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Brussels Places Research On Female Genital Mutilation Centre-Stage

June 10, 2017

The 2nd International Academic Seminar on FGM was an excellent opportunity to exchange information, meet new colleagues and consolidate old friendships.  For these reasons alone attendance was well worthwhile, but for me this two day meeting on 8 and 9 June 2017 also prompted afreshsome considerations around the fundamentals of the challenge to #EndFGM.   And so I share below some notes on the FGM knowledge gaps and praxis issues with which I think we are all confronted.  Your thoughts on my provisional analysis will be warmly welcomed.

These thoughts are in no particular order – they all arose simply via my musings on the discussions during the symposium – but they are points on which I continue to ponder:

How can we bridge the ‘divide’ between activist-survivors and academic researchers?
There are probably many possible responses to this question, but here is one….  we, all of us, need to grasp the concept of market segmentation.  Usually employed as a strategy for selling goods and services, it surely also has a place in selling ideas around ‘NoFGM’.

Some of us work (or give our time, more often) on the ground, in communities where the message must be embedded.  Some of us seek to understand the drivers of FGM in many forms and places. Some of us lobby to secure resources to support the activities of the first two groups.  All of us have a role to play.

The problem is not perhaps so much that we have different tasks to perform, as that these are differently regarded and rewarded. More often, those who decide who shall be supported are in paid professional roles and their voices are heard.  Those who undertake the research and write the academic reports may also be in that category (although, for clarity, I almost always am not).  And those who toil on the ground are expected to volunteer, and somehow to deliver on the basis of self-resourcing, without much opportunity to share in a constructive and safe way their knowledge of the communities in which they operate.

All ‘segments’ of the EndFGM endeavour are essential; but they can’t be fully effective without appreciating each others’ roles – maybe more effort to converse is required of all of us here?- and without fair resourcing and parity of esteem between all players.

Does FGM cause traumatised communities?
It is now widely recognised that military veterans may experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): they experience flashbacks, the trigger events are continually revisited in their minds, they find it difficult to relax and enjoy life, and they may seek only the company of others who have had the same experience.

Perhaps the same applies to people whose communities routinely practise circumcision (female and perhaps also male)?  Does this in part explain why the practice is so difficult to eradicate?

We already know that girls who have FGM (like boys who recall undergoing male circumcision / MGM?) are very unwilling to attribute unkind motives to their parents; they usually believe the procedure is in their best interests.  Beyond that – who knows? – they may also seek the company especially of other survivors because of a psychological need to relive the experience.

Thus far very little has been said on this topic, but it may be important.  At the very least, we might perhaps consider how the work of psychiatrists such as Bessel van der Kolk, who has studied PTSD in military veterans and other western traumatised civilians, might apply in alternative (and, yes, very different) communities.

Something is making progress to stop FGM very slow. Could routinely traumatised communities be one aspect of the obstacles in our way?

Is it time to drop the term ‘cutting’?
The terminological divide between (generally, and especially) anthropologists  and other campaigners and researchers concerned with FGM is often wide.  Most anthropologists still prefer to talk about ‘female genital cutting’, whilst usually the rest of us acknowledge the wishes of leading African women, and in formal discussion refer to ‘female genital mutilation’.

This difference in emphasis can be a proxy for different understandings of FGM.  Those who refer to ‘mutilation‘ take a human rights approach which acknowledges no exceptions to the notion that FGM is a crime, the ultimate in patriarchy incarnate, however it is perceived by those who inflict it.

Anthropologists (or Anthr/Apologists, as the academic and publisher Tobe Levin calls them) often however claim that the word ‘cutting’ is more in line with the intention, which is not to hurt (so we are told; the evidence is mixed – FGM can also be a punishment, or preparation simply to ‘sell’ the girl on for the best price) but to nurture.

Sometimes we may need to use softer or colloquial terminology when speaking within communities – barriers to understanding never help – but references to ‘cutting’ in a formal and professional contexts are not acceptable.  If our aim is to engage others in the quest to stop FGM, it is essential that we call it out for what it actually is.

In the words of (medical) Dr Morissanda Kouyate, director of the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children:

Regardless of the names and the forms given to FGM, the practice will always remain what it is: mutilation.

* * *

Are the eradication of footbinding and FGM comparable?
As a young child I met Gladys Aylward, the ‘real person’ behind the film The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, a dramatic retelling of the story Aylward relates in her own book, a copy of which (along with the cloth doll) I still have.  There are obviously differences between female feet and female genitals – the former are much more easily observed than the latter – but another difference is that, according to Gladys Aylward, the eradication of footbinding was ordered by the Mandarin (ruler) of the province: It would seem that the decision to cease footbinding was made by indigenous men in positions of power, enforced by agency on their behalf…. so do we need to revisit assumptions about how the feet of Chinese girls were eventually unbound? Do we need to ask not only how can enforcement be procured (feet are easier…) but also who decided to impose eradication?







