Sunday, 22 April 2012

Africa: The Spectrum of FGM is NOT homogenous

“Many who before regarded legislation on the subject as chimerical, will now fancy that it is only dangerous, or perhaps not more than difficult. And so in time it will come to be looked on as among the things possible, then among the things probable;–and so at last it will be ranged in the list of those few measures which the country requires as being absolutely needed. That is the way in which public opinion is made.” Anthony Trollope, Phineas Finn

Screaming cakes losing the FGM message

At the beginning of the last week, we ran the gauntlet of a travesty masquerading as art; it was art that was tasteless, ignorant, stupid and worthy of excoriation.

Indeed, we need to bring to light the horrors of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) or Female Circumcision but there is no excuse to treat this matter with levity and caricature if you have any inkling or knowledge of what it entails, who is affected, how entrenched it is and the obstacles in culture, traditions, norms and values that need to be overcome to consign these acts to oblivion.

Such was the display of utterly, utterly bad art when on a cake made almost to the form of Sarah Baartman [Wikipedia] who in the early 19th Century was the unfortunate freak show in Europe.
The cake was cut into in Sweden by people who should know better of the suffering of women less fortunate than themselves to their entertainment and the artist with face painted like the cross between a golliwog [Wikipedia] and a piccaninny squealing and crying at each cut in the supposedly virginal area of the cake representing the act of circumcision.

It plumbed the depths of distaste and disgust but more importantly, it drew no attention to FGM or the plight of women who suffer from the debilitating effects of FGM, rather it became an odious platform for the artist, galvanised the global rebuke of the Swedish Culture Minister with a petition online asking for her to apologise for her cretinism to culminate in her resignation.

Mind Of Malaka does this matter the greatest justice with her blog titled Of Cakes and Clitorises.

FGM is NOT a Single Story

Now, I have been engaged in a rather robust discussion on Twitter on the matter of FGM where I have a rather pragmatic approach to the subject.

Having taken a stance on the event of the Swedish cake one should be careful not to be railroaded by what is turning out to be a single narrative of FGM thereby conflating the desired end of FGM with every societal, traditional, religious, economic and social strand as if the practitioners are a homogeneous entity – they are not.

Looking at the prevalence of FGM [Wikipedia] across Africa [Graphic from Wikipedia], the practice cuts across 30 countries from West Africa, through Central to East Africa and veering up to the North of Africa where in Egypt it affects 97% of females but you then wonder why the countries to the West of Egypt that have affinity with its peoples like Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco do not practice FGM.

However, this practice appears to date back to the Pharaonic times, in essence there is a mountain of entrenched traditions and customs behind this activity that might prove immovable even to those with the very best intentions.

Beyond this, each country and within these countries we have communities that implement any of the 4 types of FGM [Wikipedia] cutting with Ethiopia, Gambia and Guinea implementing the most intrusive Type IV mutilation that could affect 73%, 60-90% and 99% of females in those countries respectively.

Whilst Gambia and Guinea are close neighbours in West Africa, Ethiopia is as remote as you can get from West Africa as you wonder about the correlations between these countries.

Tough work ahead

Much as we would that FGM is outlawed, banned, proscribed, abrogated or even criminalised, we are nowhere near seeing that desire in reality, the practice is rife, the practitioners cover a broad spectrum of people from the enlightened to the oblivious and resistance to being sacrificed on the altars of traditions and customs is at best patchy and within relatively minor tribes.

Outlawing FGM in Africa requires political will and concerted efforts at education to persuade the core practitioners of alternatives if possible or ameliorating measures need to be implemented to monitor and regulate the practice.

Applying the political theory of the Overton Window [Wikipedia] to FGM, there are quite a number to whom the prospect of outlawing FGM is unthinkable whilst the cake eaters of Sweden and certain activists on this matter are on the other side of the spectrum where the idea is popular and they are ready to make it policy.

As for so many new ideas because the concept of the eradication of FGM is relatively new by reason of its extant prevalence, the unthinkable has to become radical, then acceptable before it is regarded as sensible from which point it might become popular and consequently it might become policy.

