Why are US doctors allowing genital mutilation?
Paediatricians have erred by suggesting that ‘nicking’ female genitalia should be allowed as a cultural compromise
At the end of last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a revised policy statement on female genital mutilation (FGM) called “ritual genital cutting of female minors,” suggesting that the federal and state law in the US should permit paediatricians to offer a ritual “nick” of girls’ genitalia as a compromise to appease the cultural needs of their immigrant clients. International women’s rights organisations from the US, Africa, and Europe were quick to respond to this outrageous proposition calling on the AAP to retract its 2010 statement and revert back to its much stronger 1998 statement on the subject.
A comparison of the AAP’s 1998 and 2010 statements clearly demonstrates a dilution in the organisation’s understanding of FGM as a form of sex discrimination and gender-based violence performed to control women’s sexuality, ensure virginity until marriage, and guarantee their acceptance into a particular community. A 2008 statement on FGM adopted by 10 prominent UN agencies clearly states that, “the guiding principles for considering genital practices as FGM should be those of human rights, including the right to health, the rights of children and the right to nondiscrimination on the basis of sex.”
The AAP’s casual comparison of “nicking” of girls’ genitalia to ear piercing demonstrates just how far from the international framework the organisation currently stands. “Nicking” cannot be pulled out of context and must be understood within the larger gender politics of controlling women’s bodies and sexual rights.
Indigenous grassroots groups and activists, including traditional leaders and ex-circumcisers across Africa, have for decades engaged in transforming their local communities to abandon the practice of all types of FGM and adopted alternative rites of passage instead. The protocol to the African charter on human and people’s rights on the rights of women in Africa, a widely supported regional human rights treaty that has been ratified by 27 African countries, specifically prohibits “through legislative measures backed by sanctions, all forms of female genital mutilation, including medicalisation and para-medicalisation of female genital mutilation”.
The AAP’s statement would lead to greater harm to girls in the US by institutionalising what it sees as less severe forms of FGM. WHO and Unicef have cautioned governments against medicalisation of all forms of FGM including pricking and piercing because it “tends to obscure its human rights aspect and could hinder the development of long-term solutions for ending the practice”. The statement comes at a time when the US legislature is seeking to close a loophole in its federal anti-FGM legislation, making it illegal for parents to take girls out of the US for FGM and thus preventing more severe forms of FGM.
But most importantly, the statement completely fails to recognise that human rights standards are absolute and not to be compromised upon in the name of possible harm reduction. The principle behind safeguarding human rights is harm elimination. The statement flies in the face of all international and regional deliberations on the issue, which have concluded that any medically unnecessary procedure to alter female genitalia constitutes a human rights violation and therefore must not be tolerated.
“Nicking” constitutes Type IV FGM, and the UN interagency statement clarifies that, “it has been considered important to maintain a broad definition of FGM in order to avoid loopholes that might allow the practice to continue”.
The AAP must retract its statement.
Part of a longer comment piece at http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/may/11/female-genital-mutilation-us-nicking
See also press release from FORWARD at http://www.womeninlondon.org.uk/2010/05/notice-forward-9/