Wednesday, May 19, 2010

FGM: The American Academy of Pediatrics Weighs In

Recently, according to the New York Times, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggested a policy change that would allow American doctors to perform "a ceremonial pinprick or 'nick'" on girls "if it would keep their families from sending them overseas for the full circumcision." (See the new policy here). Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a complex, heart-wrenching issue that has occupied feminists both within and outside of Africa for many years. (For an excellent description of the issue, see IntLawGrrl Hope Lewis's article here) The health consequences for girls can be severe, even fatal. It is a deeply entrenched cultural practice in some places within Africa. The human rights community - at international and local levels - has agitated for recognition of FGM as a violation of women's human rights, and it is recognized as such in a number of international human rights documents. But still it continues. Some countries, such as Ghana, have passed legislative bans - although many of these have proven to be completely ineffective. More often than not, simply prohibiting the practice does not work. A few activist strategies, however, have enjoyed some success in curbing the practice in some areas. For example, a community in Kenya has popularized an alternative initiation rite, one that does not involve genital cutting. Some communities have successfully framed the issue as one involving significant health issues for girls rather than as one that violates the human rights of girls. I am a human rights activist/scholar, but I am also a pragmatist. Although I would love to see some recognition of the ways in which FGM violates women's rights, if an approach that emphasizes health resonates with local communities and works to combat the practice, then it makes sense to frame the issue in terms of health. So is it wise of the AAP to change its policy to one of tolerance? As with most things, the devil is in the details. As some feminists will legitimately argue, there is a serious risk of legitimizing the practice if it is medicalized and accepted within organizations such as the AAP. However, if we are truly talking about a "ceremonial pinprick" that will have cultural meaning within the community and take the place of more dramatic and dangerous cutting, then it might not be a bad solution in those limited circumstances. The bottom line, however, is that for any solution to work on a large scale, it will have to come from and have meaning within the communities that actually practice FGM.

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