Female Genital Mutilation

Female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) is a term that includes all practices which remove, cut, or injure the female genitalia, and it affects close to 140 million infants, girls, and women around the world. Within Africa, approximately 101 million girls as young as 10 years old have experienced some form of FGM; it is also found within some Asian countries and in the Middle East. These procedures lack any medical benefits and, instead, often cause severe health implications such as bleeding, infections, complications during intercourse and birth, or infertility. FGM infringes upon not only human rights and integrity, but also the rights of women and gender equality. It is often seen as discrimination towards women, yet, it also functions as a passage into marriage and adulthood. FGM is regarded as a ‘cleansing’ process in some cultures, meaning girls and women are considered clean after genital parts are removed. This practice is unfortunately seen as a cultural tradition and is deeply embedded within a culture’s history, which creates barriers for interventions and external aid organizations. However, one such intervention strategy utilizes the international and political influence of organizations like the United Nations and the World Health Organization. It is through these organizations that issues like FGM gain publicity, advocates, and policies to reverse the current practices. But how does this partnership work?

Cultural Relativism vs. Universalism 

The global fight against FGM is inherently tied in with the anthropological theory of cultural relativism. As anthropologists, we are supposed to be culturally relative meaning that we must take cultures and their practices on that culture’s terms. This concept is constantly targeted because it can be used to accept the existence of Nazism, slavery, and even FGM. The goal of relativism; however, it a Geertzian sense is to to understand what the other person/culture is thinking from their perspective. It does not mean we have to agree  or accept their practices or ways of life. The attack on FGM must dance around issues pertaining to cultural relativism. Activists against the practice believe in moral universals that exist amongst all cultures. The subjugation of women to FGM is seen as something that is morally reprehensible and thus should be eradicated globally according to world organizations. The question is, who defines the moral universals? Who controls the world organizations that determine policy in social issues pertaining not just to FGM, but other issues like birth control and contraception?

Required Readings

Boli & Thomas Chapter 39, 40, 41, 44

Defining Female Genital Mutilation 


Recommended Readings

Ethical vs. Cultural Relativism

When Rights and Culture Collide

Debate on FGM

Optional Readings 

Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women