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A Global Paradigm For ‘FGM Studies’?

February 3, 2016

13.05.26 Tobe Efua Hilary meet-up in Brown's Islington Notes 3Ashgate (Gower), the publishing company for my guide to / textbook on female genital mutilation, has been bought by Routledge, a part of the Taylor and Francis global group. It was nice therefore that they invited me to write something for their website about 6 February, International Zero Tolerance to FGM Day. So I explained why all aspects of stopping FGM must be put together coherently to ensure this harmful traditional practice is eradicated. A real paradigm for ‘FGM studies’ is essential….

There are times when coincidences are fortuitous. One such is the realisation of the true extent and horror of FGM as, over the past decade, global communication advances have facilitated a new determination to eradicate it everywhere.

On 6 February 2003 the then-First Lady of Nigeria, Stella Obasanjo – as spokesperson for the Campaign Against Female Genital Mutilation – declared that FGM must stop forthwith. At a conference organised by the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (the ‘IAC’ – itself founded in 1984, also on 6 February), Mrs Obasanjo announced that consensus on abolition had been reached. Henceforth, the date of this agreement would be observed annually by the United Nations as the International Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM.

Later events such as the Maputo Protocol (an African Union agreement, later in 2003), the Bamako Declaration (IAC, 2005) and the United Nations Declaration (Commission on the Status of Women, 2012) all reaffirmed this steadfast determination by those whose communities it most affects to have done with FGM.

And so, with the inexorably increasing reach of the internet, the International Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM has become a historic milestone in the calendar of FGM campaigners across the globe. On 6 February 2016 we celebrate the 14th year of this breakthrough achievement.

The message that FGM must cease, coming as one voice from nations where it has for centuries prevailed, has been amplified massively over the years, as the worldwide web has gained momentum.

It was this message, reaching me through the ether, that prompted my own small contribution to campaigns against FGM – my first book, finally published by Ashgate / Routledge in late 2015: Eradicating Female Genital Mutilation.

For me, concerns about FGM first arose when I learnt of it in the 1980s, but back then I was assured that the UK Parliament’s Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985 would see the practice banished, at least in Britain. Sadly, the post-millennial global evidence around the Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM has demonstrated how mistaken such optimistic expectations were.

I must admit my initial forays into FGM were tentative, grim and contested in equal measure. In the mid-noughties few had any accurate idea of the extent to which FGM still wrought havoc in the lives of women and girls. Now we know that perhaps upwards if 140 million people currently alive have been subjected to this cruel abuse of human rights. [Update, February 2020: the global figures are now known to be even higher than 140m, probably at least 200 million women and girls.]

At that point too the relativist argument – we can’t ‘interfere’ with other nations’ ‘customs’ – was still maintained by many who now regret that stance. During 2010 the then-Labour Government introduced a nascent national FGM Unit to tackle UK problems, but in 2011 the new Coalition Government closed it again, presumably because they saw little need for such a unit (it was reinstated in late 2015). Then we were told that FGM won’t stop in Britain until it stops in ‘Africa’. And so it went on.

Frankly, a lot people back then, hearing that a handful of us – campaigners and academics – were vexed about FGM, opined that we were ill-advised. It is a matter both of valediction and necessarily of tragedy that not many say that now we know the figures: five or six girls around the world are mutilated every minute of every day – that’s three million a year, of whom perhaps 140-170 thousand are British, and half a million plus each are continental Europeans and North Americans.

So what does my book offer? How does it accord with the global momentum towards eradicating FGM?

The book attempts to introduce the many and very disparate perspectives from which FGM is viewed, historically, anthropologically and in everyday reality, by campaigners, clinicians, lawyers, educators, media professionals, politicians, concerned citizens and, critically, by those who lives are directly affected, both in western societies and in traditionally practising communities. It would be impossible to do full justice to all these vantage points, but I have tried to indicate the overall facts and complexities which must be grasped if FGM is ever finally to be made history.

I have sought to establish a basis from which a considered discipline, a paradigm, for global ‘FGM Studies’ might emerge. In doing so I have drawn quite extensively on examples from Britain (where FGM has been in the news for the past few years); but whilst the book cites amongst others contemporary UK contacts and methodologies, it is not only about the UK. It is about FGM and similar harmful traditional practices (there are many), wherever they occur, and also about the ways in which these abuses might be remediated and stopped.

A great deal of work remains to be done, but bringing together in one volume a range of data, understandings, analyses, contacts and reference points is a start.

6 February, the International Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM, reminds us powerfully that this brutal abuse of human rights, the ultimate in patriarchy incarnate, must end. I hope, along with the work of many others, my book will help to advance that pressing and essential eradication.

Read more about FGM and Economics

Read more about FGM as Patriarchy Incarnate

Read more about Zero Tolerance for FGM

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For more detail and discussion of female genital mutilation please see my textbook, which considers in some detail the situation globally, but also explores the issues in Western nations:  Eradicating Female Genital Mutilation: A UK Perspective (Ashgate/Routledge, 2015). My second book, Female Mutilation: The truth behind the horrifying global practice of female genital mutilation (New Holland Publishers, 2016), contains narrative ‘stories’ (case studies) from about seventy people across five continents who have experienced FGM, either as survivors and/or as campaigners and activists against this harmful traditional practice.


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