14 July 2016

Medicalisation : against a partial solution to FGM

Guest blog by Jacqueline Hoover, Teaching Affiliate, University of Nottingham

Recently, I asked an Egyptian medical doctor whether he had ever encountered FGM. He had indeed encountered it. He told me that he was once at a hospital and was asked whether he would circumcise two children. He agreed, assuming that both children were boys, but then it turned out that one was a boy and the other a girl. He was against FGM, but he decided on the spur of the moment to do something to the girl and draw blood so that her parents would consider the job done and leave her alone.

Did this Egyptian doctor apply the pragmatic solution advocated in The Economist on 18 June 2016 in the article ‘An Agonising Choice’? The article implies that only Muslims practise FGM and reinforces this with an accompanying picture of a group of veiled Muslim women. FGM is of course not universal among Muslims nor exclusive to them. Communities of African traditionalists and Christians also practice FGM in some parts of the world.

The main point of the article is to argue for a new approach to FGM that accepts less harmful types 'because 30 years of campaigning for its eradication has had little success'. The article looks at underlying issues, such as the perceived over-sexualisation of women which FGM is supposed to address. It compares FGM with male circumcision, that has no medical benefit. Given these considerations, the article argues for substituting severe forms of FGM with FGM in a medicalised context. While the article acknowledges that such an approach may give legitimacy to all forms of FGM, it argues that accepting less harmful types of FGM would allow a concentrated effort to outlaw the worst traditional forms.

If, however, the motive behind the more harmful types of FGM is to control female sexuality, a symbolic cut would not be perceived to achieve that end. Additionally, the least harmful type, which involves cutting the hood of the clitoris, is a very difficult procedure to perform on young girls. It may easily happen that much more is cut, especially when the procedure is carried out by insufficiently trained medical staff. Moreover, important religious leaders have already been advocating less severe forms of FGM but have been ignored in regions of the world where more harmful forms are practised. Would a doctor’s call for symbolic nicks not also be ignored? The Medicalisation of FGM report by 28TooMany points out that any form of FGM is harmful, problematic, illegal in the UK and Egypt and is child abuse. 

We might just as well work for the total abandonment of FGM. Why go only half way? A practice that has been carried out for millennia will take time to end, but together we will end FGM.


Together with other organisations, 28TooMany wrote to The Economist and other media to bring attention to the inaccuracies of The Economist article. (See this article in The Guardian)