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Culture has been defined by some scholars as “a historical, rigid collection of habits that plays on passive actors to influence their behaviour.”  The objective is to serve several fundamental functions in society such as improving motives for human behaviour and providing criteria of evaluation: what is deemed better or worse, ugly or beautiful, moral or immoral, attractive or repulsive.  Within the African continent, with widespread negative factors such as poverty, economic stagnation and a lack of social welfare; the family and traditional networks act as a buffer to the whole communal set-up.  A woman’s place is one of submission to cultural demands in order to have a ‘place’ and access to resources.  Her identity is closely linked to that of a man; either that of her father or that of her husband whose name she takes up after marriage. 


Radhika Coomarswamy, a staunch women’s rights advocate observes that, “Women may have to submit to discriminatory practises and laws, as well as engage in rituals, customs and habits that re-inscribe the sub-ordinate status of women within the hierarchy of their religious, ethnic or tribal identity.”  Women and girls within the continent end up encountering a lot of injustice and oppression on grounds of their gender and in the name of culture.  These stereotypes and characterizations create obstacles for the realization of equality, and are also the substance that makes up discrimination and provides a basis for power and privilege. 


Furthermore, a dilemma presents itself in the fight against discrimination and the battle for women’s empowerment, largely due to factors such as the way women have been socialized.  If women are socialized to believe that they are the custodians of the laws, rituals and practices that discriminate against them, it nullifies any grounds for intervention by outsiders to protect them.  Women in the African society believe that their dignity is intricately linked to the identity of the group; hence they see any attack on that identity as an assault on their own dignity.  It becomes a complex multi-facetted task; on one hand women and the protection of their rights, yet on the other hand; violations take place under the shield of “culture” and it seems impossible to disentangle the two largely due to the backdrop of the African society.


With every given cultural practice, there are positive practices as well as negative ones.  Among the most harmful cultural practices is Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).  FGM is the term used for the removal of all or just part of the external parts of the female genitalia.  There are three variations to this procedure; firstly, Sunna Circumcision: this consists of the removal of the prepuce (retractable fold of kin, or hood) and/or the tip of the clitoris; secondly, Clitoridectomy consists of the removal of the entire clitoris (prepuce and glands) and the removal of the adjacent labia; Infibulation (pharonic circumcision) consists of performing a clitoridectomy (removal of all or part of the labia minora, the labia majora).  This is then stitched up allowing a small hole to remain open to allow for urine and menstrual blood to flow through. 


FGM is a cultural practice that started in Africa approximately 2000 years ago.  The practice is most common in the western, eastern and north-eastern regions of Africa.  The majority of cases of FGM are carried out in 28 African countries; in some countries such as Egypt, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan; prevalence rates can be as high as 98 percent.  In other countries such as Nigeria, Kenya, Togo and Senegal, the prevalence rates vary between 20 and 50 percent. 


FGM, more accurately - is practised by specific ethnic groups, rather than by a whole country, as communities practising it cut across national boundaries.  The age at which the practice is carried out varies depending on the community or individual family; from shortly after birth to the labour of the first child; however, the most common age is between four and ten years old.  It is estimated that approximately 100 - 140 million African women have undergone FGM worldwide and each year, a further 3 million girls are estimated to be at risk of the practice in Africa alone.


There are short-term implications which include; severe pain and shock, infection, urine retention, injury to tissues and haemorrhaging which can lead to death.  On the long term, the implications include; psychological trauma, extensive damage to the external reproductive system; uterus, vaginal and pelvic infections, cysts and neuromas.  Others include the increased risk of vaginal fistula, complications in pregnancy and childbirth, sexual dysfunction and difficulties in menstruation. 


The practice is mostly carried out by traditional circumcisers, who often play other central roles in communities, such as childbirth attendants.  It has become so well ingrained into the culture of many African societies that it defines members of these cultures.  For any fight to eliminate this practice, one must first eliminate the cultural belief that a girl will not proceed to be a woman without this practice or that a girl will be accepted into the community without undergoing this practice and not be shunned or looked upon as one who is “unclean.”


Of course, the International community has responded to the practice in several ways hoping to curb it.   During the United Nations Decade for Women (1975-1985) a UN Working Group on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children was created.  This group helped to develop and aided to the development of the 1994 Plan of Action for the Elimination of Harmful Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children.  In 1997, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a joint statement with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) against the practice of FGM.  Since 1997, great efforts have been made to counteract FGM, through research, work within communities and changes in public policy.  Progress at both international and local levels includes; wider international involvement to stop FGM; the development of international monitoring bodies and resolutions that condemn the practice; revised legal frameworks and growing political support to end FGM; and in some countries, decreasing practice of FGM, and an increasing number of women and men in practising communities who declare their support to end it.


Research shows that if practising communities themselves decide to abandon FGM, the practise can be eliminated very rapidly.  In 2008, the World Health Assembly passed a resolution on the elimination of FGM, emphasizing the need for concerted action in all sectors - health, education, finance, justice and women’s affairs.


* Caroline Achieng Otieno has a post-graduate degree in International Law - Human Rights specialization, and can be contacted at

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