USA Perspectives And Terminologies Re: Female And Male Genital ‘Mutilation’, ‘Circumcision’ Or ‘Cutting’?
A question posted on Quora asks: Why does the USA call female circumcision ‘female genital mutilation’ when male circumcision is widespread in the country? Implicit here are also I think a number of other enquiries: are FGM and MGM (male genital mutilation / circumcision) ‘the same’? Is MGM acceptable because it’s still relatively widespread in the USA? And maybe also, what is the correct terminology for these harmful traditional practices? In my view both FGM and MGM are human rights issues which must be confronted and stopped.
I list here some of the information I shared in response to the Quora question, including some links to other material.
It is important also to note that, in Western contexts, ‘cutting’ is an act of self-harm done by people experiencing psychological pain. The term ‘cutting’ is for that reason doubly inappropriate with reference to FGM or MGM. (In some traditional contexts however it is an appropriate word to use in totally informal, community-based discussion, although not in professional dialogue, where, as discussed above, the appropriate term in ‘mutilation’.)
Here are some articles / blogs which examine various parts of possible answers to this question:
(much comment and discussion at the end of the piece)
and especially the talk by Dr Tobe Levin on MGM …
And here is a note on terminology from UNFPA
The UNFPA (2015) adopts a human rights perspective, stating that the correct terminology in formal contexts is Female Genital MUTILATION (quote)
Why are there different terms to describe FGM, such as female genital cutting and female circumcision?
The terminology used for this procedure has gone through various changes.
When the practice first came to international attention, it was generally referred to as “female circumcision.” (In Eastern and Northern Africa, this term is often used to describe FGM type I.) However, the term “female circumcision” has been criticized for drawing a parallel with male circumcision and creating confusion between the two distinct practices. Adding to the confusion is the fact that health experts in many Eastern and Southern African countries encourage male circumcision to reduce HIV transmission; FGM, on the other hand, can increase the risk of HIV transmission.
It is also sometimes argued that the term obscures the serious physical and psychological effects of genital cutting on women. UNFPA does not encourage use of the term “female circumcision” because the health implications of male and female circumcision are very different.
The term “female genital mutilation” is used by a wide range of women’s health and human rights organizations. It establishes a clear distinction from male circumcision. Use of the word “mutilation” also emphasizes the gravity of the act and reinforces that the practice is a violation of women’s and girls’ basic human rights. This expression gained support in the late 1970s, and since 1994, it has been used in several United Nations conference documents and has served as a policy and advocacy tool.
In the late 1990s the term “female genital cutting” was introduced, partly in response to dissatisfaction with the term “female genital mutilation.” There is concern that communities could find the term “mutilation” demeaning, or that it could imply that parents or practitioners perform this procedure maliciously. Some fear the term “female genital mutilation” could alienate practicing communities, or even cause a backlash, possibly increasing the number of girls subjected to the practice.
Some organizations embrace both terms, referring to “female genital mutilation/cutting” or FGM/C.
What terminology does UNFPA use?
UNFPA urges a human rights perspective on the issue, and the term “female genital mutilation” better describes the practice from a human rights viewpoint.
Today, a greater number of countries have outlawed the practice, and an increasing number of communities have committed to abandon it, indicating that the social and cultural perceptions of the practice are being challenged by communities themselves, along with national, regional and international decision-makers. Therefore, it is time to accelerate the momentum towards full abandonment of the practice by emphasizing the human-rights aspect of the issue.
Additionally, the term “female genital mutilation” is used in a number of UN and intergovernmental documents. One recent and important such document is the first UN General Assembly Resolution (UNGA Resolution 67/146) on “Intensifying global efforts for the elimination of female genital mutilations.” Other documents using the term “female genital mutilation” include: Report of the Secretary-General on Ending Female Genital Mutilation, Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council: Towards the elimination of female genital mutilation, Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa; Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action; and Eliminating female genital mutilation: An interagency statement. And each year, the United Nations observes the “International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation.”
