities are comprised of young girls: all of them will be mutilated this year.
The Legal Framework
The legal framework can be sub divided into two categories: international rights conventions and national legislative provisions. In the 1990s the world’s attention began to focus more intensely on the rights of vulnerable women. This saw the classification of FGM as a form of violence against women at the 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights. There are various international conventions created to protect women and children, including:
- UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)
- UN Convention Against Torture (UNCAT)
- UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC)
In addition to these, Article 25 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) outlines that everyone has the right to health and wellbeing. FGM violates the woman’s right to health and bodily integrity.
Following these developments in the 1990s, various national governments sought to start protecting women and children. In the UK, FGM has been a criminal offence since 1985, introduced by the ‘Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act.’ The terminology of the legislation has since quite rightly changed from ‘circumcision’ to ‘mutilation.’ The use of ‘circumcision’ gave the impression that the mutilation was the female equivalent of circumcision of young men. This was a dangerous misconception. Circumcision of young men doesn’t actually affect their sexual functions; the purpose of it is custom. With FGM, the mutilation removes any pleasure that can be derived from sexual activity by women. The UN recognises this as a form of social control of women in its 2008 interagency statement on FGM:
In every society in which it is practised, female genital mutilation is a manifestation of gender inequality that is deeply entrenched in social, economic and political structures. Like the now-abandoned foot-binding in China and the practice of dowry and child marriage, female genital mutilation represents society’s control over women. Such practices have the effect of perpetuating normative gender roles that are unequal and harm women. Analysis of international health data shows a close link between women’s ability to exercise control over their lives and their belief that female genital mutilation should be ended. (UNICEF, 2005b)
In 2003 the Female Genital Mutilation Act was passed in the UK. The use of ‘Mutilation’ was a step of recognition as it challenges traditional family pressures. These pressures are largely unrestrained because of female docility and concern of social acceptability. The offence was also extended in 2003 so that it is not only a crime to mutilate in this country, but also to perform – or solicit – mutilation on British citizens abroad. The purpose of this was to ensure that young girls who were sent abroad for mutilation were not falling through the legislative gap. In the US, the territorial extension of the offence was only ratified by President Obama earlier this year. Despite our timely introduction of the extension and a maximum penalty of 14 years, not a single person has yet been prosecuted under the UK Act. When considered alongside the fact that – and this may be a conservative estimate – something like a quarter of a million girls resident in the UK have been mutilated over the past 20 years and a further 24,000 girls in the UK are at risk, this figure is woeful to say the least.
Where do the pressures come from?
Garden Court’s casework illustrates the types of pressure on young girls. These are primarily in the areas of asylum and family or care proceedings.
A mother refused to send her daughter back to Somalia to have her cut. As a result, the mother faced problems with the father and the wider kinship group. In cases such as this, the societies have a diffuse familial social net, quite unlike a fragmented Western family. Decision-making is collective with the status of the wider group depending in some part on having women who have modesty and sexual integrity. The pressure is thus much wider than from the father and would include uncles or other men from the wider kinship group looking to protect the social status within the community.
In the rural areas of Sierra Leone, a lot of the mutilations are performed on a collective village level with tribal elders in charge of the ceremony. A ‘Soweia’ is someone who performs the cut. It is a position that carries a kind of social prestige and is handed down within a family. Dias spoke of a case where the status of being a Soweia was handed down from the mother to the daughter.
The daughter, now a young adult who did not wish to be cut, sought asylum into this country to protect her from having to become the Soweia and perform FGM. The case was lost on the facts (the court ruling that she could reside anonymously in the capital Freetown), but the interesting thing about the case is that the court recognised a principle of a right not to be sent back in order to violate the rights of others – as opposed to asylum usually being considered for fear of your own persecution rather than a fear of being forced to hurt others.
The issues are consequently more complicated than they first seem. Dias is convinced that a unilaterally legal solution will not resolve this problem. This is because adopting a purely criminalising stance to the cutting doesn’t address the underlying drivers of the problem.
Such issues speak to the focus of Dias’ work at Cambridge (and which he is continuing at Harvard) in researching forms of social control. It is imperative to understand this wider dynamic in order to deal with the problem. FGM is a mechanism within these wider social processes that control young women through social norms (i.e. protecting the value and status of the kin group by inflicting this form of disciplinary violence).
As part of his research, Dias utilises the works of French anthropologist and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in his book Masculine Domination. Bourdieu examined Algerian communities and the control of women within ancient tribal set ups.
I’m trying to understand how the practice of FGM is used as a way of controlling women. The evidence from anthropologists is that FGM is used in order to make the young girl docile. This is so she has modesty, which is a form of protection for the male. The underlying theory is that if you remove sexual pleasure from the woman, she is less likely to want to stray or commit adultery. This both protects the interests of the male and the honour and integrity of the kinship group.
There are two levels to this social control. Firstly, there is the eradication of sexual pleasure, the physical aspect. But what Dias describes as a second level of control is the psychological dominance of the woman by men.
Many people might argue our abhorrence of FGM is an imposition of Western ideas on a customary practice. Dias’ response is that all moral judgment involves striking a balance. In this case, the balance is between cultural sensitivity and fundamental standards of what is deemed to be human. He argues that in such a circumstance, fundamental standards of humane treatment, particularly of vulnerable children, should prevail. In other words, if that means making a customary practice illegal, so be it.
What can be done to work towards eradication of FGM?
Dias encourages a multi-track approach to FGM. He accepts that we need better legal enforcement through prosecuting people who perform or promote genital cutting. However, he states that we also need to deal with the causes. Through his research, he is trying to understand the processes whereby social control perpetuates itself:
- Why do these social norms continue?
- Why is it that people who have been victims of the abuse end up inflicting the abuse on others?
His research thus spans over 3 fields: legal, psychological and sociological. To understand why these social values keep circulating, Dias delineates two processes that we need to understand:
1. The masculine domination and control of women
2. How social status is achieved in non-Western societies
In the west we have social capital and an individualistic approach to status. In Africa, social status is very much the status of the kin group. One of the ‘assets’ they possess is women, with a damaging idea that women are a commodity – which of course is predominated very strongly in the West, where in Medieval times women were ‘chattels’. Men are keen to protect the status of their family network. Thus, the concept of women having ‘market value’ is important in their social status.
Once we have a basic understanding of the causes, how do we deal with FGM?
FGM is an abuse that dates back possibly thousands of years. A local custom does not become automatically socially unacceptable within those traditional communities because it is made a crime. Thus, it will not change overnight. To combat the problem, Dias suggests we need to raise awareness of the consequences to the victim.
The victims of FGM are invisible because women have a low status and little say in these communities. It is bad form for women to speak up and express even the pain of the mutilation. Mr. Dias decribed the report of a young girl who explained that while she was being cut, she had to try not to scream out. It is this kind of silencing that Dias suggests we can target with education:
By educating people broadly, we can start chipping away at the wall of silence that surrounds FGM.
He suggests that all aspects of protection and education need to be joined up. Over two decades of experience in social justice and campaigning, Dias has developed an understanding of what can work for social change. It must involve co-ordination between lawyers pursuing a legal solution and campaign groups fighting for social change.
The UK Home Office has now approved a budget of £35 million over five years for educating people in Africa about FGM. The Department for International Development is looking to fund programmes in 15 countries where FGM is most prevalent.
The educational role then falls to medical agencies, action groups and even to individual members of society. Spreading the word of FGM will help to ‘chip away at the wall of silence’ that surrounds its victims. Similarly, reporting any suspicions of FGM can make the legal framework put in place more effective, joining up the levels of contribution to social change.