Wednesday 28 August is the day when a small group of women, me included, launch our Feminist Statement On Female Genital Mutilation. We hope that many people around the world will choose to support us by putting their names also to this statement.
The basic premise of our statement is this:
Patriarchal oppression is the bedrock of female genital mutilation (FGM) and related harmful traditional practices... female genital mutilation (FGM) in all its forms is cruelty and abuse.
And our aim in publishing the statement is:
... to gather support, from concerned citizens and from people directly working to abolish FGM, for research, dialogue and activism which derives from such an understanding. To that end we insist, for instance, that FGM be correctly named - as specifically 'mutilation' and not, in formal discourse, by any evasive or softening euphemism.
Our core team of authors and signatories is small: Tomi Adeaga, Paula Ferrari, Tobe Levin, Lucy Mashua Sharp, Linda Weil-Curiel and myself. Coming respectively (by home or origin) from Germany, Nigeria, Australia, the USA, Kenya, France and the UK, mostly we have never met in person; but in some cases we have 'met' almost daily over many months by email, as we discovered through the power of the internet our mutual horror at the deadly cruelty that is the female genital mutilation of girls and even babies.
Millions still suffer
The number of women and girls forced to undergo this barbaric torture hovers steadily at around thirty-plus million a year, increasing annually in the 'developed' countries of Europe, and in the USA and Australia.
Yes, there are reports of reduced incidence; but still there are nations where almost all the female population remains, to use the euphemism we resolutely refuse to accept, 'circumcised', where almost no woman or girl is 'intact'. Indeed, the World Health Organisation (WHO) is alarmed that, e.g. in Egypt, traditional so-called 'practices' are being replaced by 'treatment' - 'medicalisation' lucratively delivered in make-shift clinics by professionally trained operatives.
And now a recently published UNFPA report suggests that the currently favoured approach to erasing FGM, seeking to 'respect' FGM as a traditional practice and substituting non-harmful rites of passage, does not alone deliver.
It's good to respect people of all cultures, but absolutely not good to respect things they do - because everyone else has for millennia - which kill and maim their children.
The basic human rights of children must always over-ride the 'cultural' sensitivities of adults.
Each person in the FGM statement core group explains the issues in her own way, but our general analysis of the dire failure to protect girls from practices which will damage them forever, is, bluntly put, something like this:
Until nations everywhere perceive FGM not as a custom, but rather as an epidemic which must be addressed by governments as well as community workers, it will continue to blight the lives of millions. Whole communities over generations suffer because of it.
Yes, explanations, education and support to do things another way are crucial, as is the engagement of faith leaders to reinforce the message that FGM has no religious validity (rather, the converse) .
But in the end the state must reinforce the message with zero tolerance of FGM as a crime - which almost all nations now declare in statute (and they all declare in the UN Resolution of 2012) that it is.
So law enforcement, across the globe, is as important as education, and much more important in this age of universally shared knowledge than 'respect' for the grievous bodily harm of FGM.
Powerful invisible interests
It is however equally important to recognise that behind this grim tradition lies the iron grip of many, many generations of self-interest, of powerful people who benefit financially and in terms of influence and control from the enforced mutilation of female children.
Some of those who benefit are the grandes dames of the mutilating communities - the secret Sande Society women who control or perpetrate the torture. But always behind them stand the shadowy men who pull the real strings: the men who prefer child brides, the men who sell their barely teenage daughters, freshly mutilated, into marital slavery, the men who decree, perhaps via their womenfolk, that 'unclean' (uncircumcised) women are unfit to be members of the community.
Consider the latest evidence for our position that FGM is patriarchy incarnate: the Maasai are a tribe has practised FGM down the ages; but it is also one of the few where women own land. Now, those women are beginning to think they should stop mutilating their daughters. If they do, however, it's said the men insist women will have to give up their land.
Each of us in the core group who produced the FGM Statement, as we acknowledge, has our own reasons for choosing to fight FGM with our keyboards and our words across the world-wide-web, wherever we are. We are very proud that people who also support our position with their words include Elfriede Jelinek, Nobel Laureate in Literature, 2004, and Dr Morissanda Kouyaté, Executive Director of the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (IAC).
Enough of the respectful musings on 'cutting'. FGM is mutilation, sometimes murder.
And it's also about massive control and power. How can girls still tortured become the beacons of hope for the future which their nations, and all of us across the global community, need them to be?
Will you - wherever and whoever you are - use your keyboard, like us, to demand that FGM be labelled for what it is, a cruelly oppressive crime, a matter of zero tolerance, right now?
~ ~ ~
You can read more of Hilary Burrage's work on FGM here. She is currently writing a book, 'Eradicating FGM: a UK perspective'
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