– See more at:(UNFPA, Dec 2015)
Statement issued on 1 May 2015 by Dr Morissanda Kouyate, Executive Director of the:
Should candidates for suicide be encouraged?
It was with great sadness and concern that I read the interview with Bettina Shell-Duncan, anthropologist, entitled: “Why Some Women Choose to Get Circumcised”. (See post on Anthr/apology, above)
Based on the modest experience of 30 years’ activity of the Inter-African Committee in the fight for the elimination of female genital mutilation, I would like, once again, to emphasize that we must avoid falling into the trap set by those who seek fame and free publicity by opposing human achievements proven to be for the good of humanity, such as the fight to eradicate FGM in the world.
African women, and men (since men are the indirect target group of FGM), who are in majority the victims of this horrible practice, which is traditional not cultural, agree to engage fully in the campaign against this plague at all levels: community, national as well as regional through the African Union and African Heads of State. In order to show their willingness and commitment, and thanks to the advocacy of the Inter-African Committee and its partners, the African Heads of State not only adopted, in 2003, the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, on the Rights of Women, in which article 5 is exclusively dedicated to FGM; they also requested and obtained from the United Nations General Assembly the vote of Resolution 67/146 on the elimination of female genital mutilation, rightly considered a serious violation of human rights. Twenty African countries already have specific laws against FGM.
Refusing any navel-gazing and considering the problem of FGM as a universal challenge, the Africans are convinced that only a global mobilization will put an end to this harmful and degrading practice. This is why the prevalence of FGM is decreasing worldwide even though progress is slow. The achievements and results registered were unhoped for in the beginning of the fight.
I have always said that the fight for the elimination of female genital mutilation will not be won in air-conditioned amphitheaters with slides describing an African society of cave-dwellers entangled in harmful practices. An Africa that pathetic anthropologists strive to magnify in order to make people dream away from a world that is economically, politically and socially suffocating. The inexorable victory over FGM will be achieved through joint efforts throughout the world.
During the debate arising from the above-mentioned article, some compare female genital mutilation with male circumcision but they cannot be compared. If they were to be compared, the male circumciser should make the incision some 10 cm higher up.
Since Africa and the rest of the world say no to female genital mutilation, I make an urgent appeal to all actors: international, regional and national organizations, civil society and other good wills to devote their intelligence, their time, their forces and their resources to the fight for the elimination of this degrading practice and to ignore any provocation for promotional purposes.
I am a medical doctor not an anthropologist; but the only lesson I have learnt from anthropology is that in order to better observe a social group or community you need to apply the strategy called “participatory observation”, i.e. become immersed in the group, do exactly what it does and endure exactly what its members endure.
If the anthropologists interested in the phenomenon of female genital mutilation were to use the participatory observation approach, they would certainly not give the same idyllic description of what the victims of FGM are subjected to and we would have less controversy and debates.
Unfortunately, the victims of female genital mutilation are innocent girls and women who suffer the horrors of a harmful practice.
Instead of studying them from an anthropologic point of view, let us save them!
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I might also add that, as mentioned in my second book,, there are instances of women in traditional societies who demand to have the ‘right’ to inflict FGM on their daughters because the men are ‘allowed’ to conduct circumcision on their sons. I make it clear in this book, and in my first book, that I am opposed to both – unless there is a medical necessity (not preference) to conduct genital surgery, in which case the issue is one of proper clinical judgement, not of heritage or tradition, and the act is not one of mutilation. FGM and MGM are both denials of human rights and as such are harmful criminal acts, whether individual nations acknowledge that or not.
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Books by Hilary Burrage on female genital mutilation
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 relating specifically to 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.
FURTHER INFORMATION AND ACTION
There is a free FGM hotline for anyone in the UK: 0800 028 3550, or email:firstname.lastname@example.org
The (free) #NoFGM Daily News carries reports of all items shared on Twitter that day about FGM – brings many organisations and developments into focus.
Also available to follow at no cost or obligation is the #NoFGM_USA Daily News.
Facebook page: #NoFGM – a crime against humanity