‘Zero Tolerance’ to Female Genital Cutting

‘Zero Tolerance’ to Female Genital Cutting? An Intersectional Analysis of International Eradication Efforts

© Eva Mowat

Contents

Abstract
1. Introduction
 1.1. Purpose of Research
 1.2. Methodology
 1.3. Chapter Outline
2. Background: Eradicating Female Genital Cutting
 2.1. What is Female Genital Cutting?
 2.2. Eradication Efforts at the International Level
 2.3. Factors Impeding Eradication
  2.3.1. An Entrenched Social Norm
  2.3.2. Universal Human Rights?
3. Theoretical Framework
 3.1. The Norm Lifecycle
 3.2. Intersectional Feminism
4. The Emergence of the Anti-FGC Norm
 4.1. Norm Entrepreneurs
 4.2. Strategic Framing: FGC as a Human Rights Issue
 4.3. Problematising the Framing of the Anti-FGC Norm
 4.4. Applying an Intersectional Lens
 4.5. Conclusion
5. The Norm Cascade
 5.1. Evidence of the Norm Cascade
 5.2. International Socialisation
 5.3. Factors Impeding Eradication
  5.3.1. Inauthentic Commitments to the Anti-FGC Norm
  5.3.2. Adverse Consequences of Legislation
 5.4. Conclusion
6. Looking Forward: Prospects for (Universal) Norm Internalisation
 6.1. ‘Zero Tolerance’ to What?
 6.2. Applying an Intersectional Lens
 6.3. Conclusion
7. Conclusions
Bibliography
Appendices
 Appendix 1
 Appendix 2
 Appendix 3
 Appendix 4
 Appendix 5

Abstract

At the time of writing, around two-hundred million women and girls around the world have undergone some form of female genital cutting (FGC); a practice that has severe physical and psychological consequences for survivors. While there have been concerted international efforts to eradicate the practice since the 1970s – this dissertation refers to these efforts as the ‘anti-Female-Genital-Cutting norm’ – the practice remains widespread across African and Middle East and increasingly occurs in Western states due to global migration flows. In order to understand why FGC continues in the face of the anti-FGC norm, this dissertation offers an intersectional feminist lens on how the anti-FGC norm has been framed at the international level, and the obstacles and opportunities for its diffusion throughout the international system. In doing so, this dissertation exposes potential factors impeding the universal internalisation of anti-FGC norm and complete eradication of the practice. Finnemore and Sikkink’s (1998) model of the ‘norm lifecycle’ is used a theoretical framework for norm diffusion, while an intersectional feminist lens is applied to reveal the power dynamics at play throughout this process. It is argued that the framing of the anti-FGC norm as a human rights issue has presented both opportunities and obstacles for norm diffusion. However, it is suggested that the obstacles are perhaps the most salient as the anti-FGC norm has not yet been universally internalised. This is also owing to the ambiguity surrounding the very definition of ‘female genital cutting’. These factors arguably hinder the complete eradication of FGC.

Abbreviations
  • FGC, Female Genital Cutting
  • FGCS, Female Genital Cosmetic Surgeries
  • FGM, Female Genital Mutilation
  • IO(s), International Organisation(s)
  • (I)NGO, (International) Non-Governmental Organisation
  • UDHR, Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  • UN, United Nations
  • UNICEF, United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund
  • UNDAW, United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women
  • UNFPA, United Nations Population Fund
  • UNGA, United Nations General Assembly
  • WHO, World Health Organisation

1. Introduction

Practiced for centuries, around two-hundred million women and girls around the world have now undergone some form of ‘female genital mutilation’ (FGM)(UNICEF, 2020). This is defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as “all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons” (2008:1), and has been found to have severe physical and psychological implications for survivors (Trueblood, 2000). For the sake of political neutrality[1], and the fact that the majority of those who have undergone ‘FGM’ have had their genitalia cut (UNICEF, 2013), this dissertation shall use the term ‘female genital cutting’ (FGC) to refer to the same practice. Moreover, the term ‘FGC’ more clearly encompasses the similarities of the practice with the host of cosmetic genital procedures available in the West – something that shall be queried in the final chapter.

In recognition of FGC being a gross violation of human rights, a ‘global campaign’ for its eradication has been launched at the international level: “an international movement with the aim of creating and enforcing universal norms defining alterations of female genitals as fundamentally intolerable” (Shell-Duncan, 2008:225). Indicative of this campaign, the General Assembly of the United Nations has instituted an ‘International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation’, to be observed annually on February 6th (UNGA, 2012:5; emphasis added). This dissertation shall refer to these international eradication efforts as the ‘anti-Female-Genital-Cutting norm’ (anti-FGC norm). However, despite both international and national efforts to eradicate the practice since the 1970s, it is estimated that three million girls and women still undergo some form of FGC annually (UNICEF, 2013; Leina, 2014). Indeed, while the likelihood that a girl will undergo FGC is now around a third less that it was thirty years ago, the practice still occurs in twenty-eight African countries as well as some countries in Asia and the Middle East; with the prevalence remaining unchanged or even slightly increasing in some countries (UNICEF, 2014; 2020). Due to global migration flows, FGC also increasingly occurs among immigrant communities in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand (Dustin, 2010). The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund has estimated that, if there is no reduction in the rates of the practice, the number of girls undergoing FGC annually will increase further to 6.6 million in 2050, in line with expected population growth (UNICEF, 2014). This is concerning from a human rights perspective but also from an economic one, as it is estimated that the annual cost of treating the health impacts of FGC would mount to $1.4 billion globally (WHO, 2020).


[1] Explain further in Chapter 4.


1.1. Purpose of Research

Given the ongoing prevalence of FGC in the face of eradication efforts, it is evident that that the anti-FGC norm must be evaluated; this being the purpose of this dissertation. More specifically, this dissertation offers an intersectional feminist lens on how the anti-FGC norm has been framed at the international level, and the obstacles and opportunities for its diffusion throughout the international system. In doing so, this dissertation shall also expose potential factors impeding the universal internalisation of anti-FGC norm and complete eradication of the practice.

The attempted eradication of FGC is a particularly interesting issue because it illuminates many broader debates within the international system. These include debates over the universality of human rights; the importance of cultural autonomy; the continuity of postcolonial imperialism; debates over gender equality; questions of agency; the framing and contestation of political issues; and the effectiveness of legislation (Boyle, 2002). This dissertation shall draw out each of these issues whilst analysing and evaluating the anti-FGC norm.

1.2. Methodology

This dissertation shall use Finnemore and Sikkink’s (1998) model of the ‘norm lifecycle’ as a theoretical framework to analyse the development and diffusion of the anti-FGC norm. This methodology entails a historical account over time of events leading up to the institutionalisation of the norm at both the international and national levels, as well as an analysis of the language of key policy documents and legislation; official statements; and other eradication efforts. However, while using this model structurally, as an analytical backbone, this dissertation shall engage with the anti-FGC norm critically, through the application of an intersectional feminist lens. I shall also highlight where the applicability of the model is limited for understanding the anti-FGC norm.

As far as research for this dissertation has revealed, no previous literature has yet sought to understand the perseverance of FGC and the diffusion of the anti-FGC norm through the ‘norm lifecycle’ model. This is the unique contribution of this dissertation.

1.3. Chapter outline

The current literature on FGC, and why it continues despite eradication efforts, shall be explored in Chapter 2. Building on these findings, Chapter 3 shall outline the theoretical framework; detailing the three stages of the ‘norm lifecycle’ and the relevancy of intersectional feminism. Chapter 4 shall then analyse the emergence of the anti-FGC nom, investigating how the issue of FGC has been framed and by whom, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of this approach. The cascade of the anti-FGC norm shall be examined in Chapter 5, which shall again reflect the opportunities and obstacles presented by the framing of the anti-FGC norm as a human rights issue. Chapter 6 shall pull together the findings of the previous chapters and problematise the very bedrock of the anti-FGC norm: its definition. Overall, it shall be argued that the anti-FGC norm has not yet been universally internalised due to a number of obstacles caused by the framing of FGC as a human rights violation. In its current framing, the anti-FGC norm perhaps presents more obstacles than opportunities for norm diffusion; hindering the complete eradication of FGC.

