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A study of female circumcision in Ethiopia in view of physical integrity: A human rights violation?

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), also known as Female Circumcision (FC) is a traditionally deep-rooted practice in East Africa. However, most countries in the world and international organisations view it as a violation of fundamental human rights, such as the right to physical integrity.Therefore, different legal frameworks trying to protect girls and women from female circumcision are presented. This article focuses on the situation in Ethiopia regarding the practice. In the following, different  perspectives on the issue will be provided.

The term “Female Genital Mutilation”[1] incorporates the negative association of the pure act of cutting and maiming, whereas the term “Female Circumcision” comprises the idea of ritual, cultural and religious habits, often accepted as necessity for wellbeing and regularly compared to male circumcision among Christians, Jews, and Moslems throughout the world.

This article will discuss the tension between a “violation of fundamental human rights” as claimed by many international organisations and the “cultural observance of the ceremonial act on female circumcision” as demanded by many African cultures. The difference between these two perceptions will be expressed by using the terms FGM and FC.

Definition and Prevalence of FC/FGM

Practices of FC can be dated back to Egypt to the fifth century BC[2]. While there are many theories about its origin, it is today known to be practiced in more than 25 African countries, in parts of the Middle East, Asia, and among immigrants in Europe, North America and Australia[3]. At the same time FC has been banned and penalized in many African countries in recent decades.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines FGM as:

“Female genital mutilation (FGM) comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.”[4]

 In a 2020 UNICEF report[5], they concluded that FGM occurs at a high percentage among girls and women aged 15-49 in a number of countries in East Africa such as Somalia (98%), Djibouti (94%), Sudan (87%), Eritrea (83%), Ethiopia (65%), and Kenya (21%).  Ethiopia, for example, while not among the countries with the highest numbers or percentages of FGM, has the highest absolute number of girls and women who have undergone FGM, with a population of 115 million.

FGM Legal foundations

Several international organisations such as WHO, UNICEF, UNDP, UNHCR and others condemn female genital mutilation as a human rights violation against women and girls.[6] It finally led to the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of discrimination against women (CEDAW)[7], which is a UN agreement aiming to end   the discrimination of women. For the African continent the African Charta on Humans and Peoples’ Rights[8] (Banjul Charta) exists, which promotes and protects human rights.

While the physical integrity of women and girls is protected by many different treaties and is an important foundation of human rights neither the Banjul Charter, nor the Maputo Protocol[9], nor the Charta on the Rights and Welfare of the child[10], clearly define “torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment” nor “harmful practices”. Thereby they are leaving a judicial tolerance for partially legitimating female genital mutilation.

FGM Legislation in Ethiopia

Ethiopia has signed most aforementioned international treaties and since 2004 the Constitution of the Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (1995)[11] prohibits harmful practices in several articles. The Criminal Code of Ethiopia[12] not only prohibits but also criminalises the practices of FGM

The Criminal Code of Ethiopia has defined, clarified, judged, punished, and added further measures to prevent female genital mutilation. Since 1970, the prevalence of FGM among minors (girls from age 15 to 19 years) in Ethiopia has dropped from 90% to less than 50%.[13] Ethiopia has thus implemented the foundations for the elimination of FGM. The country now needs to continuously improve its enforcement measurements and instruments.

Non legal measurements

In order to achieve this goal, many NGOs organize community dialogs among women, elders, mothers and school children, initiate media campaigns to raise awareness of FGM in many languages and support other traditional organizations and religious leaders in educating on the issue.. These programs are mainly supported by women’s rights organizations. Finally, medical organizations focus on medical staff, clinics, health and social services applying standard tools and guidelines in medical and paramedical schools.[14]

Problems of implementing legal measurements

Some countries might have just undergone the process of adopting international laws, because of the rising pressure on these governments by Western standards. However, others, like Ethiopia, have not just adopted, but also adapted them to local conditions, traditions, behaviour, and necessities. Still, they need to be implemented within all federal states in order to be fully effective. In a country with over 80 languages, it would hardly make sense to disseminate anti-female circumcision campaigns only in the official language, Amharic. Campaigns, educational programs, and all kinds of instruction papers need to be translated into the local languages.

Family and village community bonds often prevent cases of female genital mutilation from being reported. Without a suspect, no crime can be brought to justice. Victims and witnesses must not be intimidated into testifying. Instead, they must be encouraged and empowered.

Anthropological view

Richard A. Shweder, an American culture-anthropologist and advocate against ethnocentrism, has a methodologically different view on FC. This perspective was initiated by his paper: “What about “Female Genital Mutilation”? And why Understanding Cultural Matters in the First Place,”[15] and contributes to a critical debate, especially in the western discourse.

