FGM: condemn globally, act locally

21/12/2012 Comments Off on FGM: condemn globally, act locally

Lisa Hallgarten, Reproductive Health Matters

We should all celebrate the news that on Thursday 20th December 2012, the United Nation’s General Assembly unanimously passed a resolution banning the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Resolutions to eliminate FGM are important. When they are passed in a global forum, they may pre-empt the claims of cultural relativism which try to prevent us talking critically across nations and cultures about FGM and other dangerous or unethical practices.

However, the process of eliminating FGM can only happen when initiatives are developed at local level and informed by the specific beliefs, practices, unmet needs and politics of the areas where it is prevalent. This is perfectly illustrated by an article in the new Reproductive Health Matters (1)  which reports on beliefs in some ethnic groups in Tanzania in which FGM is still practised, over 40 years after it was made illegal.

The article reports on findings from nine years of work combatting FGM in 45 villages  in Tanzania. FGM has, historically, been widely practiced in 12 ethnic groups living in seven of Tanzania’s 24 regions: the Gogo, the Rangi and the Sandawi of Dodoma, the Nyaturu of Singida, the Chagga of Kilimanjaro, the Waarusha of Arusha, the Luguru of Morogoro, the Maasai, the Iraqw, the Barbaig and the Hazabe of Manyara, and the Kurya of Mara region.

Until the late 1960s FGM was carried out on girls between eight and twelve years old. It was an essential part of community rituals and celebrated openly. In 1968 FGM was criminalised, but far from ending the practice, criminalisation led to FGM going underground. Most significantly it led to the development of a narrative that explains and promotes the practice and gives it a new legitimacy. The new narrative identifies FGM as both a preventive against, and cure for urinary tract and genital infections known locally as lawalawa.

Lawalawa affects young infants and children – resulting mainly from lack of clean water and poor hygiene practices – so by the 1970s it was being said that ‘circumcising babies was necessary in order to cure a mystic spell (lawalawa) placed on them by the ancestors.’  In this way FGM became increasingly removed from the public space and detached from the original ritual purpose and meaning of the practice. “It seems that (they) invented lawalawa to legitimate FGM, even though the performance had to lose some of its meaning.” The authors conclude that steps must be taken to educate people about and address the real causes of lawalawa, and also effectively to disseminate information about medical care that is available to treat infections.

This may be a very particular cultural context, but the paper has a universal message. All ritual and cultural practices are perceived by the community in which they take place as serving a purpose. Wherever it happens in the world FGM is justified in different and specific terms. This paper illustrates that fundamentally changing attitudes across the community and from within the community is the only way to move towards the elimination of FGM.

I’m all for global condemnation and local engagement.

(1) Ali C, Strømb A. ‘It is important to know that before, there was  no lawalawa.’ Working to stop female genital mutilation in Tanzania. Reproductive Health Matters 2012; 20 (40):69-75

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