Human Rights and Female Genital Mutilation: A Universal Dilemma. Prof Edith W King

Human Rights and Female Genital Mutilation: A Universal Dilemma

From:   Professor Edith W. King                                      

The practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) is an ancient ritual practice hardly imagined or ever spoken of in the wider Western world.  FGM is the procedure of cutting or removing all or part of the female genitalia.  This practice arises, yet today, in nations around the globe. It is surfacing in primary schools as refugee families from the African and Asian continents flee wars and political unrest. They are migrating to the U.K., to Western Europe and now, (sometimes) to the United States.  Articles and accounts in newspapers and magazines reveal the growing global awareness of female genital “cutting” or mutilation upon very young girl-children and even teen-age girls. The 2018 USA TODAY article described the “painful female genital circumcision” of teenage girls in Kenya, where now FGM is officially illegal.

On a more hopeful note there are recent movements in African nations to provide grassroots action to end the practice of FGM.  In early 2000 the Inter-African Committee on Harmful Traditional Practices called for zero tolerance to FGM.  Still in 2018, the United Nations estimates more than 200 million girls and women around the world were victims of female genital mutilation. Yet today, this widely condemned practice is deeply embedded in the ethnic identity of some traditional cultures. While female circumcision practices are common in some Muslim countries and cultures it is totally absent from others. Experts on Islam are quick to point out that nothing in Islam supports or condones female genital mutilation.

Why Is FGM a Human Rights Dilemma?

Why should we in the Western world be aware of the little known or often hidden practices of female genital mutilation?  Why in the 21st century are these practices, once considered cultural, private, or an individual family matter no longer going unchallenged but now are being interpreted as abuses of child and human rights?  An experienced elementary school teacher shared the following disturbing incident that happened in her third-grade classroom.

            During the past school year, I was teaching in a combined third and fourth grade classroom (children ages 8 -9 years) in an urban school district of the American Southwest. Enrolled in my class was a nine-year old girl from a family who recently emigrated from Ethiopia. She was a lively child succeeding well, enjoying her school and classmates, achieving in reading and mathematics especially, above grade level. Then suddenly one day her father came to my classroom and told me that the girl would be absent for several weeks because they were returning for a visit to Ethiopia, so this young girl and her siblings could be re-acquainted with her grandparents.

            When the girl returned to my class after about a month, I saw a drastic change in her demeanor. She was pale, very quiet and withdrawn. After about a week in class, I noticed a pool of blood underneath the chair where she was sitting. I summoned the school nurse at once. During the ensuing investigation we discovered that she had undergone a total excision including infibulation while in Ethiopia. The clitoral removal along with her labials being sewn shut had created such pain for her during urination that it caused extensive bleeding.

            We reported the situation to the district’s Social Services immediately because we were worried not only about her condition, but also about her younger sisters. Upon being contacted by a social service worker, the family moved away from our school district leaving no forwarding address, before a referral and follow-up procedures could be activated in this case. I was deeply troubled by this situation and spent many sleepless nights worrying about this lovely child and her younger sisters.  


In American and British schools, the number of incidents being reported is growing.  Information about FGM is found in scholarly papers of international feminist writers, anthropologists, and women’s health advocates.  To be pointed out is the wide coverage and discussion of FGM on Wikipedia’s website.  When accessed in 2018 I found extensive information.  This source covered events, happenings, and the people involved in FGM actions based on over 200 references. Topics on FGM included: history, terminology, procedures (including illustrations), human rights basis of concerns, international data and statistics on who practices FGM, coverage of personalities, social scientists, and women’s rights advocates of many nations working globally to end the practice.

