Cultural Sensitivity versus Human Rights

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is an unpleasant topic, but it’s making headlines right now because the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) just changed their position on it, leaving room for U.S. doctors to do an abbreviated form of the procedure known as “nicking.” 

There are four main kinds of FGM. “Nicking” is the least severe, but it’s still awful. I’ll spare you the details, but you can read about it here. About 130 million women have been scarred by it, and the practice continues today in large numbers. 

The AAP’s reasons for allowing “nicking” in the U.S. are naively well-intentioned: They argue that by offering the procedure in a safe medical environment, they not only demonstrates cultural sensitivity, but also help prevent families from turning to more severe forms of FGM for their daughters.

Human rights activists who work to eradicate the procedure are understandably incensed by this. Ayaan Hirsi Ali — who I coincidently happened to blog about earlier this week — published an article about her strong disapproval of the AAP’s new position. Ali herself was subjected to FGM when she was five years old in her native Somalia and knows what she’s talking about:

 To understand this problem, we need to begin with parental motives. The “nicking” option is regarded as a necessary cleansing ritual. The clitoris is considered to be an impure part of the girl-child and bleeding it is believed to make her pure and free of evil spirits.

But the majority of girls are subjected to FGM to ensure their virginity — hence the sewing up of the opening of the vagina — and to curb their libido to guarantee sexual fidelity after marriage — hence the effective removal of the clitoris and scraping of the labia. Think of it as a genital burqa, designed to control female sexuality.

When the motive for FGM is to ensure chastity before marriage and to curb female libido, then the nick option is not sufficient.

Moreover, the nick option does not address the main problem in Western liberal democracies where FGM is outlawed, which is that it can almost never be detected, so that few perpetrators are brought to justice. Even if we were to consider tolerating it in its most limited form, how could we tell that parents who want to ensure that their daughter will be a virgin on her wedding night will not have her (legally) nicked and then a few months later (illegally) infibulated? I applaud the compassion for children that inspires the pediatricians’ proposal, but they need to eliminate this risk for little girls.

An interesting aside: Before I read about this yesterday, I spoke with a friend who just returned from Mali in western Africa. She had the opportunity to meet an old woman who is reponsible for mutilating over 5,000 girls. This woman did it under a “spiritual trance” and sees no problem with her actions. My friend also met another woman who goes village to village trying to convince local people not to subject their girls to this horrific procedure.  


Zoe Romanowsky


Zoe Romanowsky is writer, consultant, and coach. Her articles have appeared in "Catholic Digest," "Faith & Family," "National Catholic Register," "Our Sunday Visitor," "Urbanite," "Baltimore Eats," and Zo

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