Letters

Ending genital mutilation

BMJ 2000; 321 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.321.7260.570/a (Published 02 September 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;321:570

Women in Africa have many other problems besides genital mutilation

  1. Caroline Scherf, research fellow in gynaecology (scherfcf{at}cardiff.ac.uk)
  1. Department of Medicine, University of Wales College of Medicine, Cardiff CF4 4XX
  2. Israeli Association Against Genital Mutilation, POB 56178, Tel-Aviv 61561, Israel

    EDITOR—Abboud et al have confirmed the continuing existence of traditional genital surgery for men and women.1 Targeting the social and political situation of women at risk is needed in order to question and eliminate these practices. This requires some insight into traditional ceremonies and their importance and not, as Abboud et al suggest, the complete prohibition of the procedure. It also means looking at many more problems and human rights abuses than only female genital mutilation.

    As the title of, and the picture in, Abboud et al's personal view show, this particular aspect of oppression arouses voyeuristic interest, being both gory and titillating. Similar titles of meetings, documentary films, and articles have succeeded in creating an alien, repulsive image of people living in traditional societies,2 a bit like those that follow reports of cannibalism.

    This sort of publicity is unhelpful and often results in “do-gooders” from rich countries appearing in Africa and behaving once again like patronising colonialists. An attempt to understand women's everyday problems can elicit a surprising number of complaints about polygamy or poor reproductive health. Such problems seem less bizarre and generate much less media attention yet cause much suffering and loss of lives and are much more readily accepted as real problems by the women concerned.

    Where are the human rights of a teenager who is the third wife of a man the age of her grandfather who will not allow her to use contraception even though her last confinement nearly killed her? Having been “circumcised” is the last thing she is likely to worry about, so why would she be responding to the educational efforts of an initiative to end female genital mutilation?

    Female genital mutilation must be seen as one of many harmful practices affecting women in traditional societies, and the planning of programmes for its abolition must involve the women concerned and their own perception of wellbeing and improvement. 3 4 One successful method is the introduction of “initiation without mutilation” in the Gambia (Y Sompo-Ceesay, BAFROW (Foundation for Research on Women's Health, Productivity and Development), Gambia, personal communication) and similar procedures elsewhere.5 Women in developing countries are facing a multitude of suffering; we need a more wholesome approach in order to reach the ultimate goal of a dignified and healthy life for all women, everywhere.

    References

    1. 1.
    2. 2.
    3. 3.
    4. 4.
    5. 5.

    Male genital mutilation in any society is surely abhorrent too

    1. Avshalom Zoossmann-Diskin, executive director (zoossmann{at}hotmail.com)
    1. Department of Medicine, University of Wales College of Medicine, Cardiff CF4 4XX
    2. Israeli Association Against Genital Mutilation, POB 56178, Tel-Aviv 61561, Israel

      EDITOR—The French doctors and midwives who wrote this personal view should be commended for understanding, as their interviewees did, that male genital mutilation (euphemistically called circumcision) is the same as female genital mutilation.1 The perceived similarity between these two mutilations is the norm in African societies, where both these practices are common. In Western societies, on the other hand, especially those that mutilate most of their males, such as in the United States and Israel, male genital mutilation is considered to be desirable and female genital mutilation abhorrent.

      It is easy to perceive the actions of others from less sophisticated cultures as immoral and one's own, similar actions as justified. After all, African religions are primitive, and African doctors are only quack doctors who cannot publish the medical justifications for mutilation in respectable medical journals.

      French doctors and others should have no moral or ethical dilemma when it comes to mutilating non-consenting minors. If they think that religious demands for genital mutilation are superior to human rights, why respect Judaism and Islam but not African religions? If they know that human rights are superior to professing one's religion on the bodies of others, why are they discriminating against me as a victim of Jewish male genital mutilation? Are my human rights and suffering less important than those of African girls?

      The lower morbidity and mortality of male genital mutilation in a hospital setting compared with the traditional setting can also be achieved for female genital mutilation. The French doctors need only convince their government to respect the cultural and religious norms of all groups and allow female genital mutilation in hospitals. The higher health toll of traditional female genital mutilation can thus be eliminated. They suggest that male genital mutilation be tolerated because it is widespread, but should crimes be tolerated just because there are many perpetrators?

      If we go along with their logic we should aim to eliminate female genital mutilation only in Western societies, where it is rare, and not in African countries, where it is widespread. The authors say that male genital mutilation does less harm, but this is true only if it is compared with excision or infibulation. If it is compared with the most common form of female genital mutilation, the Sunni circumcision, the harm is the same. Indeed, unlike male genital mutilation, which is much more publicly verifiable, female genital mutilation is often only a symbolic procedure with no physical mutilation. 2 3

      References

      1. 1.
      2. 2.
      3. 3.
      View Abstract

      Sign in

      Log in through your institution

      Free trial

      Register for a free trial to thebmj.com to receive unlimited access to all content on thebmj.com for 14 days.
      Sign up for a free trial

      Subscribe