Female Genital Mutilation And Double Standards
Where exactly does female genital mutilation occur? While female genital cutting or mutilation (FGC/FGM) in some African countries receives attention, the same cannot be said about a related practice in Western countries, according to Ronan Conroy, associate professor at the Department of Epidemiology at the Royal College of Surgeons. Given the growth in cosmetic plastic surgery of vaginoplasty and vaginal rejuvenation, he asks:
"How can we judge African societies as being barbaric and not condemn equally the cutting of women in the West solely to fulfil male masturbation fantasies?"
Conroy is the speaker at a public meeting on the subject this Wednesday at 7 PM at the Galway One World Centre.
FGM is partial or total removal of external female genitalia or other injury to female genital organs for non-medical reasons. Conroy caused controversy with an editorial in the British Medical Journal in 2006. He pointed out that female circumcision was practised in Europe and America in the 19th century and arguing that Western medicine was driving the advance of FGM by promoting the fear that a "natural biological variation is a defect". He wrote that:
"The high moral tone with which those in richer countries criticise female genital mutilation would be more credible if we in the rich North had not practised it and did not continue to practise it."
However, it is unreasonable to conclude that because of past female circumcision in industrialised countries and while little attention is being paid to cosmetic genital surgery, Westerners are in no position to criticise FGM. This is to demand a level of purity that would make it impossible, for example, for any Western government to criticise atrocities or human rights abuses elsewhere.
Furthermore, any charge of double standards or hypocrisy is very difficult to sustain at the individual level. Those in the West who (along with a large number of Africans) criticise FGM in African communities where it occurs are the least likely to defend past female circumcision in the West or current cosmetic genital surgery. To demand that they equally criticise cosmetic surgery would be to unreasonably equate the scale, the health consequences and the issue of personal choice in each case.
More than 90 million African women and girls have undergone female genital mutilation - 100-140 million worldwide - according to World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates. In Africa, about 3 million girls are at risk annually. It is mostly carried out on girls aged 0-15 (who, by definition, are incapable of informed consent).
It can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, psychological disorders and even death. In one large WHO study, it was found that an additional 1-2 babies die per 100 deliveries born to mothers that have undergone FGM.
A practical question is whether greater humility or sensitivity when criticising FGM/FGC (some prefer the word cutting to mutilation) would be more effective at achieving the desired result. It is likely that the most effective approach and tone will depend on the target population.
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