2. Background: Eradicating Female Genital Cutting

This chpter shall explore the background literature on the practice of FGC, and why it continues in the face of eradication efforts at the international level. While ethnographic research reveals that FGC continues because it is a deeply ingrained social norm, I shall argue that this analysis is necessarily incomplete because it ignores the context of global politics within which eradication efforts operate. Indeed, the condemnation of FGC as a human rights issue embroils the practice with debates over the universal applicability of these rights as well as concerns over Western cultural imperialism. This ongoing debate may be considered an impediment to the complete eradication of FGC.

2.1. What is Female Genital Cutting?

While this dissertation frequently refers to FGC as a ‘practice’, it actually consists of a wide range of procedures. The WHO (2008:4) has classified four types:

  • Type I: Partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or the prepuce (clitoridectomy)
  • Type II: Partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora (excision)
  • Type III: Narrowing of the vaginal orifice with creation of a covering seal by cutting and appositioning the labia minora and/or the labia majora, with or without excision of the clitoris (infibulation)
  • Type IV: All other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, for example: pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterisation.

The type of FGC performed varies largely by ethnicity and region, both within and between countries, but the vast majority (ninety per cent) of cases are believed to consist of Type I or II (WHO, 2008; UNICEF, 2013). While FGC is performed by medical professionals in some communities[2], it is most commonly performed by ‘traditional’ circumcisers and conducted without anaesthesia (UNICEF, 2013); using unsterilized household appliances such as razor blades, kitchen knives, and shards of glass (James, 1994).

Due to the unsanitary conditions within which FGC is generally performed, the practice can have damaging health consequences for survivors. These may include: “intense pain and/or haemorrhaging, wound infection, including tetanus, damage to adjoining organs from the use of blunt instruments…urine retention form swelling and/or blockage of the urethra…abscesses, cysts, and hardened scars, increased risk of maternal and child morbidity due to obstructed labour, infertility, and sexual dysfunction” (Trueblood, 2000:443-444). Survivors of FGC can also experience psychosocial consequences such as post-traumatic stress disorder; depression; anxiety; a loss of trust; and a sense of incompleteness (2000:445). It is for these reasons that FGC has been considered a human rights violation at the international level, by the United Nations agencies and the WHO (2008).

The sense of horror that FGC has induced throughout the international community has perhaps been exacerbated by the fact that it is performed on girls below the age of five in at least half of the countries with credible data. In other countries, such as the Central African Republic, Chad, Egypt, and Somalia, eighty per cent of girls between the ages of five and fourteen are subjected to procedure (UNICEF, 2013). However, the age at which FGC is performed can range as far as adulthood, as women are sometimes re-infibulated after giving birth in order to ensure they remain virgin-like for their husbands (Lightfoot-Klein, 1991). Therefore, FGC is not solely a children’s rights issue (Boulware-Miller, 1985).


[2] This has been documented in Egypt, where seventy-one percent of girls are cut by a health professional (UNICEF, 2019).


2.2. Eradication Efforts at the International Level

Due to the harmful and discriminatory nature of FGC, many international human rights treaties now (either explicitly or implicitly) encourage states to strive for its eradication; including the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), and the Convention Against Torture (CAT) (Khosla et al., 2017)[3]. Ten UN agencies have now committed themselves to eradicate the practice within a generation (WHO, 2008:2), and the General Assembly of the UN passed a Resolution on 20th December 2012 highlighting the role to be played by states in Intensifying global efforts for the elimination of female genital mutilations (UNGA, 2012). Most recently, the elimination of FGC was outlined within Goal 5.3 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (UNGA, 2015:18). This institutionalisation of the anti-FGC norm is reflective of the ‘zero tolerance’ approach taken by Western countries towards FGC (Johnsdotter and Essén, 2010).


[3] A full breakdown of all international human rights treaties and consensus documents “providing protection and containing safeguards against [FGC]” can be found in Appendix 1; as provided by the WHO (2008:31-32).


2.3. Factors Impeding Eradication

In light of these eradication efforts, along with the aforementioned physical and physiological consequences associated with FGC, it is pertinent to ask why the practice continues. Indeed, the current literature on FGC reveals that it is a highly internalised, self-enforcing, social norm. Moreover, the depiction of FGC as a human rights violation inevitably links the practice to the enduring debate over the universal applicability of the ‘human rights’ doctrine.

2.3.1. An Entrenched Social Norm

Although FGC is performed for a variety of reasons, in a variety of different cultural contexts, ethnographic research has unearthed four key motivations. Firstly, based on her ethnography of a Muslim community in Northern Sudan, Janice Boddy (1982) found that girls undergo Type III FGC to preserve their virginity and, thus, render them marriageable. As marriage allows women to advance their social status in a patriarchal society – particularly by having children – FGC is considered a vehicle for socio-economic mobility (1982). This incentive is part of the reason that FGC is often performed or facilitated by women themselves (Boyle, 2002). For example, FGC is generally performed by girls’ mothers and grandmothers in Northern Sudan (Boddy, 1992) and over fifty per cent of females in Mali, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Somalia, Gambia, and Egypt support the continuation of the practice (UNICEF, 2013:52)[4]. However, Boddy (1982) argues that FGC is ultimately reflective of gendered power relations; representing an attempt to control women’s sexuality. This sentiment is echoed by the UN interagency statement on FGC: “in every society in which it is practiced, female genital mutilation is a manifestation of gender inequality that is deeply entrenched in social, economic, and political structures” (WHO, 2008:5). Indeed, although the practice is often supported or facilitated by women, James (2002) argues that it must still be regarded as a patriarchal tradition. He posits that FGC is exemplary of the internalisation of this gender power a-symmetry by women (2002:99).

Secondly, FGC is performed in order to reinforce sex differences between men and women, based on cultural constructions of appropriate femininity (Green, 2005). Justifications for FGC often draw on discourses of health and hygiene, as the practice is said to render girls “clean, smooth, and pure” (Boddy, 2016:48). This is believed to enhance their femininity; particularly in cultural contexts where the labia and clitoris are considered ‘masculine’ (2016; James, 1994). Therefore, many girls undergo the procedure willingly, in the belief that it represents the achievement of womanhood (James, 1994; Abusharaf, 1998). Connell’s theory of gender as ‘social embodiment’ is relevant here, as female bodies are physically transformed in line with cultural expectations; being both “objects of social practice and agents in social practice” (2009:67). In terms of women’s compliance with socially constructed ideals, parallels have been drawn between FGC and female genital cosmetic and intersex surgeries in the West (Boddy, 2016; Green, 2005); discussed further in Chapter 6.

However, an important difference between these procedures is that, unlike women opting for cosmetic surgery, women and girls who do not undergo FGC risk stigmatisation and ostracization within their communities – this being a third motivation for its continuation. Indeed, women with uncut genitals are often discriminated against in the view that they are either sexually promiscuous or not ‘proper’ women (Lightfoot-Klein, 1991). In some societies, uncut females can be preventing from attending community events; ridiculed with names such as “el beydourha meno (‘who wants her?’) and el beyaresha meno (‘who marries her’?)”; or shunned from their communities entirely (Boulware-Miller, 1985:167; Abusharaf, 1998). Therefore, the decision not to undergo FGC could have serious repercussions for women and girls’ survival in some contexts. According to the WHO, this fear of stigmatisation is key to understanding why FGC continues to be practiced in spite of its harmful effects: it is “a social convention governed by rewards and punishments” (2008:5). Indeed, Boddy’s (1982) ethnography found that, for Sudanese girls, the possible consequences of not undergoing FGC were dreaded more than those of the procedure itself. A final cultural justification put forward for FGC is that it is a religious requirement (James, 1994). This motivation is particularly salient in Eritrea, where sixty per cent of women undergo the practice for religious reasons (UNICEF, 2013). While FGC is practiced by Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike, religious justifications are particularly pertinent in Islamic societies, where un-cut women are often considered immoral with an excessive sexual drive (James, 1994). However, no religious documents formally advocate FGC and religious leaders are increasingly condemning the practice publicly (1994). Furthermore, the view that religious prescriptions mandate FGC is not universal. In Egypt, for example, some individuals challenge FGC on the grounds that it is antithetical to the calls of Islam to protect the welfare of its believers (Li, 2001).


[4] With the exception of these countries, however, the majority of women and girls in practising countries are opposed to FGC and in almost every country the prevalence of FGC is higher than the level of support (UNICEF, 2013).


