Monday, 22 January 2018

No, I won't mind my own business, and neither should you

Would you allow a doctor to surgically remove the genitals of your daughter, sister or wife? Indeed, would you actually ask him to? If you are a woman, is this the kind of request you would make about your own body?

Shocking questions, aren't they?

Yesterday I found myself in an extended online exchange through a comment thread about the petition presented to the Machakos High Court in Kenya by a doctor called Tatu Kamau. Kamau is proposing to legalise female genital mutilation (FGM), which has been outlawed since 2011. FGM is the practice in some traditional African and Arab societies of cutting out the clitoris in order to deny women any sexual pleasure. The reasoning is that if women do not find sexual intercourse enjoyable, they are less likely to be unfaithful.

FGM may also involve carrying out additional 'surgery' as well. Such surgery might include partial or full removal of the labia in order to make the genitals 'tidy' and more attractive to men.  It might also include sewing up the vaginal opening so that only a small space remains, sufficient to allow menstrual blood to pass. The purpose of this procedure is to make the tearing of a virgin's hymen during intercourse more pleasurable to her husband.

FGM is traditionally carried out by the time girls reach puberty, but sometimes on very young girls of six or seven. It is usually performed by older women using a razor blade and without any form of anaesthesia. The pain is reportedly horrific. Sometimes the girls' wounds are pinned together using thorns. They may die from loss of blood. In some communities girls are not even allowed to make a noise while it happens. As the same razor blade is used for all the girls undergoing mutilation, the likelihood of HIV being transmitted is quite high. Infections, including sepsis, are common.

FGM is a cultural, not a religious, practice and marks initiation into 'womanhood'. Once the procedure has been carried out, girls are considered ready for marriage. This may often mean child marriage to a much older man. In societies which practise FGM, women who have not been 'cut' (mutilated) may be excluded from community activities and denied food from community stores. They may not be allowed to go for water at the same time as other women.

Obviously, the short-term effects of FGM are unspeakably horrible. The long-term consequences are, however, grim. Young women will experience excruciating pain on their wedding nights. This pain may continue for the rest of their lives when they engage in intercourse. When they give birth, they may suffer lengthy and exhausting labour which lasts for days and may result in death. A common result is development of a fistula; that is their birth canal may rupture, tearing also the bladder and/or bowel. The result may be death or permanent incontinence which leads to social ostracisation, eviction from the family home and loss of their children.

So, why do families impose this practice on their daughters? Because it has 'always' been done. Girls must be married. An 'uncut' girl may be considered unmarriageable. The older women who carry out the procedure are paid and may rely on the fees for an income. They will not know any different because that is what happened to them when they were girls.

Indeed, it is attachment to the cultural element of traditions like FGM which makes them particularly resistant to change. The automatic answer to any online comment about such practices may well be 'but it is their culture'. 'So what?', I say. Lots of discontinued and thoroughly unpleasant practices have once been intrinsic parts of the culture of one society or another. While maypoles or morris dancing may be relatively positive manifestations of 'culture', drowning or burning witches, as we used to do here in Britain and as still happens in a number of countries elsewhere, clearly are not. The idea that we should continue with cultural practices which cause pain, harm and suffering is intolerable.

The UN estimates that about 27 out of 54 African countries practice FGM to some degree. In Kenya, the UN reports that one in five women between the ages of 15 and 49 years has undergone FGM. Malawi, however, does not practice FGM, nor, on the whole, does Uganda, just across the border from Kenya. The only Ugandan girls whose genitals are mutilated are members of the Potok and Sabiny clans, part of the Maasai tribe of Kenya who live on the eastern side of the mountains which separate the two countries. NGOs working with the Ugandan Government have been successful in stamping out FGM in school-aged girls, often providing refuge for potential victims. Sadly the result has been that sometimes the girls are simply taken across the border to caves on the Kenyan side.

Another perverse result of recent success in combating FGM is a move towards mutilating older women after marriage, at the request of their husbands or of women themselves, almost certainly under pressure from their husbands, a covert form of domestic violence. And this is where the petition by Tatu Kamau comes in. He claims that these older women 'choose' to be mutilated and therefore, by carrying out the procedure in a medical clinic, doctors are simply providing welcome protection from infection. And you can see the logic. The main problem with this argument is the assumption that the choice these women make is 'free' and not influenced by family pressures or community convention. Such was the substance of the arguments I used during my online exchange.

However, in Kenya the practice is becoming less common as girls become educated and want lives and prospects for themselves which are different from the lives and prospects their mothers had. The rate of FGM currently stands at 21% overall, though it is as high as 94% in some ethnic groups. The rate in other countries is also still very high: 98% in Somalia, 87% in Egypt. In Ethiopia it is non-existent in some cultural groups and near-universal in others, averaging at 74%. In Nigeria, it varies according to region, averaging at 25% overall. In Ghana, prevalence is less than 5%. In time, with increasing opportunities for education, the practice of FGM is likely to die out - unless, of course, people like Tatu Kamau keep it alive by providing a 'modern' and 'hygienic' method of ensuring that women and girls submit to the decisions which their menfolk and communities make about their bodies, and their lives. Which is why I felt drawn to comment.

