Female Genital Mutilation – An Ethical Perspective

Comic Relief raised awareness about female genital mutilation in it’s documentary Stop Cutting our Girls  last Wednesday on BBC1 at 10pm. And rightly so – it is an issue that effects women worldwide, although predominantly in Africa.  From a philosophical perspective, what is the ethics behind female genital mutilation and what would be the feminist perspective? What is female genital mutilation? How can we raise awareness and prevent it?

What is Female Genital Mutilation?

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is the removal of some or all of the female genital parts. There are different types of FGM. It often involves the surgical removal of the labia (lips of the vagina) and clitoris (gland for female sexual pleasure). The four main types of FGM are outlined on the World Health Organisation factsheet on FGM. FGM is currently practiced in 28 countries of central Africa (http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/femalecircumcision/femalecirc_1.shtml#h4). Young girls from infancy to 15 years old are mostly at risk.

Is Female Gentital Mutilation a concern in the UK?

FGM is absolutely a concern in the UK. Comic Relief informed us that 130,000 women in the UK have survived FGM. According to the World Health Organisation, over 3 million girls worldwide are at risk annually. Some UK based families originally from Africa are taking their girls out of the country on ‘holiday’ to be ‘cut’. UK border control are questioning people on incoming and outgoing flights to monitor and intervene.

What is the Feminist viewpoint on Female Genital Mutilation?

A feminist would argue that FGM is a way to control a woman by preventing her from sexual pleasure. As FGM prevents a woman from climaxing and from experiencing her sexual urges, it means that within society, men would say that she ‘can focus on her world and bringing up children’. This is what a feminist would argue that FGM is for – controlling women in society and denying them sexual pleasure. It reduces a woman’s libido (sex drive) and therefore (arguably) prevents her from taking part in illicit sexual acts.

From an ethical perspective, FGM is clearly abuse and unethical. It is not like male circumcision, where a small piece of foreskin is removed. In female genital mutilation, the whole of the female sexual organ is often removed (clitoridectomy). From a deontological ethical perspective, the action is inherently wrong because it causes physical and emotional trauma to the female. The result can be blood loss, infection and ultimately, the lack of being able to bear children. The World Health Organisation and several leading international charities have declared FGM as a violation of human rights.

“Female genital mutilation…is a form of violence against girls and women that has serious physical and psychological consequences which adversely affect health and is a reflection of discrimination against women and girls.” World Health Organization. Regional Plan of Action to Accelerate the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation in Africa. Brazzaville: WHO, 1997.

Is FGM a Religious Act? FGM and Cultural Relativism

Althougt it often occurs for social, cultural or religious reasons, no religion promotes FGM in its Holy book. FGM is not mentioned by the Torah, Bible or Qur’an. However, some religious leaders in some societies do promote FGM. Should people be allowed to practice FGM according to their religious beliefs or cultural traditions?

Cultural relativism is the viewpoint that all cultures have their own standards regarding on what is right and wrong. There is no universal moral truth. This would mean that FGM is neither right or wrong, because it is wrong to judge other cultures by Western standards (Dominik Wilkinson, University of Oxford). What is permissable for one society may not be for another.

However, the argument of cultural relativism is logically flawed. If the argument was accepted, it would allow for some of the worst atrocities of the world such as the Rwandan genocide and the Holocaust. The bottom line is that religion, culture or tradition should not be excuses for abuse.

How can we Education about FGM and Prevent it from Occurring?

The key to preventing FGM is education. Education and discussion in the UK needs to become more widespread and overcome as a ‘taboo’ subject. But the need for education is really at a grass roots level in the African countries where FGM is a social norm.

The World Health Organisation passed a resolution to eliminate FGM by….

  • Strengthening healthcare responses.
  • Building evidence (gaining knowledge on how to eliminate FGM).
  • Increasing advocacy to end FGM.

Please leave your comments below. What is your view on the ethics of FGM? How can we stop female genital mutilation?

Stop FGM Now!

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