In this paper, he raises the questions that anti-FGM activist may have been one-sided. The different ways of life are not tolerated and are hastily judged by the global world community. Furthermore, he states that the general research on the procedures and the negative consequences are very small. He also points out that anthropologists are able to provide a different perspective and perhaps better information on this matter due to their knowledge and methods of understanding different cultures. The complete ban on female circumcision results mainly from Western feminists and other human rights activists who are often not from circumcised groups.

In his paper, Shweder provides few speakers a voice which share a similar perspective on FC as himself. One important scholar regarding a critical perspective on FC is Fuambai Sia. She is a Sierra Leonean-US-American anthropologist who, being born in Sierra Leone and growing up in the US, returned to Sierra Leone at the age of 22 to get circumcised. The Kono women of Sierra Leone, where she originated from, feel empowered by circumcision. She values the cultural belonging higher than the fact of physical integrity. Fuambai Sia sees the term FGM as ethnocentric, racist, and sexist. The use of the term female circumcision makes it equal to the male equivalent, a practice not nearly as much criticised.

Conclusion

Female circumcision is an ancient cultural tradition in many African countries, and it is only in modern times that many countries have banned it and made it a punishable offence. Governments and anthropologists agree that this practice has acute physical and psychological consequences for girls and women. What is in dispute, however, is the complete ban on female circumcision, even for adult women. Legislators do not see any advantages of female circumcision for women, whereas their opponents argue that this ban is cultural imperialism. Legally, and without considering the anthropological and religious background of female circumcision, FGM must be considered as a violation of human rights as stated by different international treaties. Considering the anthropological view and opinion of experts on cultural and religious issues, the law against FGM must be questioned. The discussion should be limited to the question of female circumcision of an adult woman on her own free will.

Zenash Keller is a student at the University of Bayreuth. This article is based on a seminar paper.


[1] World Health Organisation, ‘Female genital mutilation’ (21 January 2022) <https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/female-genital-mutilation> accessed 06 June, 2022

[2] Studie der weiblichen Genitalverstümmlung (October 2005) <https://www.frauenrechte.de/images/downloads/fgm/EU-Studie-FGM.pdf> accessed 06 July 2022

[3] UNICEF, ‘Female genital mutilation (FGM)‘ (May 2022) <https://data.unicef.org/topic/child-protection/female-genital-mutilation/> accessed 06 June 2022

[4] World Health Organisation, ‘Female genital mutilation’ (21 January 2022) <https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/female-genital-mutilation> accessed 06 June, 2022

[5] United Nations Children’s Fund, ‘A Profile of Female Genital Mutilation in Ethiopia, UNICEF’ (2020) <https://www.unicef.org/ethiopia/media/2261/file/A%20Profile%20of%20Female%20Genital%20Mutilation%20.pdf> accessed 06 June 2022

[6] Eliminating Female genital mutilation, (2008) <https://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/csw/csw52/statements_missions/Interagency_Statement_on_Eliminating_FGM.pdf> accessed 06 June 2022

[7] UN Women CEDAW, <https://unwomen.de/cedaw/> accessed 10 June 2022

[8] African Charter on Humans and People`s Right, ‘Organization of African Unity’ (June 1981) <https://au.int/sites/default/files/treaties/36390-treaty-0011_-_african_charter_on_human_and_peoples_rights_e.pdf> accessed 05 June 2022

[9] Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, (11 July 2003)

<https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/Documents/Issues/Women/WG/ProtocolontheRightsofWomen.pdf>  accessed 05 June 2022

[10]African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the child, (July1990) <https://au.int/sites/default/files/treaties/36804-treaty-african_charter_on_rights_welfare_of_the_child.pdf> accessed 05 June 2022

[11] Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia Proclamation No.1/1995, (21 August 1995) <https://ethiopianembassy.be/wp-content/uploads/Constitution-of-the-FDRE.pdf>accessed 10 June 2022

[12]The Criminal Code of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia 2004, (9 May 2005) <https://sherloc.unodc.org/cld/uploads/res/document/eth/2005/the_criminal_code_of_the_federal_democratic_republic_of_ethiopia_2004_html/Criminal_Code_2004_Official_English.pdf> accessed 10 June 2022

[13]United Nations Children’s Fund, ‘A Profile of Female Genital Mutilation in Ethiopia, UNICEF’ (2020) <https://www.unicef.org/ethiopia/media/2261/file/A%20Profile%20of%20Female%20Genital%20Mutilation%20.pdf> accesed 06 June 2022

[14] Measuring Effectiveness of Female Genital Mutilation Elimination, (December 2020) <https://www.unicef.org/media/90811/file/Compendium-Indicators-FGM-v3.pdf> accessed 07 June 2022

[15] Richard A. Shweder, ‘What about “Female Genital Mutilation”? And Why Understanding Cultural Matters in the First Place. In The End of Tolerance: Engaging Cultural Differences (The MIT Press 2000) 2009-232)

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