How To Eliminate Female Genital Cutting

If the New York Times editoral board really wants to get rid of female genital cutting, then it needs to understand the actual work going on in the Global South.

Today the New York Times editorial board endorses the Girls Protection Act which would criminalize anyone taking a girl out of the country to have the female genital cutting (“FGC”) procedure.  There is nothing really wrong with the Act, or with some of the other measures the Times endorses, such as education campaigns in those immigrant communities where the procedure is still endorsed, hot lines for pediaticians, and safe harbors at international air terminals.

But that really misses the point.

Three weeks ago, I was lucky enough to participate in a delegation of rabbinical students to Senegal, sponsored by the American Jewish World Service.  We went there to see the work of Tostan, a pathbreaking community development NGO that has done far more to eliminate FGC than any of the paths that the Times talks about or that Congress has addressed.  Why?  Because Tostan operates bottom-up, not top down.

AJWS was one of the first big backers of Tostan, because it saw that the Tostan method was effective.  Molly Melching, Tostan’s founder and executive director, spoke to us about her organization’s approach.  Instead of telling rural communities what they should do, Tostan asks them what they want, empowers them through education on the issues that they care about, and as this process takes hold, the communities often come around to rejecting FGC.  Tostan’s motto is “community-led development,” and my experience was that they live that model.  (Incidentally, that’s why Tostan insists on calling it “cutting” instead of “mutilation”.  People generally react badly when you tell them that they are mutilating their children; it’s about efficacy, not political correctness).

So instead of marching into a village and telling people to end the practice — which they won’t, because they want their daughters to be able to get married, and traditionally without FGC they will not be seen as eligible — Tostan listened to villagers, heard that they were interested in improving health care, and worked with them in developing their own capacity.  Only then did villagers begin to talk about a variety of health problems that unsurprisingly were connected to FGC.

The results are impressive: when Tostan started their work, estimates were that 5,000 villages in Senegal practiced FGC; today, 4,300 of them have publicly declared that they are abanding the practice.  That’s particularly important, because it means that the thousands of parents who didn’t like the practice but went along with it because they thought there was no choice now know that there is one).

I’m particularly proud of AJWS’ role in this.  Instead of developing its own vision of development and implementing it itself, it looks for local partners known for their integrity and efficacy and supports them.  Just as important, it is flexible with its grantees.  Melching explained to us that AJWS had originally funded Tostan to do early children education work, but that Tostant found that the villagers really wanted to do health care work.  No problem, said AJWS: respond to the needs on the ground.

Don’t believe the story?  Take a look at Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s recent book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.  There’s a whole chapter on Tostan, with a considerable amount devoted to its partnership with AJWS.

Oh yes — and while you’re doing that, make sure to give a big contribution to AJWS here.  Reward good behavior.  It’s really worth it.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

14 thoughts on “How To Eliminate Female Genital Cutting”

  1. I used to give to AJWS, but decided that their value added is, as you point out, finding local partners. If I want to find good local partners, I don't have to pay AJWS to do so: I can get that information for free, because they list their local partners in their annual reports. My wife and I now direct a substantial portion of our charitable donations (thousands of dollars a year) to Camfed (Campaign for Female Education), which both AJWS and the Financial Times deem worthy of support. Yes, I realize I'm free-riding, but that just means that Camfed gets more money and AJWS gets less. Is there any reason to reconsider my decision?

  2. Why not try the following approach: Change the standard of beauty or sexual appeal *in the minds of men* such that the natural female condition is the preferred state?

    You could package that message within whatever envelope you choose (macho men like it, natural condition makes sex better, makes your woman more affectionate, etc).

    Yes, my suggestion is male oriented and not a "female rights" message – which I'm not particularly happy about – but I'm trying to work with the social structure that exists in those places that practice FGM.

    Look at the "international standard" in beauty contests that's taken hold throughout the globe. Lithe figures, fine facial features, whatever Revlon ads are promoting these days. If it's worked for so much of what we see in public, can't we change minds about what's desirable in the privacy of the bedroom?

  3. Quiddity,

    Try everything, keep what works. Your suggestion presumes that men are driving matters though, and I'm far from convinced that is the case. The folk surgeries are performed by women on women, it's not clear from the literature I've read that men have a lot to say about it. Kids want to look like and be like their parents, parents want their kids to look like them.