2.3.2. Universal Human Rights?

However, these ethnographic insights are somewhat limiting in understanding why the practice continues in the face of international eradication efforts, as no culture exists in isolation within the globalised world. Therefore, it is necessary to move beyond ethnographic accounts to understand FGC within the context of global politics and human rights discourse; particularly with respect to debates over the universal applicability of human rights.

Indeed, the argument forwarded by the UN – that FGC is a violation of human rights and should be eradicated globally – is based on the presumption of universal human rights: basic rights and freedoms to which all human beings are entitled. These are outlined in the International Bill of Human Rights and considered transcendent to culture and nationality; being absolute in their derivation from natural law, or universal moral principles (James, 1994; Bunting, 1993). However, the individualism of the human rights doctrine has come under heavy criticism by cultural relativists, who follow the realist perception that the practices of one culture should not be judged against those of another. Calling for cultural autonomy and state sovereignty, cultural relativists argue that FGC should be tolerated both within liberal societies and further afield (Li, 2001). Far from being universal, cultural relativists argue that rights can only be deduced within the localities that construct them (Haddad, 2003). The human rights doctrine, based on Western moral values, is therefore regarded as inapplicable in non-Western countries. This is the case in Islamic societies that practice FGC, where individual freedoms are derived from divine order rather than secular authorities (Hilsdon et al., 2000). A further charge of cultural relativists is that Western attempts to universalise human rights is a form of cultural imperialism or neo-colonialism (Steans, 2014; Kennedy, 2004). Following this line of thought, both realists and post-colonial theorists contend that universal human rights have been constructed in order to further Western power and interests (Bekers, 2010; Obioma, 1997). Where efforts to eradicate FGC have been perceived in this manner, adherents of the practice may “respond by clarifying, re-articulating, and sometimes depending their commitment to established norms” (Symons and Altman, 2015:68). Indeed, NGOs reported mass circumcision in retaliation to early eradication efforts in Kenya in the 1980s (Leina, 2014).

Contrarily, liberals argue that cultural relativists fail to acknowledge how cultures are formed within each context – such as the power dynamics at play in the establishment of a dominant culture (James, 1994) – as well as cultural contestation within each culture (Li, 2001). In this respect, if FGC is underpinned by gendered power relations and inherently discriminatory, this can hardly be just grounds for its continuation in the name of ‘culture’ (Bunting, 1993). Moreover, within many practicing communities are individuals that denounce the practice. For example, while FGC may be considered a dominant cultural practice in Somalia and Egypt, many doctors have sought to demonstrate that the procedure is dangerous (Li, 2001).

Clearly, the eradication of FGC is embroiled in debates over the universal applicability of the human rights doctrine and Western cultural imperialism. In tandem with, but also reinforced by, the fact that FGC is social norm in many contexts, the ongoing nature of these debates may be considered an impediment the complete eradication of FGC. This dissertation shall build on this theorisation, using constructivist and intersectional feminist research to analyse the obstacles and opportunities presented by the framing of the anti-FGC norm for norm diffusion, and the eradication of FGC.

3. Theoretical Framework

Constructivist research is a particularly useful starting point for analysing the diffusion of the anti-FGC norm, given that it focuses on the role of norms in guiding state action (Birdsall, 2009). Here, a ‘norm’ refers to “a standard of appropriate behaviour for actors within a given identity” (Finnemore and Sikkink, 1998:891). As perceptions of ‘appropriate’ behaviour are derived from socialisation within a community, norms effectively constrain behaviour in line with social expectations: this being the case for both the ingrained social norm of FGC and the emerging anti-FGC norm.

3.1. The Norm Lifecycle

This dissertation shall use Finnemore and Sikkink’s (1998) model of norm creation and diffusion, known as the ‘norm lifecycle’, to evaluate normative change with respect to FGC. This model is summarised in Appendix 2. The theory follows that norms exert influence on international society following a three-stage process: norm emergence; norm cascade; and finally, internalisation (1998:895). During the first stage of the norm lifecycle, ‘norm entrepreneurs’ – often powerful Western states (Birdsall, 2009) – seek to convince other members of the international community to adopt a new norm. These norms are often institutionalised in international laws and rules and framed in such a way so as to become meaningful enough to guide collective action (Snow et al., 1986).

The first and second stages of the norm lifecycle are separated by a ‘tipping point’ where “a critical mass of relevant state actors adopt the norm” (1998:895). Such a threshold may be reached when at least one-third of states adopt the norm or critical states, with the power to compromise the norm, choose to adopt it. During the second stage – the norm cascade – an increasing number of states adopt the norm, which is frequently enshrined in domestic legislation. ‘International socialisation’ is predominant at this stage, as states actively pressurise others to adopt new norms by ratifying treaties and legislating in line with international standards (1998:902). Although not all norms will reach the final stage of the lifecycle, those that do are internalised to the point that they are no longer at the forefront of political or public debate. For each stage of lifecycle of the anti-FGC norm, this dissertation shall analyse the obstacles and opportunities presented by its framing as a human rights issue. However, while using this model as an analytical backbone, this dissertation shall analyse the diffusion of the anti-FGC norm critically; through the application of an intersectional feminist lens.

3.2. Intersectional Feminism

The concept of ‘intersectionality’ was first introduced by Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989;1991) to highlight the multiple, intersecting, forms of oppression that women of colour experience; both as a result of their gender and their race. She argued that mainstream feminism is ignorant of the different experiences and viewpoints of non-white women and can further marginalise them as a result. The theory of intersectionality is not a singular concept, however, and has since been expanded to critique a wide range of power structures in different contexts; “interrogating the inter-locking ways in which social structures produce and entrench power and marginalisation”, at both individual and global levels of analysis (Carbado et al., 2013:312).

This dissertation shall apply an intersectional lens to investigate the framing of the anti-FGC norm as a human rights issue. This approach reveals that the human rights discourse treats all women as equal, when in fact they are situated differently due to life experiences and cultural understandings. Furthermore, to dismiss cultural relativism entirely – this being the position of anti-FGC advocates – can be to reinforce global power dynamics, and further oppress the very women this discourse seeks to protect (Bunting, 1993). In this way, an intersectional lens mediates between universalists and cultural relativists in examining the implications of eradication discourse for real people and practice.

4. The Emergence of the Anti-FGC Norm

This chapter shall explore the emergence of the anti-FGC norm; the first stage of Finnemore and Sikkink’s (1998) norm lifecycle model. In doing so, this chapter seeks to elucidate how the issue of female genital cutting (FGC) has been framed at the international level and by whom, along with the advantages and disadvantages of this approach. It shall be argued that, while the framing of FGC as a human rights violation has contributed to the practice becoming counter-normative at the international level (the emergence of an anti-FGC norm), it has simultaneously fostered accusations of ethnocentrism and Western cultural imperialism. Moreover, an intersectional lens reveals that the language of campaigns serves to silence survivors of FGC and render them passive; ignoring their different life experiences and cultural understandings.

4.1. Norm Entrepreneurs

The key actors involved during this first stage of the norm lifecycle are known as ‘norm entrepreneurs’ (Finnemore and Sikkink, 1998). These central actors bring new issues to light; often relying on organisational platforms to persuade other states to legislate in line with new norms. International organisations (IOs) such as the UN can be particularly effective for promoting new norms as they have the resources and funds to organise international conferences and support national efforts to change behaviour. They also have considerable political influence over weaker states (Boulware-Miller, 1985; Finnemore and Sikkink, 1980).

Early campaigns for the eradication of FGC date back to the early twentieth century, and largely emanated from West; the key actors being colonial authorities and Christian missionaries (Boyle and Preeves, 2000). These campaigns were criticised for being imperialistic, however, and proved unsuccessful in eradicating the practice (Leina, 2014). As a result, the WHO declared that FGC was a cultural practice and beyond its remit in 1959 (2014). Therefore, it was not until the 1970s, with the rise of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and feminist organisations, that UN agencies were forced to mobilise towards the eradication of FGC as an international norm (Boyle, 2002). Indeed, early second-wave Western feminists depicted FGC as the ultimate symbol of women’s oppression from the late 1970s, and regularly criticised the practice through journal publications and magazine articles (Daly, 1978; Walker, 1992). Their mobilisation was largely influenced by the “(re)discovery of the clitoris”, which served as an emblem of female emancipation at the time and encouraged women to re-gain control of their own bodies (Leina, 2014:9). Being a practice that commonly involves the “partial or total removal of the clitoris” (WHO, 2008:4), FGC was considered a discriminatory, patriarchal, tool for the control of women’s sexuality (Boyle, 2002). This sentiment mirrors the conclusions of Boddy’s (1982) ethnographic study in Northern Sudan, discussed in Chapter 2. While many Western feminists and NGOs campaigned on the issue, the most notable example was The Hosken Report (1979); within which American writer Fran Hosken provided the first country case studies of FGC and coined the term ‘female genital mutilation’ (FGM) to describe the practice. This terminology was subsequently adopted by IOs, such as the UN, to replace the term ‘female circumcision’ (Boyle, 2002:48-50; Hosken, 1979).