Oh, and incidentally, in case you think that FGM only affects girls and women in faraway countries, it is an increasingly significant issue in the UK. Girls from particular communities may either be taken to illegal 'cutters' in this country or, more likely perhaps, be taken abroad to have the procedure carried out there. Yet another issue for already over-burdened teachers to think about when their secondary students are absent.

However, that is as much as I want to write about the business of FGM. It is not the main topic of this post, but simply an immediate and timely example of the kinds of issues which may suddenly and unexpectedly impinge on our consciousness as we idly trawl through our Facebook feed. For me, other recent topics have included accounts of 'bloodsucking' rumours, lynchings and witchcraft in Malawi, the continuing issue of child marriage and the rights of girls to gain an education without being subject to sexual abuse. I have written about these subjects and about political issues such as corruption in government and its impact on health provision, education quality or supply of services like electricity, water or sanitation.

Only last week, the media reported that somewhere in Ghana, the local gods had pronounced through the village elders that girls should not be allowed to cross the river when they were menstruating. As it happens, and I don't think it is a coincidence, the girls' school happened to be on the other side of the river. Another example of 'culture' being used as an excuse to deny girls their rights.

Now, given that I live in Scotland and not sub-Saharan Africa, you may well ask what gives me the 'right' to reflect and comment on social issues in other people's countries? Surely FGM in Kenya or elsewhere is none of my business.

Well, we are all of us members of the human race. We are all members of the global community. We do not just live as individuals, but as members of societies, nations and groupings such as the European Union or East African Community. Above all, we live in countries which are members of the United Nations. We are responsible for other people, not just ourselves, and when they are being treated inhumanely by their government or community, we have a moral responsibility, just as if a child or adult were being treated cruelly in the house next door. We can't keep saying to ourselves that it is someone else's responsibility to protect the weak or to right injustices, someone else's job to raise awareness about an issue, to inform, to educate, to share, to debate. It is important for Tatu Kamau in Kenya to realise the depth and extent of feeling about what may seem to him to be a very reasonable proposal. That does not mean that I am unaware of the danger of stepping clumsily into contexts about which I do not know enough, of ignoring the nuances of quite complex cultural challenges or of completely misjudging the situation. The issue of FGM is, however, clear cut.

So how do we know which issues it is justifiable for us to address?

I find that many of the issues which arouse my interest, anger or pity - or desire to comment - are to do with human rights. The global community has a shared understanding of what constitutes these rights, and has recorded the key elements in agreed international statements. FGM, for example, is relevant to several of the articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 5, for example, states: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 19.1 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child refers to the duty to 'take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child.'

In Britain and elsewhere in the west, we have become increasingly aware of our own most appalling cases of child abuse, often perpetrated by the very people who are responsible for protecting children such as teachers and carers in residential schools, priests and pastors. We have been horrified by accounts of organised grooming gangs. Children are beaten and killed by their own parents in plain sight of the community and the professionals charged with looking after them. The perpetrators were able to carry out their actions because others were 'minding their own business'. Child abuse and neglect or domestic violence in the west may look a bit different from the abuse, neglect and violence seen in parts of Africa or Asia, because people's cultures and way of life are different. Nevertheless, they are essentially caused by the same misuse of power and failure to recognise women and children as individuals with their own needs and rights. Across the world, the cycle of violence continues because those who are damaged often go on to inflict damage themselves. And too many people think it is 'none of their business' when they hear the cries or see the bruises. There is indeed plenty to criticise in our own societies.

I believe that it is important that we talk, discuss and write about such things because only then will we come to shared understanding of what is or is not acceptable. And that includes people from other countries commenting on the way we do things here in Britain whether that is how we treat our immigrant communities, the effectiveness or otherwise of our healthcare or our provision for the elderly.

Some elements of British culture may appear quite antithetical to the values of people living in other societies. What do foreign visitors think when they watch sectarian marches in Scotland and Northern Ireland, an intrinsic part of our 'culture' and sometimes quite striking both visually and musically? Yet these marches represent traditional prejudice against other faith communities which can result in violence and increase mutual suspicion and resentment. I think outsiders have a perfect right to comment on whether these aspects of our culture should be allowed to continue, as with FGM.

Living in a global community means that perforce we have to recognise that there are other ways of doing things, just as traditional societies are having to develop to fit in with the expectations and opportunities of modern society. We cannot be too sentimental. We may be fascinated by what we have seen on the television about Maasai dress, cattle-rearing and dancing. However, marriage by rape, a traditional element of courtship, and genital mutilation are no longer tolerable in today's society. The digital revolution has ensured that everybody's business is now our business, and our business is also theirs.

We won't all respond to - or become incensed by - the same issues, of course, which is just as well. Indeed, how we respond to the events which draw our attention may differ, for we are individuals with different personalities, skills, experiences and social confidence. Some people may go on protest marches, sign online petitions or write to the newspapers. Some might provide financial or practical support to organisations working in the fields of rights and protection.

As for me, I write. Just try to stop me.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations

UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

UNICEF data on FGM

Kenyan doctor goes to court to legalise female genital mutilation, Thomas Reuters Foundation on All Africa, 19 January 2018

Malawi's bloodsucker scare: how magical thinking impacts health delivery, Vicky Allan, The Herald, 21 January 2018

I took on my village elders to end FGM, a Maasai girl tells how she escaped FGM, BBC World Service, 23 January 2018

Also these posts

Are you a vampire or just a bit different?

Championing the rights of female students

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