Female Genital Mutilation: Human Rights and Cultural Relativity

This paper was presented by Efua Dorkenoo, at a workshop held in Siem Reap, Cambodia in August 2001. Culture and human rights, challenges and opportunities for human rights Work.

It was published in 'The Banyan Tree Paradox, Culture and human rights activism', International Human Rights Internship Program, 2006.

Female Genital Mutilation: Human Rights and Cultural Relativity


Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), also referred to as female circumcision or female genital cutting, constitutes all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for cultural or non-therapeutic reasons.

In 2001, 100-140 million girls and women were subjected to one of several forms of genital mutilation

In 2001, 100-140 million girls and women were subjected to one of several forms of genital mutilation[1]. Most of these girls and women live in 28 African countries, although some live in the Middle East and Asia. They are also increasingly found among immigrant population groups in Europe, the United Sates, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Review articles as well as UN and NGO documents frequently note that Type III FGM, the most severe form, is found in 15 percent of all affected women. The vast majority of these women are from Djibouti, Somalia and Sudan, although Type III is also found in parts of Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger Nigeria and Senegal where it accounts for 3% of women subjected to FGM in these countries. Approximately 80% of girls and women undergo partial or total clitoridectomy.

The age at which FGM is practised differs from one ethnic group to the other. The age of mutilation ranges from a few days old to adolescence - before marriage - and occasionally on pregnant women and on widows. It is estimated that 2 million girls are at risk of undergoing some form of the procedure every year.

There is ample clinical documentation of the short- and long-term health consequences of FGM. However, there are few large series of case reports or quantitative community-based reports of frequency and patterns of the consequences of FGM. The clinical case reports strongly suggest that the most severe forms of mutilation are particularly likely to result in serious and long-lasting physical complications. Data on the psychosexual and physiological health complications is scant, but it is here that most of the complications may predominate, particularly as girls and young women have more access to scientific information on FGM and become aware of their rights.

Like other social behaviours, the practice of FGM derives from varied and complex belief systems. The rationalisations for FGM include the beliefs that it is a "good tradition, " a religious requirement or a necessary rite of passage to womanhood, that it ensures cleanliness or better marriage prospects, prevents promiscuity and excessive clitoral growth, preserves virginity, enhances male sexuality and facilitates child birth.

The most severe forms of mutilation are particularly likely to result in serious and long-lasting physical complications

The degree of "fixedness" of FGM varies widely. For example, in some settings FGM persists essentially as a rite of passage whilst in other areas the focus is on the preservation of virginity, chastity and fidelity. The "cultural keepers" of the practice vary as well. Among the keepers in different settings may be excisors, older women in the family or culturally designated groups of women in the community and in some cases even male barbers.

To make sure that people conform to the practice, communities have put strong enforcement mechanisms into place. These include rejection as marriage partners of women who have not undergone FGM, immediate divorce for unexcised women, derogatory songs, public exhibitions and witnessing of complete removal before marriage, forced excisions and instillation of fear of the unknown through curses and evocation of ancestral wrath. On the other hand girls who undergo FGM are provided with rewards, including public recognition and celebrations, gifts, potential for marriage, respect and the ability to participate in adult social functions.

Human Rights and FGM

The female clitoris is anatomically analogous to the male penis and plays a central role in women's sexuality. The equivalent of mutilation performed on the male will be amputation in various degrees of the penis. In its comparable extreme form the penis will be stitched together so as to make sexual intercourse and other bodily functions difficult. The concern about FGM is based upon human rights standards and the health consequences. FGM constitutes an unacceptable violation of the rights of the girl child and adult women to their natural sexuality. International human rights covenants underscore the obligations of the United Nations member States to ensure the protection and promotion of human rights, including the rights to non-discrimination, to integrity of the person and to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.

This trauma imposed on the girl child is indicative of a practice comparable to torture

FGM violates the human rights of girls when performed on them as infants and young girls. The fundamental issue at stake here is that of consent. Whilst an adult is quite free to submit herself to a ritual or a tradition, a child, having no formed judgement, does not consent, but simply undergoes the mutilation (which in this case is irrevocable) while she is totally vulnerable [2]. The descriptions available of the reactions of the children - panic and shock from extreme pain, its taking six adults to hold down an eight year old girl - indicate a practice comparable to torture [3]. Girls who have undergone FGM Type III, where the vulva is closed except for a miniscule opening (equivalent of the head of a matchstick), may take a long time to void and for release of menstrual blood. This trauma imposed on the girl child is indicative of a practice comparable to torture.

Human rights treaties which are relevant to FGM are as follows:

Rights of Children

  • Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (prohibition of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment);
  • Article 2 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) (gender equality);
  • Article 19(1) of the CRC (prohibition of all forms of mental and physical violence and maltreatment);
  • Article 24(1) of the CRC (right to the highest attainable standard of health);
  • Article 37(1) of the CRC (States must take effective and appropriate measures to abolish traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children)

Other treaties which are violated are the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, in which Article 21 stresses: "appropriate measures can be taken in order to eradicate practices and customs which are prejudicial to the child." [4]

Rights of Women

Article 5(a) of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) calls for States to take "all appropriate measures to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women."

Cultural relativity and FGM

A view opposing the belief that FGM constitutes a human rights abuse is that of cultural relativity. This viewpoint comes from a number of sources - nationalists, some Western cultural anthropologists, Western liberals and elite African women who advocate for a right to cultural self-determination. This viewpoint has shifted quite a lot in the last decade, as human rights arguments have gained ground. However, the relativism position is never far from the surface, as can be seen from ongoing changes in the terminology. The cultural relativity position held by different groupings is also never straightforward. There is a psychological interplay of guilt, shame, anger and fear embedded in the positions, the mix depending very much on the baggage which each defender of the practice brings to the debate. It also depends on who is raising the issue, where it is raised and the extent to which women themselves, as a coping mechanism, normalise the practice.


Note 1Classified by WHO Technical Working Group:
Type I Excision of the prepuce with or without excision of part or all of the clitoris;
Type II Excision of the prepuce and clitoris together with partial or total excision of the labia minora;
Type IIIExcision of part or all of the external genitalia and stitching/narrowing of the vaginal opening (infibulation); and
Type IV Unclassified.
Report of a WHO Technical Working Group, Geneva 17-19 July 1995, (WHO/FRH/WHD/96.10)
Note 2Dorkenoo E., Cutting the Rose. Female Genital Mutilation. The Practice and its Prevention (London: Minority Rights Publications, 1995)
Note 3Dorkenoo E., Cutting the Rose. Female Genital Mutilation. The Practice and its Prevention (London: Minority Rights Publications, 1995)
Note 4Dorkenoo E., Cutting the Rose. Female Genital Mutilation. The Practice and its Prevention (London: Minority Rights Publications, 1995)

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