However, Western feminists were not the only ones to vocally oppose FGC. In Burkina Faso, feminist group Les Femmes Voltaiques articulated their opposition to the practice through radio broadcasts directed at practicing communities in 1975, and The Obstetrical and Gynaecological Society of Sudan similarly discussed FGC with locals in 1977 (Boulware-Miller, 1985). Members of these groups also represented African views of FGC – condemning the practice and relaying the brutalities of personal experiences – at the World Conference of the UN’s Decade for Women, held in Copenhagen in July 1980 (Boulware-Miller, 1985). However, Boyle argues that while African opponents of FGC contributed to the emergence of the anti-FGC norm, their voices were less successful in garnering the attention of IOs than their Western counterparts (2002). Indeed, it is notable that it was Fran Hosken who led the panel on FGC at the Copenhagen conference (Boulware-Miller, 1985). Thus, Western voices can be considered as having dominated early narratives surrounding the eradication of FGC (Smith, 2011). The result of feminist mobilisation in the 1970s was the launch of the reinvigorated ‘global campaign’ for the eradication of FGC; cited in Chapter 1. At the 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights, ‘female genital mutilation’ was recognised as a form of violence against women and detrimental to women’s health and well-being. In turn, violence against women was recognised as a human rights issue (Hernlund and Shell-Duncan, 2007). This sentiment was reiterated at the Cairo Conference on Population and Development in 1994, as well as the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 (Manderson, 2004). Prior to the 1990s and feminist mobilisation on the issue, violence against women was considered to be a private act and beyond the remit of human rights legislation (Shell-Duncan, 2008). Keck and Sikkink term this process, whereby individuals turn to the international community to apply pressure to national governments from above, the international ‘boomerang effect’ (1998).

4.2. Strategic Framing: FGC as a Human Rights Issue

As stated in Chapter 3, in bringing new norms to the fore of public discourse, norm entrepreneurs use ‘framing’ (Snow et al., 1986) to highlight, or even construct, issues “using language that names, interprets, and dramatises them” (Finnemore and Sikkink, 1998:897). This process is highly strategic, as it is through the framing of new issues that actors seek to persuade relevant audiences to adopt news norms and collective meanings (Krook and True, 2010; Payne, 2001). In the case of the anti-FGC norm, IOs’ use of the term ‘female genital mutilation’ is significant. This terminology worked to distance the practice from male circumcision – which has been found to have health benefits (Auvert et al., 2005) – and actively tapped into discourses surrounding violence against women and the right to bodily integrity (Keck and Sikkink, 1998). Keck and Sikkink (1998) argue that norms related to bodily harm are likely to be more effective in transcending cultural differences.

Strategic norm-framing does not end with language that dramatises the issue, however. Given that norms often emerge within contradictory behavioural contexts – i.e. the anti-FGC norm conflicts with the existing social norm of FGC – norm entrepreneurs seek to situate their prescriptions within existing normative frameworks (Finnemore and Sikkink, 1998). This goal is made explicitly clear in the UN Interagency Statement on Eliminating Female Genital Mutilation, which states that the practice “violates a series of well-established human rights principles, norms and standards” (2008:9). In this vein, the framing of FGC as a human rights issue can be considered strategic in that it requires UN member-states to reconcile the practice with the stipulations of the UN Charter, ratified human rights treaties, as well as the UDHR; which has effectively become customary international law (James, 1994). Indeed, FGC has been recognised as a violation of three well-established human rights – the rights to health, bodily integrity, and freedom from discrimination – as well as the rights of children (James, 1994; WHO, 2008). In terms of the latter, children are deemed too young to be able to provide informed consent to the procedure, which also elides their right to develop normally under the Declaration of the Rights of the Child (Boulware-Miller, 1985:166). In terms of the right to health, FGC has been found to result in severe physical and psychological health complications, as discussed in Chapter 2. According to Boulware-Miller, this framing has the advantage of enabling African governments to fit the eradication of FGC within existing health policies, whilst distancing the issue from the “more elitist rights they associate with Western countries” (1985:173). Finally, feminist mobilisation drew attention to the fact that FGC constitutes gendered discrimination and patriarchal control, as women are often unable to choose whether to undergo the procedure due to social stigma (Trueblood, 2000). Therefore, in terms of the rights to freedom from discrimination and sexual and corporal integrity, Trueblood argues that “societies practicing [FGC] violate many norms of international law” (2000:452).

Due to this strategic framing and institutionalisation of the anti-FGC norm within the international human rights framework, FGC is now considered counter-normative at the international level (Boyle, 2002). This contributes to the likelihood of a norm cascade by building international consensus towards the elimination of FGC and encouraging the creation of national legislation (Checkel, 1998; UNICEF, 2013). These opportunities shall be discussed in the next chapter.

4.3. Problematising the Framing of the Anti-FGC Norm

However, the framing of FGC as a human rights violation has neither been unproblematic nor a straightforward case of norm institutionalisation. Indeed, due to the effervescent debate over the universal applicability of the human rights doctrine, the framing of the anti-FGC norm has fostered accusations of ethnocentrism and Western cultural imperialism. As outlined in Section 2.3.2, by framing FGC as a violation of human rights – and thereby justifying its eradication on these grounds – one is operating on the assumption that universal human rights exist and are agreed upon globally. This approach can prove problematic in its ignorance to different cultural interpretations and understandings of human rights. For example, framing FGC as a violation of a child’s right to develop normally is ignorant of that fact that different cultures have different ideas about what constitutes ‘normal’. Indeed, the practice is considered integral to this right in many circumcising communities, and mothers believe that FGC is in their child’s best interest due to the stigma associated with non-conformity (Shell-Duncan, 2008). Moreover, Boulware-Miller (1985) argues that African mothers are likely to be offended by the insinuation that they are bad parents, and therefore reject calls for the eradication of the practice on these grounds.

Similar problems have arisen with the framing of FGC as a violation of the right to health, as communities are often aware of health risks but believe that the social benefitsof the practice outweigh these (Shell-Duncan, 2008). It can also be countered that not all versions of the practice result in serious harm: Type I FGC is unlikely to have the same health consequences as Type III, for example, and health risks could seemingly be mitigated in a clinical setting (Dustin, 2010). In this vein, the framing of FGC as a health issue arguably warrants its medicalisation; this being an obstacle to its eradication that shall be discussed further in Chapter 5. Finally, the framing of FGC as a form of discrimination or violence against women can also be problematic given that, as discussed in Chapter 2, the practice is often advocated for or arranged by women (Johnsdotter and Essén, 2010). Here, there is a risk of Westerners speaking on behalf of non-Western women. This shall be further explored in Section 4.4.

The contestation surrounding the anti-FGC norm has also concerned the ethnocentric language used to frame the issue as one of human rights. For example, the UN Secretary-General’s Report on ‘Ending Female Genital Mutilation’ refers to “adverse cultural norms, practices and traditions…that contribute to the continuation of the practice” (2011:3; emphasis added). Such condemning language begs the question of who has the authority to dictate culture, as well as giving substance to the accusations of ethnocentrism and the Western cultural imperialism which were discussed in Section 2.3.2. Another obvious example is the use of the term ‘female genital mutilation’ by many IOs may. This terminology may offend some African women who have undergone the procedure and are, by inference, ‘mutilated’ (Boulware-Miller, 1985). Furthermore, it unhelpfully vilifies parents that allow their children to undergo FGC; entailing “the implicit assumption that parents and relatives deliberately intend to harm their children” (Walley, 2002:20). Hence, the use of the term ‘female genital cutting’ throughout this dissertation. In a similar vein, in commonly referring to the practice as “uncivilised” and “barbaric”, the discourse of Western feminists, such as Fran Hosken, has been criticised for being culturally insensitive and bolstering old colonial hierarchies (Bunting, 1993:13; Smith, 2011). Indeed, due to her framing of the issue, many African women chose to boycott the panel on FGC led by Hosken at the Copenhagen Conference in 1980; even those strictly opposed to the practice (Boyle and Preeves, 2000; Boulware-Miller, 1985).