Developing approaches to eradication or regulation

The age-old value systems that aimed to deprive females of sexual expression for the fear that overarching patriarchy might lose complete control of their womenfolk needs to be visited with temperance because the diehards might well prefer to die out than to see needed change threaten their station.

There is no easy solution to this matter and it continues to this present day, girls sacrificed to long held belief systems many put at untenable risk to life, health and welfare – each of these need addressing as much as the aggressive push to make FGM history.

There are proactive and reactive approaches to consider much as some might deign to bludgeon and others might be indifferent. These customs being part of the societal framework of the affected communities has both men and women involved in the propagation of the acts as their norms and no greater purpose is served if any side is castigated as if to blackmail them into submission to the intended goal of the eradication of FGM.

Proactive alternative

On the proactive side, the Guardian newspaper Fighting Back [The Guardian UK] section filmed a documentary about changing attitudes to FGM amongst the Pokot people [Wikipedia] of Kenya where parents, daughters and activists worked towards adopting alternative womanhood initiation rites.

The main thrust of this exercise had to address a number of underlying issues –
  • The reassessment of the value of females in those communities.
  • The need for the education of females with the promise that they can be of greater significance to their communities than the immediate value of a dowry mostly comprised of cows and beer
  • Addressing the apparent sense of loss of a girl is not circumcised and married off
  • Addressing the communal stigmatisation that accompanies girls who have refused to be initiated through FGM
  • Persuading the elders, men and the community to accommodate new thinking that makes FGM insignificant and unnecessary as a precursor to marriage
  • Removing FGM from the process of initiation into womanhood.


One striking thing that came out of the documentary was the recognition that girls who have decided not to follow tradition might harm themselves though it was also encouraging that honour killings prevalent in other societies where the price placed on female chastity is astronomically high did not present itself in the Pokot narrative.

Reactive for safety

On the reactive side, this came as a result of a botched FGM activity [AkinBlog.NL] in Nigeria in 2012 that led to the loss of life by exsanguination – the poor girl bled to death in hospital, the perpetrators being her grandmother and other womenfolk relations having run out of options after crudely mutilating the girl.

It goes without saying that FGM entails radical intrusive surgery outside of professional supervision with crude implements in possibly non-sterile conditions.

What is interesting is the news [The Guardian UK] that as many as 100,000 women in Britain have undergone the FGM procedure. Much as it is illegal in the UK, ethnic minorities who one would expect are enlightened, emancipated, educated and well aware of the complications that do result from FGM procedures are adhering to the practice and are not persuaded of the need to change.

The news story highlights a more interesting development. There is a part of these ethnic minority communities that are concerned about surgical procedures carried out by the unschooled that they have procured the services of medical practitioners to perform the FGM procedure.

In my blog written in February, the death of the girl was preventable if the FGM procedure was not carried out and where I ran the gauntlet of serious opposition and the amazingly implacable was when I suggested that as long as FGM continues to exist in whatever community until it is eradicated, the girls made to suffer such procedures must have at the minimum a safe environment under medical supervision where the procedure is carried out.

Bridging the contrary and the compromise

In my view, this is not to find a workaround that will give FGM a new lease of life halting the drive to have it eradicated but it is to bring the activity under regulation, supervision and safe environments to deal with the immediate complications of administering FGM.

This is by no means comfortable, but the practitioners who have not been persuaded of the need to stop FGM will procure the services wherever they can – it is only sensible and it will be utterly curmudgeonly to refuse girls safe environments for FGM when the battle and the war to abolish FGM is far from won.

I extended that thinking yesterday with the suggestion that FGM education be aggregated into primary healthcare delivery systems and having brought FGM under medical supervision, it offers the opportunity to address this matter as elective surgery with outcomes and consequences all of which must be preceded with levels of counselling, consultation, possible success factors and the repercussions for maternal welfare which can be debilitating on quality of life for the person, her offspring and her community.

In effect, if we are cajoled into adopting a single story on FGM so as to treat it as a homogenous procedure practiced by a non-diverse people of Africa with apparently similar traditions and customs such that activism simply presents an unyielding single solution without working out different compromises for the varied communities that will help those immediately affected, we would be no further than what we saw in Sweden and we might well go up there and eat some cake.

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