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Eliminating Female Genital Mutilation Requires Individual State Solutions

Senegal’s recent success in abandoning Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) in over 5,000 villages across the country is inspiring to many and marks a huge triumph in spreading public health awareness across Africa. Western governments and major international agencies, particularly UNICEF, UNFPA, and WHO, should take particular note, as they have poured over $44 million into eliminating FGM/C with marginal success at best. As one of the most contentious issues surrounding human development and public health in Africa, FGM/C can be eradicated through localized advocacy campaigns, a change in discourse from the West, and a paradigm shift in marriage preconditions.

With roughly 28% of the population affected by FGM/C practices, Senegal represents a success story wherein community leaders, imams, and aid practitioners worked together in villages to achieve collective pledges against performing FGM/C on their daughters. These pledges are similar to those made by the Chinese during the early 20th century to end foot binding. Political Scientist Gerry Mackie describes in American Sociological Review the importance of families agreeing to neither bind their daughter’s feet nor allow their sons to marry women with bound feet, and notes the brevity of ending such a deeply entrenched practice: one generation. Collective pledges eliminate the coordination dilemma that arises when some women are cut and others are not, allowing women to avoid the plethora of medical complications associated with infibulation while retaining sexual autonomy.

In order to alleviate FGM/C practices in countries where it is most prevalent, particularly Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, and Mali, the discourse surrounding infibulation must change. The term “female genital mutilation” carries the connotation that Westerners view this African practice as barbaric and that African parents are unloving, which is exactly why Western efforts are not as effective as they could be. 

Women primarily enforced Chinese foot binding on their own daughters since small feet represented a higher status, increased marriagability, and allowed for more options and prosperity. The same is true in the case of FGM/C: Mothers love their daughters and fear they will be ostracized unless they are cut. Many are unaware of the immediate and long-term health risks and simply want to allow their child maximum options for marriage. By recognizing this fact, that these women love their daughters and are acting out of convention, Western aid and development practitioners can abandon their patronizing post-colonial attitude and instead foster a dialogue with education as a focal point.

Those seeking to implement anti-FGM/C initiatives must realize there is no blanket solution, as customs, cultures, and motivations behind cutting are markedly different within African countries. Infibulation is prerequisite in some 30 countries in Africa for honor and marriage proposals, yet countries differ in their attitudes towards gender equality and religious pretexts. In countries such as Senegal, where the government has formally outlawed FGM/C, it is becoming more and more acceptable to speak out against it. This is certainly not universal, as many Africans fear reprisal from village elders if they do not cut their child, which prompted Sudanese women’s health NGOs to train midwives and henna artists alike to recognize and replicate a secret signal: a henna heart below the thumb to signify “do not cut.” Henna artists, usually commissioned to paint mothers during bridal showers and weddings, recommend anti-FGM/C midwives that perform fake circumcisions. If the women are shy or too scared to seek out referrals themselves, the henna tattoo says it all. Some midwives that perform FGM/C are morally opposed to the practice but due to lack of economic alternatives, are forced to carry out the practice anyway. These staged circumcisions address this issue directly, while highlighting the importance of localized solutions to international problems.

When tackling the issue of FGM/C eradication, individuals, local organizations and international agencies alike must remember the top priority: keeping girls and young women healthy and empowered. Localized advocacy campaigns prove to be most effective since they address the issue in accordance with local customs and traditions, while receiving constant feedback. The collective pledges idea appeals to African mothers’ sense of compassion and love for their daughters and, most importantly, proves that genital cutting and further medical complications do not have to be required to achieve a desired marital status and livelihood. 

Photo Credit: NicholBrummer

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