Female Genital Mutilation in Ethiopia: A Human Rights Issue
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a common phenomenon in Ethiopia, which has the highest rate of FGM among African countries, despite international and national efforts to eliminate the phenomenon. Why FGM persists despite these efforts to end the practice is an issue that puzzles scholars and activists, particularly because efforts to end FGM have seen some success outside of Ethiopia. Does the practice persist because it is not seen as damaging by people in the culture, which would make it an issue of cultural relativism? Some people suggest that the practice is one that is acceptable within the culture, and that the reaction against it is an example of foreign cultural ideals attempting to change Ethiopians' indigenous culture. On the other hand, one must ask: does the practice persist because of a disregard for women's rights, with FGM being simply another way to perpetuate male superiority in Ethiopia? While people can make salient arguments that FGM is simply an aspect of Ethiopian culture and that opposition to the practice is a hallmark of cultural intolerance, a real examination of the practice reveals that its goal is to preserve female sexual purity, which disregards a human's basic right to engage in sexual activity at will. Regardless of cultural norms, that right is a basic human right, and attempts to forcibly deprive a woman of that right are tantamount to rape. Therefore, one must conclude that FGM in Ethiopia persists because of a disregard for women's rights, is another way to perpetuate male superiority in a society, and is, therefore, a human rights violation.
FGM, sometimes called female circumcision, is the practice of cutting away part of the external female genitalia. While the practice is treated as a single action, there are actually different degrees of FGM, and how FGM is practiced varies around the world. In Ethiopia, all three types of FGM are commonplace. First, FGM can involve a clitoridectomy, which is the removal of all or part of the clitoris. Some forms of clitoridectomy leave enough of the clitoris to preserve sensation, making it somewhat akin to male circumcision, while other forms of clitoridectomy remove the entire clitoris. The next most severe form of FGM is excision, which is the removal of the clitoris and the cutting of the labia minora. The most severe form of FGM is infibulations, which involves the first two components and then adds the stitching together of the labia majoria. This leaves a small opening in the vagina for urine and menstrual fluid. Moreover, with infibulation, the woman has to be reopened prior to having sexual intercourse. Infibulation is declining in Ethiopia, oftentimes being replaced with less severe forms of FGM.
As one might imagine, FGM is a painful procedure. It is also an extremely dangerous procedure. First, it is frequently performed under incredibly unsanitary conditions and with crude instruments including but not limited to things like broken glass. This is particularly true in Ethiopia, where FGM is not performed in medical settings, but in rural areas, and by practitioners with no medical training. The health consequences of FGM can be extreme. Obviously, it has a meaningful impact on the physiology of the woman involved, impairing sexual function for the woman. However, it can create problems beyond impairing sexuality, such as scarring, infections, infertility, and problems during labor if a woman does conceive. It is not unheard of for FGM to actually lead to death. In fact, "an estimated 15% of girls die postoperatively and those who do survive suffer countless ongoing complications and pain, as well as untold psychological suffering" (Carillet, Butler, and Stames 59). Even if the surgery were performed in the most hygienic of conditions and the risk of complications eliminated, the practice would still be horrific. "Healthy, sexually functional parts of the female body are removed without any medical indication whatsoever; restorative plastic surgery can only partially repair the damage" (Kool 52). However, in Ethiopia, restorative plastic surgery is not a possibility for victims of FGM. Finally, these health consequences do not end with the mother. "A landmark World Health Organization study provided clear evidence that complications during delivery are significantly more likely to occur among women with FGM/C. The study also found that FGM/C is harmful to babies, leading to an extra 1 to 2 perinatal deaths per 100 deliveries" (The Donors Working Group on Female Genital Mutilation / Cutting 3). The risk of complications in delivery increase in countries like Ethiopia, where childbirth is usually done outside of a medical setting and without the assistance of medical professionals.
Worldwide, because of widespread immigration, the practice of FGM is no longer geographically limited, and though its practitioners may cite religious reasons for the practice, it is also not limited by religion. It is associated with Islam, particularly in Ethiopia where much of the population is Muslim, but people of other religions practice it as well. Furthermore, the practice actually predates the Islamic religion, so its association with the religion is largely due to co-existence. It is not a religious dictate of Islam or any other religion. Likewise, FGM is not linked to any particular geographic area; not only has it spread throughout the world because of immigration, but it has been practiced, in some degree, in many cultures throughout the world. At this time, it is geographically most confined to the Middle East and North Africa, though it is widespread in many parts of Africa. FGM is a prevalent problem in Ethiopia, particularly in the Somali region of Ethiopia. It is important to understand that not only is FGM not a religious requirement of Islam, but it is also understood by Ethiopian immans that FGM is not a religious requirement. If the issue is to be considered one of cultural relevance, it will not be due to religion.
One of the reasons that some Ethiopians believe that attempts to end FGM are an issue of cultural relativism is because of religious clashes between the West and Islam. However, while FGM may be correlated with Islam, the predominant religion in Ethiopia, it is critical to realize that it is not a religious requirement of Islam, which differentiates it from male circumcision and its relationship to Judaism. "Neither of the two main sources of Muslim law, the Koran and the Sunnah, mention the practice, and most Islamic scholars agree that it is not an Islamic religious rite" (Castledine). However, whether or not this practice is considered acceptable from a religious perspective may depend significantly on the religious leader in charge of the local area. For example, in the Somali village of Faffan in Ethiopia, the imam of the village mosque makes it clear that not only does Islam not require FGM, but that it does not permit the practice (Getachew). However, not all religious leaders share his interpretation of Islam, and, given the relative isolation of some areas of Ethiopia, the religious message that people receive may be tremendously dependent upon the views of the local religious leaders. Moreover, the official religious view may not be sufficient to overcome the cultural perception of the religious mandates regarding FGM, and many in the culture believe that FGM is required as part of their religious practices.
Furthermore, the idea that FGM is an non-Western, African, or even a specifically Ethiopian practice, making it impossible for people from the West to understand the motivations behind the practice are simply inaccurate. FGM has been practiced in the Western world by practitioners with no links to the Middle East, Africa, or Islam. While not currently used in the West, it has historically been used as a cure for female sexual "problems" like masturbation and homosexuality, as well as problems unrelated to sexuality, including epilepsy (Castledine). In other words, in the West FGM was used to limit the expression of women's sexuality. Though it is no longer used in the West, except by immigrants from non-Western countries, it is important to keep that perspective in mind when confronting the issue of whether FGM in Ethiopia is simply a matter of cultural relativism or whether it is a human rights issue. It is difficult to argue that it is a matter of cultural relativism if those cultures that oppose the practice engaged in it at one time.
While this paper will make the argument that FGM in Ethiopia is a human rights issue, it is important to recognize that is not the only perspective about FGM. One can make the argument that FGM is an issue of cultural relativism, and that its practice does not implicate human rights. This argument is based upon the idea that Western norms decry the procedure, while ignoring similar rituals in Western cultures. Instead of being a human rights issue, those who argue that FGM is a cultural norm might even go so far as to suggest that imposing Western norms on the cultural practices of indigenous persons, particularly in Africa, might be…