4.4. Applying an Intersectional Lens

In light of these issues, an intersectional lens can be usefully applied in order to examine the implications of the human rights framing of FGC. Ironically, while Western feminists argued that FGC was the ultimate symbol of women’s oppression (Boyle, 2002), the language of their early eradication campaigns serves to further oppress women. The most glaring example is found within The Hosken Report, which states that “the operations are practiced by people who do not know any better” (1997:1) and that “we [the West] are able to teach those who cling to distorted beliefs and damaging practices some better ways to cope with themselves” (1997:2). This ethnocentrism – and the implication that ‘West is best’ (Vlopp, 2001) – reveals that power dynamics exist not only between gender categories but also within them (Connell, 2009). In this vein, an intersectionalfeminist lens on the emergence of the anti-FGC norm is essential to understand that “experiences of oppression may be intertwined with the history of colonialism, racism, and neo-imperialism and not a simple equation of gender oppression” (Bunting, 1993:18). Women are situated differently as a result of life experiences and cultural understandings, and therefore may have different conceptions of female emancipation. By depicting non-Western women as passive victims, void of agency, campaigns behind the anti-FGC norm risk further oppressing women by invoking racialised power dynamics, and impeding eradication efforts by causing offence (Smith, 2011). These power dynamics shall be further explored in Chapter 6.

4.5. Conclusions

Overall, both Western and African feminists played an important role as norm entrepreneurs in the late 1970s; although Western voices have been credited for spawning a global campaign against FGC within the framework of international human rights. It was argued that the framing of FGC as a human rights violation has the advantage of dramatising the issue and depicting the practice as contrary to existing norms and values: indeed, FGC is now considered counter-normative at the international level. However, the framing of the issue has also fostered accusations of ethnocentrism and Western cultural imperialism due to continuing debates over the universal applicability of the human rights doctrine. An intersectional approach to the emergence of the anti-FGC norm also reveals that the language of campaigns can further disempower survivors of FGC. Overall, it is clear that there are both opportunities and obstacles presented by the framing of the anti-FGC norm as a human rights issue. These shall be further explored throughout the next two chapters; in examining the cascade and internalisation of the anti-FGC norm.

5. The Norm Cascade

During the second stage of the norm lifecycle, an increasing number of states ‘adopt’ the norm, which is frequently enshrined in domestic legislation (Finnemore and Sikkink, 1998). Following Boyle and Preeves (2000:708), I shall define norm adoption broadly; encompassing legal action as well as bureaucratic efforts and regulation. The chapter shall begin by examining the evidence of this process occurring, before analysing why states have adopted the anti-FGC norm. It shall be argued that, despite the obstacles identified in the previous chapter, the framing of FGC as a human rights issue has been successful in contributing to the norm cascade and overall decreased prevalence of the practice. However, it has also resulted in some adverse consequences that are antithetical to the goals of the norm. Furthermore, the norm cascade is not necessarily indicative of states’ commitment to the anti-FGC norm, as it is underpinned by global power dynamics. These factors are antithetical to the universal internalisation of the norm and complete eradication of the practice.

5.1. Evidence of the Norm Cascade

As described in Chapter 3, the norm cascade begins after a “critical mass” of states have adopted the norm (Finnemore and Sikkink, 1998:895). The adoption of the anti-FGC norm throughout the international system is detailed in Appendix 3, ordered by year when policies were first introduced. While Western states were the first to adopt legislation, they have now been emulated by almost all states with practicing communities. Indeed, twenty-four out of twenty-eight African states where FGC is prevalent have adopted the norm (UNICEF, 2013), along with thirty-three countries out with the African continent. There have also been a number of regional treaties developed that decidedly frame FGC as a violation of human rights (Appendix 4). Shell-Duncan (2008) argues that this is evidence of the acceptance of the framing of the anti-FGC norm at the international level.

As a result of these efforts, the likelihood that a girl will undergo FGC is now around a third less than it was thirty years ago (UNICEF, 2014). Indeed, by comparing the prevalence data presented by Boyle and Preeves (2000) and that compiled most recently by UNICEF (2020), many countries have seen a drop in the rates of the practice (Appendix 3)[5]. There is now a suggestion of generational change across Africa with respect to the practice, as women aged 15 to 19 are less likely to have undergone FGC than women aged 45 to 49 (UNICEF, 2013:101). There has also been a change in individual attitudes to the practice, as an increasing number of women and girls are now opposedto FGC in practicing communities (WHO, 2008). Therefore, despite the obstacles presented by the framing of FGC as a human rights issue – i.e. ethnocentrism and cultural insensitivity – the anti-FGC norm has cascaded throughout the international system.


[5] Data on FGC prevalence cannot always be considered reliable however, as is discussed in Section 5.3.2.


5.2. International Socialisation

In terms of the reasons that states have adopted the anti-FGC norm, Finnemore and Sikkink’s (1998) theorisation posits that norm leaders engage in ‘international socialisation’ to persuade other states during the norm cascade. This can occur through various channels; including the diplomatic praise of conforming behaviour – encouraged through incentives – and the public denunciation, or sanctioning, of those who fail to adhere to international standards (1998; Waltz, 1979).

As discussed in Chapter 4, the framing of FGC as a human rights issue has been strategic in that it requires UN member-states to reconcile the practice with the stipulations of the UN Charter; ratified human rights treaties; and the UDHR. While there is no enforcement body attached to the UDHR, the ‘liberal community thesis’ posits that states strive to conform to norms of liberal, Western, states because of the resources and benefits associated with membership within this community (Wiener, 2004). Indeed, after the ‘tipping point’ it is considered that enough states have adopted the new norm so as to “redefine appropriate behaviour for the identity called ‘state’ or some relevant subset of states (such as a ‘liberal’ state)” (1998:902). Because states that fail to adopt the anti-FGC norm are likely to lose credibility by being labelled human rights violators, constructivists would posit that states that adopt the norm due to concerns about their legitimacy and international reputation (Finnemore and Sikkink, 1998).

Indeed, according to Boyle (2002), the nature and timing of the anti-FGC policies adopted by African states suggests that international influences were the driving force behind them. For example, Appendix 3 shows that African states adopted the anti-FGC norm within a similar time frame; between 1995 and the early 2000s. This may have been due to the Beijing Platform for Action (UN, 1995:97), which called for national governments to “prohibit female genital mutilation wherever it exists [enforce legislation]”. The anti-FGC norm was even adopted in countries with high national prevalence of FGC and support for the practice, such as Egypt – this is interesting, given that laws are generally expected to reflect national culture and practice (Boyle and Preeves, 2000). More recently, the new law criminalising FGC in Sudan was explicitly framed by its Foreign Ministry as an observance of international human rights commitments (Elbagir and Picheta, 2020). From this perspective, it may be perceived that the framing of FGC at the international level has presented more opportunities than obstacles for the norm cascade.

5.3. Factors Impeding Eradication

However, caution should be had in making such judgements about the effectiveness of the framing of the anti-FGC norm as “observing state practices alone is a poor way of evaluating the persuasiveness of normative ideas” (Payne, 2001:41). Indeed, despite both international and national efforts to eradicate the practice since the 1970s, the pace of behavioural change has often been slow and there has been minimal change in some contexts. According to the latest figures, there also been an increase in prevalence in Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania. The latter saw an increase from 25% of women and girls in 2000 – as documented by Boyle and Preeves (2000) – to 67% in 2015, as recorded by UNICEF (2020) (Appendix 3).

5.3.1. Inauthentic Commitments to the Anti-FGC Norm

One of the reasons cited for this has been an inauthentic commitment to eradication efforts on the part of some states (Boyle and Preeves, 2000). Indeed, as highlighted by Cloward (2014:499), “the disjuncture between states’ rhetoric and behaviour has a natural corollary in the actions of individuals”. Both Boyle (2002) and Payne (2001) argue that international pressure, or coercion, is common during the norm cascade and is often the reason for states’ adoption of new norms. For example, while I suggested that African states adopted the anti-FGC norm due to the prescriptions of the Beijing Platform for Action (1995), Boyle (2002) argues that they were more probably influenced by the 1996 legislation introduced by the United States that made international aid dependent on states’ eradication efforts. She argues that states with less power in the international system are often unable to avoid the adoption of new norms as they rely on Western nations for resources (2002). Illustratively, the law against FGC in Tanzania is entirely in English, despite the fact that only around 5 per cent of the population understand English (2002; Petzell, 2012:142). Therefore, the adoption of the anti-FGC norm by many African nations can be considered a move to appease the West. This gives credence to claims that Western efforts to eradicate FGC is a form of post-colonial imperialism (Section 2.3.2).

