Female Genital Cutting: Would you let someone ‘nick’ your daughter?

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There’s a great episode of The Simpsons where Bart makes a collect call to Australia to see which direction their water drains.  After the call leaves an Australian family with a huge phone bill, the Simpson family gets flown to Australia so Bart can make a public apology.

The curveball, they discover, is that Bart must also get a booting — with a very large boot — from the Prime Minister.  After a string of antics, chases and negotiations, the Australians tell the Simpsons that the Prime Minister wants “just wants to kick Bart once, through the gate, with a regular shoe.”

Like any good mother, Marge refuses.  It wasn’t the severity of the kick that mattered, it was the desire to commit a violent act on her child.

Though the example is silly, the principle is not.  It’s a parent’s duty to protect their child.

When I think of the girls whose parents have sent them to have their genitals butchered I’m horrified and dumbfounded.  The thought is so abhorrent that I cannot understand the parents as anything other than child abusers.

Female Genital Cutting (a.k.a. Female Genital Mutilation) is illegal in the United States but it was revealed in a recent article on Salon that it still happens in the U.S. – either in secret or by sending their girls overseas to be cut. In a lovely turn of events, that article inspired new legislation in the U.S. that makes it illegal for families to travel outside of the US to have their daughters’ genitals mutilated.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has gone in another direction.  In an effort to limit the amount of physical harm, the AAP recommends a compromise(PDF): give the girls a “ritual nick” instead of banning any genital tampering in order to “build trust between hospitals and immigrant communities.”

Their motivations are good, and from a purely medical standpoint I can understand the AAP’s position.   After all, the less physical damage the better.  They do not condone FGC and they do want to want to prevent girls from being sent overseas to be cut.

But while I understand the desire to reduce harm, it’s irresponsible of the AAP to suggest a compromise in the name of cultural sensitivity and understanding tradition when the tradition is so seriously flawed.

Medical opinions are valued and taken as fact by most of society.  So while the statement by the AAP may be based only on medical information, it has social implications – namely it affects the public’s understanding of a women’s right to control her own body.

There are so many cultural differences and traditions we should be sensitive to (and even celebrating).  Violence is not one of them.

The physical harm caused to women from traditional FGC is an obvious enough reason to be opposed to the practice. It is painful (often performed with unsafe objects and without anaesthesia), unsanitary, dangerous, and it causes a slew of health problems including infections and infertility. It also prevents women from enjoying sex and safely giving birth.

But the reasons behind the practice are also important.  As noted by the AAP in their report: “FGC becomes a physical sign of a woman’s marriageability, with social control over her sexual pleasure by clitorectomy and over reproduction by infibulations (sewing together the labia so that the vaginal opening is about the width of a pencil).”

The intent of FGC is to prevent women’s sexual autonomy and control their lives.

By compromising we’re essentially saying the tradition and the motivations behind it are OK.

No matter how much physical damage is done, female genital cutting is a violent act.  We wouldn’t accept a compromise on other issues of violence against women (“Actually guys, it’s OK if you hit her just a little bit to satisfy your interests, as long as it doesn’t leave a very big mark.”) so why this one?

Education on the consequences of FGC is essential. Healthcare and support of women who have already been cut is also important.  But even one more cut is too much.

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3 thoughts on “Female Genital Cutting: Would you let someone ‘nick’ your daughter?

  1. I don’t see anything wrong with a small “nick”. Foreskin amputation is more painful than a “nick” but people are okay with infant circumcision.

    1. Yeah. Other people have made the argument too. I also don’t agree with male circumcision but I think the difference is that the intent of FGC is to control female sexuality.

  2. I’m not convinced the AAP has the purest of motives. The lead author of the AAP policy statement, Dena S. Davis, wrote this in 2003:

    “In the United States, many state laws, as well as a federal law, criminalize any ‘nonmedical’ surgery on the genitals of a female minor. The federal law explicitly states that the ‘ritual’ or ‘cultural’ beliefs of anyone involved in
    the procedure are not a defense…

    “Ethically, such bias shows a real lack of respect for the cultural and religious beliefs that ground parental decisions about female genital surgeries. By refusing to engage
    in any sort of compromise, such attitudes also show a lack of respect for parental motivations, which often include concern about the ability of surgically unaltered girls to marry within the community. This lack of openness to any form of female genital surgery is especially startling when framed by the American laissez-faire attitude toward male circumcision.”

    Question: Would a “nick” satifisfy those who object to “surgically unaltered” girls?

    Cultural sensitivity is nice, but cultural sensitivity is poor justification for expanding the practice of ritual female genital mutilation to the United States.

    As noted in the NY Times:

    Georganne Chapin, executive director of an advocacy group called Intact America, said she was “astonished that a group of intelligent people did not see the utter slippery slope that we put physicians on” with the new policy statement. “How much blood will parents be satisfied with?”

    She added: “There are countries in the world that allow wife beating, slavery and child abuse, but we don’t allow people to practice those customs in this country. We don’t let people have slavery a little bit because they’re going to do it anyway, or beat their wives a little bit because they’re going to do it anyway.”

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