‘Evolving’ African traditional practices   Leave a comment

I should be writing a research proposal on managing ethnic conflict but I need to get this off my chest.

A huge and ‘hot topic’ the last 40 years has been female genital mutilation, er…to be more politically correct and contemporary, female genital circumcision (or cutting) (FGC). Altering the last term of the phrase does not take away from this horrid practice nor relieves any of the pain that its victims patients undergo prior, during and afterwards. This is responding to Efua Dorkenoo’s piece for The Guardian from Feb. 6 on the progress of the FGMC practice.

Dorkenoo, a female Ghanaian and author of the book Cutting the Rose, has every right to write about this subject (as a female and as an African) as this practice is widely seen throughout her continent. Males usually do not write about nor speak (up) about FGC, however (regardless of my status as a white American male) I feel I have a valid point to share. The atrocities of FGC did not ‘hit’ me when I learned about it during my undergraduate career while taking courses in anthropology. Reading in detail the stories from women who have undergone ‘the knife’ was terrifying. However it never hit home until after college.

While serving for Peace Corps in The Gambia, I learned that certain tribes still practice FGC. We, was volunteers, were told “not to go there”…which made sense; as a Westerner, how could we even fathom questioning a practice that had little to no meaning to us? A few months into my service, my 17 year old neighbor became pregnant. As a Health volunteer, she came to me for advice regarding nutrition, etc. Her beautiful baby girl (Isa) was born and I helped my neighbor to ensure that she was a healthy child. One day I realized I had not seen the mother or her baby for quite some time. Finally, she came to my bamboo bed outside my mud hut to chat, bringing along her child. I greeted her with all the usually Fula pleasantries. She responded that her baby was in pain and tired. I inquired further. The fact was that a few young girls had been taken into ‘the bush’ recently and no one had told me. At least a handful were cut that day, probably by older women while using one razor blade. The mother looked ashamed. I felt that she assumed I would be angry at her and/or that she knew the practice was harmful and outdated. I asked her, calmly, why this had happened. She replied, “because it is tradition.” This, coming from a young, beautiful, and very intelligent young African woman who made the mistake of being wooed by a male who got her pregnant. Kicked out of school and shamed by her family forever, this girl’s future was ruined. I was stunned that she told me. Talking about this topic was taboo, especially between males and females. I told her to keep an eye on the wound and to let me or the nurse know if it got infected.

My village had a live-in reproductive health nurse. We were good friends so I went to him to seek answers. I asked him, in all of his training, if he felt the practice was just or not as well as if he himself personally could do anything about it or at least make sure the practice was hygienic. He told me that regardless of his opinions (he was against it) it would still continue in the village. After pausing he continued that because he was from the Wolof tribe (who didn’t cut their women) and the people of our village were Fula and Mandinka (who did cut) that he had no say in matter. If he even gave the women rubber gloves or told them to use new blades with each girl, he would be shunned from the community and forced out. He couldn’t afford to take that chance. This is when FGC hit home for me.

In my studies revolving around gender and gender rights, the simple fact that women of a culture which still practices FGC will be more inclined to continue cutting, even if they themselves are educated and know the possibly harmful consequences. I have heard of female African scholars who undergo the procedure at an older age so that they might be accepted into their own culture and/or find a suitable mate. If given a choice to be cut or not in that particular context, women will wish to be cut. Most cultures (unlike America) have rites of passage for each of their genders. Circumcision is a main way for many societies to claim that one is now an adult and is ready for marriage, etc. If the passage is taken away or altered drastically, cultural/societal chaos may ensue.

Dorkenoo’s article begins by describing the world celebration of international day of zero tolerance to FGC, which apparently the UN endorses. The motion deals with a full spectrum approach: grassroots education to the governmental laws and systems to rid Africa of this ritual. Changing laws and policies are perfect ways to try to alter behavior, but how many cases have there been (non-FGC or the like) of laws being passed with little to no behavioral change noticed (Indian’s caste system for example…)? Politicians won’t address the issue publicly, states Dorkenoo, for fear of losing votes. If illegalization of the ritual is passed, then the practice goes ‘underground’, lowering standards and making medical assistance tougher to find.

If we, as human rights activists, gender and development practitioners, or overseas medical professionals wish to alter this practice, we need to think wisely. Dorkenoo feels we need to still push for governments to make laws against the ritual. But, as stated above, this is proving ineffective. Throwing money at the ‘problem’ (just like aid) will not help either. Sustainable effectiveness stems from holistic empowerment; working with the women and men via grassroots education and cultural/contextual ways to assure that the elder women who perform the practice are prepared with sanitized tools to ease the cuttings procedure and aftermath. I am not advocating for the practice, I am just being realistic. Saying “no” to something will not make it go away. Therefore we must work within the situational context and little by little what we see from a Western lens as harmful will gradually go away.

Gender, as well as culture, are very sensitive topics for me. Traditional practices have profound historical basis and have been going on for generations (especially in Africa – the birthplace of our species). Modernization of the world scares the out of me; cookie-cutter look-alikes are not what development should be striving for. ‘Progression of traditions’ is a contradiction, period. We can tweak and alter certain aspects of practices. But, as cultures are never stagnant, is this evolution or progression or just the fluidity of culture itself?

I am just glad Dorkenoo didn’t bring religion into the mix….

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Posted February 9, 2011 by Travis Warrington in Development

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