Stifling Stigma: Why Avoiding Judgement is Key for Accelerating the Abandonment of Female Genital Cutting
When discussed in the global North and West, the issue of Female Genital Cutting (FGC) often sparks visceral reactions of fear, disgust, anger, and dejection. Among the most common responses is an expressed inability to comprehend why the practice is performed and how it continues to be a reality for millions of women throughout the developing world. Since the mid-20th century, health workers, feminists, national governments, and international organizations have singled out FGC for intervention, strongly condemning the practice for the troubling health consequences it presents and for its role in the continued underdevelopment of women (Herlund & Shell-Duncan, 2007).
The practice is now considered by all influential global agencies and political actors to be strictly counter-normative (Herlund, & Shell-Duncan, 2007; Cook, 2008). The United Nations officially denounces the practice of “Female Genital Mutilation” as a violation of Human Rights and as a form of Violence Against Women (Herlund & Shell-Duncan, 2007). This assimilation of FGC into the dominant international Human Rights framework has helped increase global awareness of the issue (Cook, 2008; Gruenbaum, 2005). However, it has not necessarily contributed to a more meaningful understanding of the role FGC plays in practicing communities or of the social dynamics that preserve the tradition (Herlund & Shell-Duncan, 2008; Herlund & Shell-Duncan, 2006).
Consequently, increased awareness has largely failed to translate into meaningful strategies for accelerating the abandonment of the practice (Shell-Duncan, 2008). Too often, communities practicing FGC have interpreted the fierce condemnation of the practice and its portrayal as being purely oppressive to women as yet another form of Western aggression. Accordingly, the proliferation of anti-FGC rhetoric has in large part served only to obscure the true complexity of the issue and to complicate efforts to protect the health and human rights of the girls and women concerned.
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Grace Saul graduated from McGill University in May, 2013 with an Honours B.A. in International Development Studies and a minor in French Language and Literature. She worked as an intern and research assistant at McGill’s Institute for Health and Social Policy before moving to Senegal, where she is currently working as a volunteer assistant to the Monitoring, Evaluations, Research, and Learning department of the NGO Tostan. She is interested in human rights education and social change, gender and development, and social determinants of public health.