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Female Genital Mutilation: A Violent Cultural Tradition

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She was so young she can't remember her age. They told her they were going to make her a "flower girl" -- an honor and a rite of passage in her village. She didn't understand the term, but what little girl wouldn't want to be a flower girl? She was showered with attention and enjoyed a special meal prepared just for the occasion. But when the celebrations subsided, she learned what becoming a flower girl really meant: She was taken to a secret room, tied up, gagged, held down by several older women and circumcised.

This week, this taboo topic known as female genital mutilation (FGM) is sparking much lively debate across the pond at the first UN-backed "Girl Summit" happening right now in London. The summit is aimed at eradicating the practice, as well as child, early and forced marriage, within a generation. FGM is performed on nearly 3 million girls in Africa every year, according to the World Health Organization. FGM is the total or partial removal of the external female genitalia. More than 125 million girls and women alive today have been cut in the 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East where FGM is most prevalent.

While the debate is lively at the Girls Summit, we wanted to take a moment to bring attention to it here in America because it deserves a global spotlight in order to find a solution to end this practice. However, the extreme challenge with ending FGM is that most of those who practice it don't believe they are doing any wrong.

For example, I first learned about FGM on a 1998 trip to Sierra Leone, where today an estimated 88 percent of girls are subjected to the practice. There, only 26 percent of girls and women think FGM should end. At its core it is a dangerous violation of human rights, but the practice in their eyes is a cultural symbol of purity intended to control a woman's sexuality.

Cultural tradition often dictates that FGM is a necessary part of properly raising a girl and, when it comes time to marry, society puts a high premium on girls who have been cut. The social pressure is especially strong for families in rural areas where the practice is most prevalent. A recent survey conducted by World Vision UK found that many people believe that local elders and tribal leaders will not accept or have a place in their communities for uncut girls. Despite the many health risks associated with the practice, FGM's perceived social and cultural benefits often take precedence over all other considerations.

How then, do you fight a battle so deeply rooted in culture?

The UN has condemned this practice as a violation of human rights. Twenty-four of the 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East where FGM is concentrated have passed anti-FGM legislation, as have 33 non-practicing countries throughout the world. And, just this week during the Girls Summit, Prime Minister David Cameron called for a worldwide ban on female genital mutilation and child marriage, pledging stricter laws that punish those who cut their daughters. However, a recent Oxford University study has found that despite criminalization of FGM, social and cultural norms have led to a demand for underground circumcisions. While legislation is crucial to the fight, changing the cultural beliefs that embrace and encourage FGM is even more essential. A holistic approach that addresses the socio-economic and health impacts, as well as the spiritual beliefs that underlie FGM, is the only way to achieve this change.

Though in its infancy, elements of a holistic approach to end FGM have begun to take root. As more light is shed on the subject and it becomes less taboo, individuals and community leaders -- with support from NGOs -- are stepping up educational efforts that address the practice.

Critical to the success of all of these efforts is a fundamental focus on the value of women. FGM reflects deep-set gender inequality, and until men and women alike recognize the value of women separate from their perceived purity, the practice will continue. But that's not all -- dangerous myths must be disputed and education on health risks must begin early. On a socio-economic level, alternate means of generating income must be established in vulnerable communities, so that the women who perform the procedure aren't forced to rely on income derived from circumcision rituals.

Most importantly, religious leaders must advocate for change. Yet, this tactic is slow to catch on. Despite evidence that social change is best fostered when religious leaders use their influence to end FGM, many pastors remain reluctant to speak out, believing the subject inappropriate for church. Slowly, however, this paradigm is shifting, but we still have a long journey ahead. Church leaders hold a unique influence over communities and culture that government and law enforcement officials are unable to match, and by exercising this influence, we will see advancements in the movement.

The Girls Summit is just the beginning of an ongoing conversation and I'm encouraged by the increasing number of individuals and church leaders in practicing and non-practicing countries that agree: we've been silent on FGM too long, and we can't afford to be silent any longer. Lives are on the line: it's time to all stand together to change cultural norms; change the status quo and end FGM for good.

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Jo Anne Lyon is the General Superintendent for The Wesleyan Church and the founder of World Hope International, an international Christian NGO working with vulnerable and exploited communities worldwide. Andrea Summers is the Director of Women's Ministries for The Wesleyan Church and oversees Good News for Girls, The Wesleyan Church's initiative to raise awareness and end FGM in Sierra Leone. The Wesleyan Church and World Hope International are partners in the effort to end FGM in Sierra Leone through country-wide prevention and education. They hope to expand preventative and educational efforts to other countries in the future.