Where the norm cascade is underpinned by global power dynamics, states are likely to publicly adopt the anti-FGC norm whilst simultaneously failing to realise its requirements (Cloward, 2014). In the case Mauritania, for example, FGC is illegal but there are no robust penalties for those that either perform FGC or seek-out the procedure for young girls (Equality Now, 2019). Similarly, the Human Rights Report of 2004 noted that laws prohibiting FGC were only being enforced in five African countries (Hernlund and Shell-Duncan, 2007). Therefore, the norm cascade is not necessarily indicative of states’ willingness to eradicate FGC, or the effectiveness of its framing as a human rights issue. This is something that Finnemore and Sikkink’s (1998) ‘norm lifecycle’ model fails to account for.

5.3.2. Adverse Consequences of Legislation

A further factor that may impede the eradication of FGC is the fact that the broad framing of the issue has led to different interpretations of the anti-FGC norm at the national level. Finnemore and Sikkink (1998:893) concede that “international norms must always work their influence through the filter of domestic structures and domestic norms, which can produce important variations in compliance and interpretations of these norms”. For example, as briefly mentioned in Section 4.3, the framing of FGC as a violation of the right to health has led to the unintended medicalisation of the practice in some contexts. This has been particularly problematic in Egypt, where seventy-one percent of girls are cut by a health professional (UNICEF, 2019). While the WHO has banned the medicalisation of FGC on the ground that it legitimates the practice and “violates medical ethics” (2016:16), this arguably encourages FGC to be performed in increasingly unsafe and unsanitary conditions (Li, 2001). Furthermore, this ban hints at contestable irony when comparing the practice with genital cosmetic surgeries, as shall be discussed in the next chapter.

Indicative of the practice being driven underground, the criminalisation of FGC has also resulted in the procedures being performed on even younger girls, as has been documented in Kenya (UNICEF, 2013). It also increases the likelihood that individuals will be dishonest about its incidence where it does occur. Indeed, a study by the Navrongo Health Research Centre in Ghana found that girls were keen to give the ‘right answer’ to researchers asking whether or not they had undergone FGC (Jackson et al., 2013:207). Individuals may want to appear complaint with international norms because norm leaders often have great influence over aid distribution (Cloward, 2014). Inaccurate data-gathering with respect to the prevalence of FGC makes it difficult to garner the effectiveness of eradication efforts.

Moreover, an intersectional lens was previously applied to reveal that condemning women for a social norm through legalisation and language unhelpfully elides their different life experiences and cultural understandings. This not only impedes the internationalisation of the anti-FGC norm by these women, but also serves to silence them rather than engage with their understandings of the practice. The global power dynamics with respect to the anti-FGC norm remain apparent. 

5.4. Conclusion

Overall, the framing of FGC as a human rights issue has been successful insofar as it has led to the cascade of the anti-FGC norm and overall decreasing prevalence of the practice. However, the norm cascade is not necessarily indicative of states’ commitment to the eradication of FGC as it is underpinned by global power dynamics. This had resulted in inauthentic commitments the anti-FGC norm in some cases and different interpretations of the norm at the national level. Moreover, there are problems caused by the criminalisation of the practice, or villainization of those that perform it; as is revealed by an intersectional lens. Again, the framing of the anti-FGC norm can be seen to present both opportunities and obstacles for norm diffusion. The next chapter shall build on these findings in elucidating why the anti-FGC norm has not yet been universally internalised.

6. Looking Forward: Prospects for (Universal) Norm Internalisation

The final stage of Finnemore and Sikkink’s (1998) norm lifecycle model concerns norm internalisation. Norms may be considered ‘internalised’ once they have achieved “a taken-for-granted quality” and are universally enforced: actors conform with these norms out of unthinking habit, making them largely uncontroversial (Finnemore and Sikkink, 1998:895). While Boyle (2002:61) argues that “the eradication of FGC has become a taken-for-granted goal in the international system”, the previous chapters have illustrated that the anti-FGC norm is neither universally enforced nor considered uncontroversial in terms of its human rights framing. Given these obstacles, and the fact that FGC remains rife in many countries, the anti-FGC norm cannot be considered universally internalised.

This chapter shall build on these findings in investigating a further impediment to the complete eradication of FGC: the ambiguity and legal inconsistency surrounding its very definition. Indeed, drawing on the case study of female genital cosmetic surgeries (FGCS), this chapter shall apply an intersectional lens to problematise the legal bedrock of the anti-FGC norm; showing it to be replete with double standards. It shall be argued that the ambiguity surrounding the definition of ‘FGC’ is a key obstacle for the universal internalisation of the anti-FGC norm in-and-of-itself. Moreover, the double standards surrounding different genital surgeries depict non-Western women as unable to make autonomous choices and call into question the legitimacy of Western-led eradication efforts.

6.1. ‘Zero Tolerance’ to What?

In terms of the framing and institutionalisation of new norms, Finnemore and Sikkink (1998:906-7) argue that “norms that are clear and specific, rather than ambiguous and complex…are more likely to be effective”. This increases the likelihood of new norms cascading and being internalised by clarifying what behaviours constitute violation. Chapter 5 highlighted that the broad framing of FGC as a human rights issue has not afforded such clarity; illustrated by the different interpretations of normative commitments at the national level. However, it is not just the broad framing of the issue that is problematic for norm internalisation, but the lack of clarity about what actually constitutes ‘female genital cutting’.

Let us briefly recall that the WHO defines ‘female genital mutilation’ as “all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs, for non-medical reasons (2008:1; emphasis added). By this definition, FGC bears remarkable likeness to the female genital cosmetic surgeries(FGCS) that have become increasingly popular in the West: “non-medically indicated cosmetic surgical procedures which change the structure and appearance of the healthy external genitalia of women” (RCOG Ethics Committee, 2013:1; emphasis added) (Appendix 5). Indeed, the WHO has acknowledged these similarities, stating: “some practices, such as genital cosmetic surgery and hymen repair, which are legally accepted in many countries and not generally considered to consisted female genital mutilation, actually fall under the definition” (2008:28).

By drawing comparisons between FGC and FGCS, this dissertation does not seek to deny the physical and emotional trauma that survivors of FGC often experience. Rather, such comparisons are essential to illuminate the lack of clarity surrounding the definition of FGC and the double standards inherent in the anti-FGC norm. Indeed, while FGC is illegal in twenty-four African countries and thirty-three non-African countries, it remains not only legal but socially acceptable for Western women to undergo surgeries that come under the same definition (Boddy, 2016). This creates a number of obstacles for the complete eradication of the FGC due to ambiguity surrounding the correct enforcement of anti-FGC legislation.

For instance, it is questionable how governments can prevent FGC being performed under the rubric of FGCS, or account for the rise of FGCS in African nations. At present, the website whatclinic.com (2020) lists twenty-six cosmetic surgery clinics in Africa that offer FGCS – 15 of which are in Egypt, where FGC is nearly universal and seventy-one per cent are cut in a clinical setting (UNICEF, 2019). This is not to suggest that these clinics do perform FGC, but that the double standards surrounding the anti-FGC norm open the door for potential human rights violations. Furthermore, if seventy-one percent of Egyptian women underwent FGCS for ‘cultural reasons’, it is questionable how would this be differentiated from the current medicalisation of FGC. While the WHO has argued that it is essential to keep the definition of FGC broad in order to encapsulate all forms (2008), it is clear that the legal inconsistencies and double standards inherent to the very definition of ‘FGC’ present an obstacle for the universal internalisation of the anti-FGC norm.

6.2. Applying an Intersectional Lens

Further to, and in light of, these double standards surrounding the definition of ‘FGC’, an intersectional lens reveals that the framing of FGC as a human rights violation serves to disempower non-Western women and deny their agency. This may further impede the universal internalisation of the anti-FGC norm.