During the late 1990s articles and accounts in leading American and British newspapers began featuring reports about female genital mutilation (FGM).  It was becoming apparent to health workers and lawmakers that the practice of FGM was rising.  Immigrants from several of the 40 or more countries in Africa and the Middle East (where mutilation is an accepted custom and practice), took up residence in what they deemed as safer havens.  The circumstances, in the account of the American teacher above, appear almost identical to those in the following report from Britain describing the childhood experiences of a woman from Somalia that has undergone FGM:

When I had the operation, I was eight years old. I was taken back to Somalia and I had the operation performed. Because I was very young I did not know what was happening to me, what they were doing to me. They strip you. They open your legs apart and they have ladies holding every part of your body, even holding your mouth to prevent you from screaming. I still remember the pain to this day. My sister was circumcised first and straight after she was done I was done.

             In terms of what has happened to us, we just use the term being ‘sewn up’, having the clitoris cut off and having been sewn up for us not have any sexual intercourse or anything! I questioned my mother as to why she did it to me. She said she had to – that it is tradition, it is custom. Anyhow she said she was pressured into it by grandparents and relatives. And I told her that we were her daughters and we could have died having this operation. The day before I was circumcised, a girl died in the next village and I still remember that.

This testimony was given by a 25-year old British woman from the Somali community to encourage preventative work on FGM.  She was threatened by members of her community for being so candid about her mutilation.

What Constitutes Female Genital Mutilation?

Information about what these procedures entail is much needed for most people have little knowledge of this cultural practice.  Efua Dorkenoo, health consultant and educator, born in Ghana, educated in the U.K. wrote the authoritative book, Cutting the Rose: Female Genital Mutilation, The Practice and Its Prevention  in 1994 for such a purposeIn her book she details the following degrees of FGM, as opposed to what has been euphemistically termed “female circumcision.”

            Circumcision: or the removal of the prepuce or hood of the clitoris. Circumcision is the mildest type of mutilation and affects only a small proportion of the millions of women concerned.

            Excision: meaning partial or totally cutting of the clitoris and all or part of the labia minora. In some cases, the labia majora are removed but with no stitching. Excision is the most widespread type of mutilation. Approximately 80 percent of those affected undergo excision.

            Infibulation: the cutting of the clitoris, labia minora and at least the anterior two-thirds and often the whole of the medial part of the labia majora. The two sides of the vulva are then pinned together by silk or catgut sutures, or thorns, thus obliterating the vaginal introitus except for a small opening, preserved by the insertion of a tiny piece of wood or reed for the passage of urine or menstrual blood. The girl’s legs are then bound together from hip to ankle and she is kept immobile for up to forty days to permit the formation of scar tissue.

Efua Dorkenoo, widely known globally for her work to end female genital mutilation, died in October, 2014.  Her path-breaking book, Cutting the Rose: Female Genital Mutilation, (quoted here) is considered a major text on FGM.  In an impressive obituary The Guardian  stated  that Dorkenoo was instrumental in putting FGM on the agenda in ministries of health while working at the World Health Organization from 1995 -2000.  During her lifetime Efua Dorkenoo was recognized and awarded many times by national organizations and governments for her campaigning to end FGM practices.

Who Practices FGM?

As reported by reliable sources for decades, families that have migrated to Western Europe, Britain and the United States from the following nations may insist that various forms of FGM be performed on their girl-children:  Somalia, Senegal, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Egypt, Mali, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, the Gambia, Ivory Coast, Guinea Bissau, Nigeria, Kenya, Mauritius, Chad, Benin, Togo, Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda; India, Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia. These sources point out that reasons parents and the ethnic community give for practicing female genital mutilation is that it guarantees virginity in their girls, to control women’s sexual activity, and to promote cleanliness.  Religious reasons may be used to condone these practices although none of the major faiths refer to FGM explicitly and many leading theologians condemn FGM. Social services and health workers have learned that often parents of girl-children, now residing in Western societies, may deeply want to resist having their young girls mutilated.  However, they can be subject to being severely ostracized by their ethnic community as a result.

