One of the gravest forms of violence against women is Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), where partial or total removal of female genitalia organs is accepted. FGM as violence has gained criticism and is labelled as a “gross human rights violation” on children. Instead of the word “women”, FGM is attributed to “children” or “young girls” because the practice is performed on young girls before they turn 15 years old. Nonetheless, women are also subjected to such practices. The estimates do not indicate the full picture because girls/women do not report the practice as they consider it to be cultural acceptance in their respective societies.
The practice of FGM links the cultural relativist perspective in a clash with the universalist perspective of international law. The former perceives cultural beliefs/practices or standards to be uncontended realities of their societies. While the latter contends such realities and tries to impose western notions of international irrespective of taking into account the nuances present in the societies. This blog will capture the understanding of the position of FGM amid the relativist and universalist quagmire. Additionally, it will capture how FGM is criticized but overpowered by international statutes.
HISTORY OF FGM
The origin of FGM is unknown but there are several reasons for initiating the practice. One of the prominent reasons is seen as to please the divine. FGM was seen as a sacrifice that would achieve divinity. FGM is still a part of “sacrificial rituals” performed on young girls between 6 to 12 years old in ancient east African countries by a midwife with minimal equipment.This notion of sacrificial ritual (which is its initial position) has changed to include sexual control outside marriage, fertility, religious reasons (few communities assert religious claims), hygiene and other reasons.These additional reasons are considered an integral part of the societies to the extent that families who have not practised FGM are shunned and daughters are not seen as “potential” candidates for marriage (also called prostitutes).
The consequence of not following such practice circles back to the sacrificial ritual, where not performing the ritual would lead to something “unlucky” or “horrible”. Changing the initial position to include a variety of reasons but retaining the purpose of practising FGM is the starting point for human rights violations. From the relativist position, the integral presence of additional reason is inseparable from fear-induced compassion to practice FGM. However, fear-induced compassion disregards violations arising from the practice. Ascertaining the level of violations in the international human rights instrument is immense. However, adherence to such standards is completely absent. The international human rights instruments broadly explain the prohibition of the practice however effective universalist presupposition. Without addressing the FGM issue directly it fails to tackle the issue in different countries.
IS FGM OVERPOWERED BY INTERNATIONAL STATUTES
The reason behind such failure is two-fold. First is the universalist broad interpretation of such practice and failure to consider the relativist position. Amidst the clash, we lose the important instance of consensus. The above articles represent the north pole of universalism and countries’ non-adherence to prohibit FGM falls under the south pole of relativism. The former is formulated and accepted by the western countries and similarly the latter includes their notion of cultural human rights with or without universalist notion. Even though FGM is internationally condemned the practice by the UN, African countries still practice FGM. Such an overpowering effect of the practice on the international statutes explains the importance of consensus between the two extremes. Nonetheless, the nearest to understanding the nuance of the practice is the relativist perspective. Such imposition is harmful as following such practice is against the fundamental human rights guaranteed to a human being. Both ends fight for imposing their perspective and leave the practice unattended.
The second reason is without understanding how the practice is deeply rooted in African society and projecting FGM to be violative of human rights leads to such failure. The notion of the first reason being differently placed as north and south pole fails to recognise the nuances of such cultural practice. Targeting the root cause of such practice is the way to minimize the continuing threat to young girls and women. The history and current position of the practice helps us understand the cause of the FGM. The cause is society’s standard of achieving the ideal woman through FGM without any prohibition. Creating fear-induced compassion becomes the driving force to follow FGM. Instead of applying board articles in the international human rights instruments minimizing such fear or compassion is the solution to the problem. It could be through partial or complete abolition of such practice. Like in Kenya, where the young girls are not “cut” the other procedure for entering into womanhood is performed.This change can happen at the societal level but for the permanent initiation of prohibition, we need another way. The sovereign country has the right to adhere to its cultural stance with the possibility of codifying such practice into law. However, the cost of undermining universal human rights is not acceptable. The first reason is colluding as international law establishes consensus with both extremes. By colluding with the universalist perspective, the relativist perspective can establish a framework to deal with the practice.
Understanding the history of FGM provides us with a solution to tackle the practice from continuing. After analyzing the history of FGM, in the modern world, FGM is not seen as a sacrificial ritual but rather associated with the universalist imposition of rights. The rituals perceived to be an integral part of the culture surpassed the notions of the human rights framework. FGM is tangled in the universalist and relativist debate of international law. The threat to women and young girls’ human rights is at stake but that debate fails to capture it. The result is FGM is overpowered by international statutes. Addressing the nuances of the practice would enable us to understand the practice and accordingly target the cause of FGM. Like Kenya, we can remove the fear-induced compassion with a direct effect of prohibiting FGM. However, such initiation would require the joint effort of universalists and relativists which would take time, effort and patience. On the other hand, the practice of FGM would still be unattended.
Author(s) Name: Kanumuri Sai Pavani (Jindal Global Law School, O. P. Jindal Global University)
Richard A Shweder, ‘What about “Female Genital Mutilation”? And Why Understanding Culture Matters in the
First Place’ (2000) 129 Daedalus 209, 213 <https://www.jstor.org/stable/20027671> accessed 8 July 2022.
Ibid, p. 215.
Ibid, p. 218.
Ibid, p. 219.
‘Kenya Dismisses Challenge to Its Ban on Female Genital Mutilation’ (Reuters 17 March 2021) <https://www.reuters.com/article/us-kenya-women-fgm-idUSKBN2B9239> accessed 9 July 2022.