Indeed, proponents of FGCS generally seek to differentiate cosmetic gynaecology from FGC on the grounds of age and choice (Braun, 2009). As highlighted in Chapter 2, FGC is generally performed on girls below the age of 5 (UNICEF, 2013), and there are serious social and economic repercussions associated with non-conformity with this deeply entrenched social norm. While it can be argued that the choices made by women in any cultural setting can never truly be ‘free’ due to social pressures[6], the discourse surrounding the anti-FGC norm suggests that this ability is exclusive to Western women (Shell-Duncan, 2008). This is because any ‘choice’ of an adult African woman to undergo FGC is “seen to be over-determined by culture, and therefore impossible” (Braun, 2009:235).

This cultural ‘othering’, intrinsic to the differentiation between FGC and FGCS, can be considered dehumanising given that Westerners delineate human beings by their agency and ability to make rational decisions (Vlopp, 2001:1192). Furthermore, this rhetoric elides the differences between African women in terms of their age, level of education and attitudes to FGC; creating the image of a homogenous African woman who is denied of agency (Kratz, 1999:108). In this respect, and as argued in Section 4.4, the framing of FGC as a human rights violation can further oppress women by essentialising them as victims, incapable of emancipating themselves (Vlopp, 2001).

These double standards come to light in Western nations in particular, where FGCS and FGC increasingly co-exist due to international migration (Dustin, 2010). For example, in Australia, Western women are entitled to genital surgeries following childbirth, often to repair episiotomies or to increase the tightness of the vagina (Manderson, 2004). However, this entitlement does not extend to African immigrants requesting re-infibulation after childbirth (Allotey et al., 2001:196) as the law against FGC prohibits all forms of the practice, including its medicalisation (Appendix 3). In this respect, a study conducted by Allotey et al. (2001:197) found African immigrants to view FGCS as a “double standard”, and their denial of re-infibulation a case of “institutionalised racism” (2001:169). Indeed, with respect to FGC, it appears that “citizens from different birthplaces, cultural contexts, skin colours and traditions are, effectively, subject to different laws” (Braun, 2009:235). Anti-FGC laws therefore reflect global, racialised, power dynamics in terms of which countries – and which women – are allowed to dictate and subvert prevailing human rights norms.

Finally, these double standards call into question the legitimacy of the anti-FGC norm. While concerns over Western cultural imperialism and the universal applicability of the human rights doctrine have already been addressed, a further issue is that “western-led international efforts to convince…African women and men of the propriety of the ‘natural’, uncut vulva…comes to naught in a world where hegemonic images of idealised altered women’s bodies circulate unimpeded” (Boddy, 2016:62). Therefore, it is questionable whether current UN efforts to eradicate FGC within a generation can ever be successful while a similar practice remains legally and socially acceptable for Western women; this being a fundamental obstacle for the universal internalisation of the anti-FGC norm in its current framing.


[6] “Societal norms and expectations effectively mandate one course of action over another; the choice for ‘the norm’” (Braun, 2009:236).


6.3. Conclusion

Building on the obstacles identified in the previous chapters for the universal internalisation of the anti-FGC, this chapter furthered that the very definition of ‘FGC’ underpinning the norm lacks clarity. Specifically, FGC bears anatomical and definitional similarity to the female genital cosmetic surgeries common in the West. This ambiguity over what constitutes ‘FGC’ presents problems for the internalisation of the anti-FGC norm due to the co-existence of FGC and FGCS in some contexts. Moreover, an intersectional lens reveals that the double standards inherent in the framing of the anti-FGC norm situate non-Western women as incapable of making autonomous choices, and also calls into question the legitimacy of Western eradication efforts. These factors can be considered to impede the complete eradication of FGC.

7. Conclusions

Since the 1970s, there have been concerted efforts at international to eradicate female genital cutting (FGC); a practice with severe physical and psychosocial consequences for survivors. However, while the overall prevalence of FGC has since decreased, the practice remains widespread across African and Middle East and increasingly occurs in Western countries due to global migration flows. In order to understand why FGC continues in the face of international eradication efforts (the anti-FGC norm), this dissertation offered an intersectional feminist lens on how the anti-FGC norm has been framed at the international level, and the obstacles and opportunities for its diffusion throughout the international system. In doing so, this dissertation sought to expose potential factors impeding the universal internalisation of anti-FGC norm and complete eradication of the practice.

Using ‘norm lifecycle’ theory to track the emergence and cascade of the anti-FGC norm, it was demonstrated that the norm emerged on the back of Western feminist campaigns on African women’s rights. It was argued that the framing of FGC as a human rights violation had the advantage of depicting the practice as contrary to existing norms and values and resulted in the practice becoming counter-normative at the international level. This framing has also been successful in contributing to the norm cascade and overall decrease of the practice.

However, the framing of the issue has also fostered accusations of ethnocentrism and Western cultural imperialism due to ongoing debates over the universal applicability of the human rights doctrine. Such charges of imperialism were given credence when it was suggested that the norm cascade is underpinned by global power dynamics and coercion. This creates obstacles for the complete eradication of FGC due to inauthentic commitments to the anti-FGC norm. The framing of FGC as a human rights issue has also resulted in some adverse consequences: for example, the practice has been driven underground and medicalised in some contexts. Furthermore, an intersectional feminist lens revels that the language of anti-FGC campaigns can disempower survivors of FGC by criminalising them and ignoring their different life experiences and cultural understandings. Therefore, in terms of the emergence and cascade of the anti-FGC norm, the framing of FGC as human rights issue has presented both opportunities and obstacles.

However, the final chapter hinted that this framing presents more obstacles than opportunities for norm diffusion, as the anti-FGC norm has not yet been universally internalised. This is due to the obstacles identified in the previous chapters, but also the ambiguity and legal inconsistency surrounding the very definition of ‘FGC’. It was highlighted that FGC bears definitional and anatomical similarity of cosmetic genital surgeries, which creates problems for norm where they co-exist. Moreover, an intersectional lens reveals that the double standards inherent to the framing of the anti-FGC norm depict non-Western women as void of agency and call into question the legitimacy of Western-led eradication efforts. These factors arguably hinder the complete eradication of FGC.

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Appendices

International Treaties:

  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted 10 December 1948. General Assembly Resolution 217. UN Doc. A/810.
  • Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, adopted 28 July 1951 (entry into force, 22 April 1954).
  • Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, adopted 31 January 1967 (entry into force, 4 October 1967).
  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, adopted 16 December 1966 (entry into force, 23 March 1976).
  • International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, adopted 16 December 1966 (entry into force, 3 January 1976).
  • Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, adopted 18 December 1979 (entry into force, 3 September 1981).
  • Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, adopted and opened for signature, ratification and accession by General Assembly resolution 39/46 of 10 December 1984 (entry into force, 26 June 1987).
  • Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted 20 November 1989. General Assembly Resolution 44/25. UN GAOR 44th session, Supp. No. 49. UN Doc. A/44/49 (entry into force, 2 September 1990).
  • Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. General Recommendation No. 14, 1990, Female circumcision; General Recommendation No. 19, 1992, Violence against women; and General Recommendation No. 24, 1999, Women and health.
  • Human Rights Committee. General Comment No. 20, 1992. Prohibition of torture and cruel treatment or punishment.
  • Human Rights Committee. General Comment No. 28, 2000. Equality of rights between men and women. CCPR/C/21/rev.1/Add.10.
    Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. General Comment No. 14, 2000. The right to the highest attainable standard of health. UN Doc. E/C.12/2000/4.
  • Committee on the Rights of the Child. General Comment No. 4, 2003. Adolescent health and development in the context of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. CRC/GC/2003/4.

Consensus Documents:

  • United Nations General Assembly, Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, UN Doc. A/RES/48/104 (1993).
  • World Conference on Human Rights, Vienna Declaration and Plan of Action, June 1993. UN Doc. DPI/ 1394-39399 (August 1993).
  • Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development, Cairo, Egypt, 5−13 September 1994. UN Doc. A/CONF.171/13/Rev. 1 (1995).
  • Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action of the Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing, China, 4−15 September 1995. UN Doc. A/CONF.177/20.
  • UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, adopted 2 November 2001.
  • Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, adopted October 2005 (entry into force March 2007).
  • United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), Commission on the Status of Women. Resolution on the Ending of Female Genital Mutilation. March 2007. E/CN.6/2007/L.3/Rev.1.