Such a culturally sensitive issue can be intertwined with racist, as well as sexist, accusations on the part of parents, government officials, and educational authorities in Britain and other nations. Educators and health workers taking up the cause of protecting young school girls suffer a possibility of being labeled racist or may be subject to anger and hostility.  But failure to act to protect girl children at risk of mutilation would be a perverse sort of racism. Child protection is essential, despite any doubts a person may experience about cultural differences.  We can no longer close our minds and turn our backs on what, in the 21st Century, is recognized as an unmitigated violation of human rights.  It is purported that FGM is being performed on girl-children for suppressing and controlling the sexual behavior of girls and women. Despite the accusations of cultural insensitivity, racism, and interference with family preference, postmodern societies are now putting into legislation measures to end female genital mutilation.  FGM is not a disease per se but a complex social practice. Society needs to understand why people practice FGM despite its numerous health consequences, and develop policies, strategies and skills to prevent it.

Social scientists point out that historically all societies have devised strategies for the repression of female sexuality, among the most extreme and brutal of which is mutilation of the erogenous zones of the female sexual organ. It has been asserted that paradoxically, women (who are victims of FGM) are the gatekeepers of the practice in their communities. This could be understood within the context of their general powerlessness in male-dominated societies. Women receive social approval and rewards for undergoing FGM.  Over the years they have come to view mutilation of their genitals with pride and the pain involved as a necessary step in growing up.  Social and economic sanctions are meted out to those who do not comply with female genital mutilation.

The Custom Is Changing

However, in some places changing attitudes about FGM have mothers saying to their daughters “You will not be cut!”  The actions numerous African mothers called for in the last decade of the 20th century is now occurring. Villages in Senegal, representing approximately 220,000 people, have stopped the practice of FGM. These people did not end female genital cutting in response to outside pressure or national laws.  Instead, it was a grassroots movement that put an end to the practice.  Strategies for encouraging and supporting women and men, mothers and fathers who want to eradicate FGM in their communities that practiced these cultural and social rites, are now widely advocated everywhere.  Women’s rights advocates have pointed out these encouraging trends. Governmental and human rights organizations, especially in the West, are mounting campaigns to implement women’s rights and end practices such as FGM. However, various excuses are offered by powerful agencies.  These hold that issues relating to FGM, while regrettable are really cultural not political matters appropriate for broad governmental actions. Such practices are not inevitable and given their pervasiveness, consideration of ending them is futile.

FGM has become a sensationalized and confrontational topic embedded as it is in cultural, religious, racial, and sexual practices. But this does not mean it should be avoided in educational settings or in the wider public milieu because of the ancient origins that make it so difficult to eradicate. Young girl-children and teen-agers are the victims of this cultural practice abrogating their human rights. Currently, 15 African countries have passed legislation that specifically bans FGM and other nations are under pressure to do the same.   Human rights principles can be employed as a lens through which to assess cultural practices and values.


Researching Sensitive Issues

Sensitive matters, such as female genital mutilation, can be difficult to investigate and even to research.  This seems a category of research that does not lend itself to measurement, graphs and scales. Merely identifying the “unobtrusive data” that entails collecting the history, prevalence, or who practices FGM can be challenging.  Hard-to-study topics often are best approached through open-ended, explorative or qualitative research methods. Wrestling with the emotionally charged topics like FGM the researcher needs to be prepared and aware of one’s personal attitudes and beliefs, before attempting to talk with others about such concerns.  Some time ago in my graduate research methods class, a presentation and discussion of FGM ensued.  Several male members got up and walked out, not to return.  Evidently, the details of FGM became too uncomfortable for the men.  However, the women in the class remained for over an hour showing much involvement and interest.  It has been noted that although FGM poses some difficult issues to approach, it can be addressed through thoughtful, open-ended research methods.




Dorkenoo, Efua (1994) Cutting The Rose: Female Genital Mutilation.  The Practice and Its           Prevention. London:           Minority Rights Publications.

 King, Edith (2017) Encounters With Sociology   Amazon-Kindle.

 Onyulo, T (2018) “Teen girls decry painful illegal ‘circumcision’ ” USA TODAY 

 UNICEF (2005) “African Parliamentarians Convene for Historic Conference on Ending Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting” UNICEF Press Centre.

Wikipedia. (2018)

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