* * *

Held in Brussels and co-funded by the EU, this research seminar was organised by Dr Els Leye in collaboration with VRIJE Universiteit  and RHEA, the Centre for Expertise in Gender, Diversity and Intersectionality.  Those attending included academics from across Europe and Africa, with a focus on methodology and work-in-progress, especially in health and social science research.

The full title of the seminar was Female Genital Mutilation / Cutting at the intersection of qualitative, quantitative and mixed method research – Experiences from Africa and Europe..(draft agenda).. and, happily for me, the entire proceedings were still, despite the looming (and exceedingly ill-advised) threat of Brexit, conducted in English.   A publication from MAP-FGM had already been prepared: Multisectoral Academic Training Guide on Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (directed by Adriana Kaplan and Laura Nuno Gomez, and co-ordinated by Magaly Thill and Nora Salas Seoane) and a report of the proceedings of the seminar will be produced shortly.

Read more about FGM and Brexit

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Books by Hilary Burrage on female genital mutilation

Eradicating Female Genital Mutilation: A UK Perspective (Hilary Burrage, Ashgate / Routledge 2015).   Full contents and reviewsHERE.

FEMALE MUTILATION: The truth behind the horrifying global practice of female genital mutilation  (Hilary Burrage, New Holland Publishers 2016).   Full contents and reviews HERE.



There is a free FGM hotline for anyone in the UK: 0800 028 3550, or email:

Details of NHS Specialist Services for FGM here.
More info and posts on FGM here.
Activists, service providers and researchers may like to join the LinkedIn group Female Genital Mutilation (FGM): Information, reports and research, which has several hundred members from around the world.
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.

Twitter accounts:

  @NoFGM_UK@NoFGMBookUK@FemaleMutlnBook@FGMStatement@NoFGM_USA@NoFGM_Kenya@NoFGM_France@GuardianEndFGM [tag for all: #NoFGM] and @StopMGM.

Facebook page: #NoFGM – a crime against humanity

Email contact: via Hilary.

[NB The Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children, which has a primary focus on FGM, is clear that in formal discourse any term other than ‘mutilation’ concedes damagingly to the cultural relativists – though the terms employed may of necessity vary in informal discussion with those who by tradition use alternative vocabulary. See the Feminist Statement on the Naming and Abolition of Female Genital Mutilation,  The Bamako Declaration: Female Genital Mutilation Terminology and the debate about Anthr/Apologists on this website.]

PLEASE NOTE:This article concerns approaches to the eradication specifically of FGM.  I am also categorically opposed to MGM, but that is not the focus of this particular piece.Anyone wishing to offer additional comment on more general considerations around infant and juvenile genital mutilation is asked please to do so on the relevant dedicated thread, originally developed in June 2012:The Other FGM Debate: Is Male Circumcision (MGM) Also Child Abuse?Pending further notice, discussion of the general issues re M/FGM will not be published unless they are posted on this dedicated page. Thanks.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 9, 2017 02:58

    As always, Hilary, I am in awe of your incisive analyses and grateful for the fulcrum you provide for my thoughts. Here I’d like to dialogue on a number of points but have time just now (before checkout) for only the first. Others will follow.

    So to begin, I regret that other commitments prevented my participation in this follow up to the earlier gathering on “Challenges in Estimating the Prevalence of Female Genital Mutilation in the European Union and Recommendations for Futures Estimations,” Het Instituut voor de gelijkheid van vrouwen en manne in Brussels, Belgium, on 27-28 February 2017 also organized by Els Leye.

    Featuring social science presentations, details were rich with new insights though, as a humanist, I admit to missing an emerging literary turn. Further, as an amateur historian of the movement – a ‘title’ based on 40 years documenting it- I’d caution against numbering academic conferences.

    In July 1992, founder of FORWARD Efua Dorkenoo, for instance, held a “first academic study conference” on FGM in London and, more recently, as a star contributor yourself, you’ll remember at the University of Oxford, “Four specific Challenges to Ending FGM: Medicalisation, Female Genital (Cosmetic) Surgery, Asylum, and (Lack of) Education (about FGM),” Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford on 10 March 2017. This in turn followed an international academic conference, “At the University of Oxford, Contestations around FGM: Activism and the Academy” on 7 March 2015.

    Further comments to follow…

    • July 9, 2017 09:12

      Of course Tobe, you are 100% correct re the numerous previous conferences, and, as a contributor myself to other similar events, I was and am very conscious of the issue you raise in that respect! But that is the title the organisers used, and I imagined – hopefully correctly – that the enumerated naming referred simply to the number of such seminars that have been funded by the European Union? (You’ll remember that the US Government and allied organisations also claimed a ‘first’ for the Washington DC event in December 2016 – attended by us both.)

      On other more substantive matters, I look forward very much to your further commentary – I really hope this little blog will produce a lot of deeper insights from long-time activists/ observers such as yourself!

      Thanks again.

  2. July 10, 2017 14:32

    Reblogged this on fitdaddancing.

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