Female circumcision: A practice hard to change

Photograph courtesy of William Warby

Bettina Shell-Duncan, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Washington and a Northwestern University alum, shared her research on female genital cutting in an event on campus Wednesday afternoon.

The lecture, sponsored by International Program Development and the Program of African Studies, was entitled “Between Law, Religion and Tradition: Contesting Female Genital Cutting and the ‘Best Interest of the Child’ in Kenya” and focused on the recent political history of female circumcision.

Shell-Duncan never intended to study this topic; she actually went to Kenya to research anemia.  While there, however, she attended a wedding and was introduced to the common premarital African practice of what many in the West call genital mutilation.

Female circumcision, as it is less inflammatorily known, actually encompasses a whole range of practices.  These range in severity from a symbolic nicking of the clitoris to its excision along with the labia minora and labia majora, and variations in between.

Because her introduction to the practice was so eye-opening, Shell-Duncan has researched it ever since.

“Since then I’ve studied the practice of female genital cutting much more broadly in Africa and recently completed a study in Senegal,” she said, adding that “the prevalence ranges dramatically across different countries.”

The prevalence varies even more by tribe.

“Looking at national level prevalence data masks the fact that there is a lot of variation within any one country and it’s actually best understood along ethnic lines,” Shell-Duncan said.  “People either are or are not from a lineage that practices this.”

Female circumcision has engendered hot debates over the last several decades, as any clash between human rights and custom is likely to do.  Unfortunately, this is not just a matter of conservatism versus progress or equality; it is also a major health issue.

The short-term dangers of the practice include hemorrhage from cutting the clitoral artery, local and systemic infection, shock from loss of blood, scarring, urinary retention and pain.  (Shell-Duncan adds that though the latter is a more subjective effect, it is no less important.)

The long-term dangers are no less appalling: difficulty with menstruation and urination, urinary tract infections, pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility, dermoid cysts and diminished sexual pleasure.  Infibulation, or the stitching together of the vulva to leave a small opening for the passage of urine and menstrual blood, can be especially troubling health-wise.

Unfortunately, abolishing the practice is not as simple as recognizing the way it can harm girls and women.  Long-standing beliefs protect it, among them that infibulation forms a ceiling over the womb and thus protects birth; that it maintains virginity and fidelity; and that it denotes insider status.  These are hard barriers to overcome in societies that place a great deal of weight on marriageability and community.

But slowly, Shell-Duncan said, things are getting better.

“The work that I’ve been doing suggests that there’s a lot of groundwork been laid about expanding notions of children’s rights,” she said. Outreach and education, rescue centers, churches, community declarations and political enactments have added to the momentum.  “All of this indirectly has benefited the ability to address female genital cutting.”

In the meantime, educating people outside of these areas remains an important step.

“The topic of female genital cutting is complex, and the practice itself – as well as what measures may potentially reduce the practice – is far from uniform across cultures,” said Sarah Rodriguez, a Ph.D. and senior research fellow in medical humanities at Northwestern University.

“Dr. Bettina Shell-Duncan’s work is important in showing the complexity of both the issue and the varied attempts, both within practicing cultures and by Western nations and NGOs, that have been made to end it,” Rodriguez added.

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