In The Name of Culture: A Reflection on International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting

Belkis Giorgis

Senior Technical Advisor for Gender and Capacity Building

Cross-posted from the MSH Health Impact Blog.

Photo: Rui Pires

We do a lot of things in the name of culture. From our hair to our food to our ceremonies, culture informs our identity, our very understanding of who we are, and how we fit into this world.

In countries where female genital cutting is widely practiced, “culture/tradition/religion” feature prominently among the reasons why the practice began, and why it is perpetuated. In fact, there is no religious reason for this practice, also known as female genital mutilation, FGM, or FGM/C. Yet, those who support the continuation of FGM/C often invoke the name of their culture, or tradition, or religion as dictating their actions.

Culture viewed from this perspective is oppressive—denigrated into a static phenomenon, unchanging, and uninformed by new knowledge. It is only when we accept culture as a dynamic force–one which is ever changing and evolving–that we proudly can identify with, and derive our identities from it.

Culture can be a powerful positive force in our lives if we dare to challenge it.

We must dare to replace those aspects that harm us from those that empower us. As women who not only are defined by our cultures, but also perpetuate the rituals from generation to generation, its interpretation and its impact on our lives should be informed by new knowledge (e.g. about the harmful effects of FGM/C on girls and women’s health).

We can have pride in our culture when we use it to empower and liberate—when all benefit from it.

Women cannot individually take on culture. Armed with evidence, a collective decision to challenge culture can bring about transformation of harmful practices.

As public health leaders, we can help by empowering communities to reclaim and transform traditions. In the Afar region in Ethiopia, where circumcision of the severest form is performed universally, women, community and religious leaders have come together to declare that FGM/C is “haram” (forbidden) in Islam. In Senegal, people collectively challenged the culture of FGM/C (led by the TOSTAN model, meaning “breakthrough” in the West African language of Wolof), mobilizing community leaders and policy makers to ban circumcision. In the Khost province of Afghanistan, where family planning (FP) was once taboo, midwives involved elders and religious leaders in collectively transforming norms based on the importance of healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies, improving access to life-saving FP and reproductive health services for Afghan women.

We cannot continue to blindly accept culture. Whether it is early/forced/child marriage, lack of access to health care, or FGM/C, we cannot hide behind culture/tradition/religion to justify actions which harm our health and those of our families. We should challenge culture—not to destroy it, but to improve it. We should question its relevance to our lives, and how it harms or benefits us. We should not fear it, but embrace it—and transform it.

We can empower ourselves and others around us to continually seek current evidence and knowledge, about what parts of our cultures are detrimental to our public health and personal wellbeing, and work to eradicate or transform those parts. It is only through this process that our culture becomes our ally and not our adversary.