On Friday, November 23rd, the United Kingdom (U.K.) pledged £50 million towards ending female genital mutilation (FGM) in Africa. This investment was part of a five-year program to support projects across Africa to implement education and legislation surrounding FGM. It was also part of a larger international scheme to end FGM worldwide by 2030. The British government claimed it was the largest single foreign investment towards ending FGM.
The British government stated that the Department for International Development will work with local governments to implement laws against FGMs. They plan on working with religious leaders to address the misconception that FGM is a required religious practice. These approaches have been successful in Sudan. According to the British government, the social acceptance of FGM has fallen by approximately 18%. They also report that six Sudanese states have passed legislation against FGM and that the Sudanese Midwifery Council has implemented rules that ban midwives from performing FGM.
The ease of international travel and immigration has turned FGM into an especially challenging human rights issue. Although FGM is illegal in many countries, the United Nations Population Fund reported that FGM has affected over 200 million women and girls. Although FGM became illegal in the U.K. in 1985, FGM continued to be practiced abroad. Further legislation was introduced in 2003 and 2005 that made it an offence to arrange FGM internationally for both British citizens and permanent residents. However, these offences are difficult to prosecute due to the private nature of the crime. There are also many families that are willing to travel for the procedure if they cannot arrange it in their home country. Often migrant families perceive the FGM’s criminalization and male circumcision as a double standard, which complicates the issue further.
These issues are illustrated in academic Doriane Lambelet Coleman’s article “The Seattle Compromise.” She analyzed an incident between members of the Somali diaspora and the Harborview Hospital in the United States in the 1990’s. The hospital continually received requests for both female and male circumcision by Somali families. The former requests were rejected. However, several families made it clear that the procedure would be performed on their next visit to Somalia or by a local Somali midwife. Concerned by the dangers of this procedure, a hospital committee and the families came to a compromise: the hospital could perform a small cut that could satisfy the symbolic cultural norm, while ensuring the baby’s health. Although this procedure described was never performed, the incident illustrates the cultural tensions associated with anti-FGM initiatives.
Fortunately, the British government’s investment seems to be going towards local programs that have already been successful in managing these cultural tensions. The BBC reported that aid money would be given to local organizations such as the Saleema Project in Sudan. This project was an initiative launched by the National Council or Child Welfare and UNICEF Sudan in 2008. The initiative aims to end FGM by promoting an alternative, positive narrative about the female body and the status of women and girls. According to the initiative’s webpage, the word “Saleema” in Arabic means “whole, healthy in body and mind, unharmed, pristine and perfect in God-given condition.” Hopefully, these kind of initiatives will raise awareness not just to the harms of FGM, but to the complexities and contradictions within the discussion.
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