    There is also the cultural aspect: what is the context of these procedures? Are they part of a rite of passage where cultural traditions are transmitted? Doing something unforgettable in that context operates to enhance memory and retention. Nikita Kruschev took his shoe and pounded the desk with it at the UN. Students of history know that he demanded that the Assembly President, '… call the lackey of American imperialism to order." Do something unforgivable and unforgettable and the words associated with the act will also be unforgettable.

    So, sure try it. But I suspect Tostan's approach will work better.

  4. Am I the only one who sees the irony of a Jewish group campaigning against the mutilation and mangling of children's genitals?

  5. npm —

    Any time someone free rides on an effective organization, in injures the campaign in the medium- and long run. As you know, there are a wide variety of problems concerning poverty and injustice in the global south outside of FGC: provision of clean water, desertification, the sex trade, child slavery, land distribution, anti-AIDS and malaria work, etc. etc. What's more, the situation on the ground keeps changing, which is why we need the information to be constantly updated about effective work.

    If the free-riding results in the undermining of effective organizations like AJWS, to my mind that would be a reason to reconsider. They are the ones who find good local partners.

  6. Dennis,

    What you say is true in that women are often enthusiastic practitioners, which I completely ignored. But I thought the origins had something to do with suppression female sexuality, thus making a wife less likely to cheat on her man. You are right that all approaches that work should be employed: Better health, women empowerment, changing men's standards of sexual allure.

  7. The fact is, we don't know why or how FGC began. We know that female mummies from Phaoronic Egypt show signs of FGC, so the reasons for it are buried deep in the pre-history of Eastern Africa and Southwest Asia.

    I suspect (but I'm arguing from analogy, so the argument is suspect) is that it is a cultural ritual tied to the passage from childhood to adulthood. According to the cultural anthropologists, those rituals are important in transmitting cultural mores. Body modifications are commonly used mnemonic devices in those rituals.

    As commenter Dilan suggests, these body modifications can long outlive any useful purpose they might have served. My sons are examples — both were circumcised over my objection, because their mother insisted that 'they look like their Dad.'

  8. npm: organizations should be rewarded for not creating needless duplication, and directing money to its best use. Don't we want them to keep doing that? It takes a certain number of people to do that work. This is the same as saying you don't want to pay overhead because you want all your money to go directly to services. But that just means there will be fewer people-hours devoted to strategic thinking = eventual decreases in "return," or what-have-you. So as Zasloff says, by de-funding AJWS, we would be contributing to wasteful spending tomorrow, potentially.

    But, having said that, it is of course lovely that you give at all! Just in case nobody said so lately!!

    What a great piece this is! It is so nice when something good actually happens!

  9. Dilan Esper is absolutely correct. Perhaps we need other countries to educate Americans, or any religious group that requires infant males to be "cut," about the barbaric nature of the practice of male "cutting." Saying "God tells me to do it" is a terrible reason to mutilate someone without their consent.

  10. Jonathan, as a progressive legal scholar, are you sure — no matter how abhorrent you find FGC, and how right you seem to be in finding it abhorrent — that you think passing yet another federal criminal law is a constructive contribution to the problem? Or that creating this kind of federal law is a proper use of the federal government's Foreign Commerce Clause power?

  11. Peter G —

    I don't have a problem with the Girls Protection Act as long as it is connected to other constructive measures. Just making something illegal without anything more is style over substance. I don't see the Constitutional problem at all: it's regulating international affairs, which is paradigmatically Federal.

    Ethan, if you really think that FGC is even in the same universe as male circumcision, then maybe you should take some remedial anatomy!

  12. Ethan, if you really think that FGC is even in the same universe as male circumcision

    The same thing? No. The same universe? Sure!

    Both are painful, nonconsensual procedures that could easily wait until the person is an adult and can freely consent. Both are justified ex post facto by claims that it will improve the person's health and livelihood later on. Both are imposed by powerful cultural pressures. And both mangle a child's genitals.

    Just because something comes from your own cultural tradition, or a "Western" cultural tradition, or a "Judeo-Christian" cultural tradition, doesn't mean it isn't barbaric and unnecessary when looked at objectively.

    Male circumcizers shouldn't get a free pass. Ban it all until the 18th birthday. Because Judaism is such a persuasive religion, rabbis will obviously have no trouble getting Jewish men to freely consent to the procedure when they reach adulthood. Right? Right??????

  13. The foreskin plays a critical role in human sexuality, from intercourse to masturbation. It's no appendix or extra bone in the wrist from when we walked on our knuckles. Nature put it there for a reason, and removing it from an infant's body is barbaric by any definition of the word.

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