(WHO, 2008:31-32)

Appendix 2

The Norm Lifecycle

 Stage 1 Norm emergenceStage 2 Norm cascadeStage 3 Internalisation
ActorsNorm entrepreneurs with organisational platformsStates; international organisations; networksLaw; professions; bureaucracy
MotivesAltruism; empathy; ideational; commitmentLegitimacy; reputation; esteemConformity
Dominant mechanismsPersuasionSocialisation; institutionalisation; demonstrationHabit; institutionalisation
Main characteristicsEmergence of new issues and norms; codification into international rules and laws to clarify normsInternational socialisation shapes state identities linked to membership in international societyNorms are widely accepted and achieve taken-for-granted quality; universal enforcement
Appendix 3

National Anti-FGC Legal Policies (Ordered by Year When First Adopted) Comparison of Prevalence in Years 2000 and 2020:

CountryPercentage of Women Circumcised (Boyle and Preeves, 2000)Year(s) Legal Action InitiatedAnti-FGC Legislation, Regulation, or Bureaucratic ActionPercentage of Women Circumcised (UNICEF, 2020)
FranceNegligible1982Assault law.Negligible
SwedenNegligible1982, 1998*National ban; more severe repercussions introduced in 1999. Terminology change from ‘circumcision’ to ‘mutilation’.Negligible
SwitzerlandNegligible1983, 2005*, 2012*National ban; stricter penal code in 2012.Negligible
United KingdomNegligible1985, 2003*National ban; Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003.Negligible
BelgiumNegligible1988, 2000*Application of existing laws initially; specific criminal law related to FGC in 2000.Negligible
The NetherlandsNegligible1988Child abuse law; right to report for professionals.Negligible
Sudan90% of women in the North1991, 2008-2009*, 2020*Health law (no criminal law); NGO & government educational campaigns; FGC criminalised with 3-year jail sentence for offenders on May 1st, 2020.87% (slight decrease)
United StatesNegligible1991, 1996*Local bans beginning in 1991; national ban 1996. FGC illegal only among minors.Negligible
AustriaNegligible1992, 2002*Existing laws applied initially; specific criminal provisions introduced 2002.Negligible
Finland 1992; 2003*Punishable under Finnish Penal CodeNegligible
AustraliaNegligible1993, 1994-1996*, 2019*Child abuse law: 6 out 8 states. All forms of FGC outlawed in 2019.Negligible
CanadaNegligible1993, 1997*Amendment to existing Criminal Code & Youth Offenders Act. FGC illegal only among minors.Negligible
Ghana15%1994, 2007*National criminal law; five arrests in 1998; local NGO & governmental education campaigns.4% (decrease)
     
Chad60%1995, 2003*Law adopted by transitional government and signed by president makes FGC theoretically prosecutable as a form of assault; active and sustained public education campaigns. Strong opposition to elimination.38% (decrease)
Djibouti98%1995, 2009*Penal Code prohibition; UNFD campaign.94% (slight decrease)
New Zealand 1995FGM made illegal under amended Crimes Act of 1961Negligible
Norway 1996, 2007*Criminal law adopted 1996; revised to include duty of professionals and citizens to report incidence.Negligible
Burkina Faso70%1996Penal Code prohibition; education plan; sensitisation campaign. Fines levied against those who practice FGC as well as those who fail to report its incidence.76% (increase)
Central African Republic45-50%1996, 2006*Ordinance against; awareness campaign; Anti-FGC law in 2006.24% (decrease)
Egypt97%1996, 2008, 2016*Health Ministry decree; NGO & government educational campaigns; enforcement of decree. FGC outlawed in 2008 and 2016 amendment of Penal Code made FGC a felony.87% (decrease)
Kenya50%1996, 2001, 2011*Two presidential decrees ban FGC, but legislation was voted down in 1996. Prohibited in government hospitals and clinics. 2011 ban applies to adult women as well as minors and restrictions extended to citizens abroad.21% (decrease)
Cameroon“rare”1996, 2016*Sponsored international workshop on eradicating FGM; government outspoken against the practice. 2016 Penal Code outlaws’ practice.1%
Cote D’Ivoire60%1998Law Concerning Crimes Against Women enacted in December; NGO campaigns. Strong opposition to eradication.37% (decrease)
Senegal5-20%1998The Council of Ministers approved legislation to ban the practice of FGM and submitted it to the National Assembly in December 1998.24%
Togo12%1998National law, but no prosecutions; seminars.3% (decrease)
Tanzania18%1998Government officials have called for elimination. Some local government officials have convicted and imprisoned persons who mutilated young girls; educational seminars. FGC illegal only among minors.15% (slight decrease)
Nigeria (some states)60-90%1999-2006, 2015*Cooperation with private groups campaigning for eradication; study commission; federal law banning FGC 2015.19% (decrease)
Guinea60-90%2000, 2016*Illegal under Penal Code; Traditional Practices Affecting Women & Children NGO; 20-year plan to eradicate. FGC illegal under 2016 Criminal Code.95% (increase)
Benin5-50%2003Government cooperation with NGOs; action plan; law on the Suppression of Female Genital Mutilation enacted 2003.9% (decrease)
Cyprus 2003Criminal law adopted 2003; duty to report.Negligible
Denmark 2003Criminalised in 2003, with duty to report.Negligible
Spain 2003Criminal law adopted 2003; duty of professionals and citizens to report.Negligible
NigerPracticed by several ethnic groups2003Government firmly committed to eradication; cooperation with UN Children’s Fund; criminalised under Penal Code.2%
Ethiopia73-90%2004Government supports National Committee on Traditional Practices; educational campaign; FGC made an offence under The Criminal Code in 2004.65% (decrease)
Italy 2005Criminal law; duty of doctors and social workers to report.Negligible
South Africa 2005Criminalised under Child Act 2005.Negligible
Zambia 2005, 2011*Criminalised under 2005 Penal Code and The Anti-Gender-Based Violence Act 2011.Negligible
Mauritania25%2005Law restricted to hospital ban; educational campaign; FGC illegal only among minors.67% (increase)
Eritrea95%2007Government discourages through education programmes; Proclamation to Abolish Female Circumcision 2007.83% (decrease)
Portugal 2007Criminal law passed 2007; includes extra-territoriality principle.Negligible
Luxembourg 2008Ban on mutilations, not specific to ‘genital’ mutilation.Negligible
Colombia  2009Resolution No. 001 of 2009 by indigenous authorities.Negligible
UgandaOne tribe numbering less than 10,000 practices2010UNFPA educational programme, supported by the government, has reduced the incidence; FGM Act 2010.0%
Guinea-Bissau“widespread” among Fulas and Mandinkas2011Educational campaign; coordination with international NGOs; Federal Law to Prevent, Fight and Suppress Female Genital Mutilation passed in 2011.45%
Iraq (Kurdistan region) 2011Illegal in Iraqi Kurdistan; offenders face fines and up to 2 years in jail.7%
Ireland 2012Criminal Justice Act 2012; right to report for professionals.Negligible
Somalia98%[1991], 2012*[National law initially not enforced because no acting government]; IO and NGO campaigns; FGC banned under new constitution.98% (no change)
Gambia60-90%2015Health education; government supports eradication; FGC criminalised under the Women’s Act 2015.  76%  
Mali +93.7%RecentEducational campaign; National Committee established to support NGO efforts; media access to proponents of eradication; no formal law.89% (slight decrease)
Liberia50% in rural areas2018, N/AFGC undermined by disruption of villages during civil war; 2018 ban by one-year executive order; no formal law following expiry of ban.44%
Sierra Leone  80-90%N/ASecret societies have circumcised women against their will; no formal law.86%

[Adapted from Boyle and Preeves (2000:717-718): updated and supplemented with information sourced from UNFPA (2019), UNICEF (2013:8-9, 26-27), UNICEF (2020), the European Institute for Gender Equality (2013), UNDAW (2009), and the Thomson Reuters Foundation (2018).]

+ Countries following the bold line have no legal policy/formal law currently in effect.

*Later dates reflect amendments to original law or new laws (UNICEF, 2013:9).

Appendix 4

Regional Treaties

  • European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, adopted 4 November 1950 (entry into force, 3 September 1953).
  • American Convention on Human Rights (entry into force, 18 July 1978).
  • African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Banjul Charter), adopted 27 June Organization of African Unity. Doc. CAB/ LEG/67/3/Rev. 5 (1981), reprinted in 21 I.L.M. 59 (1982) (entry into force, 21 October 1986).
  • African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, adopted 11 July 1990. Organization of African Unity. Doc. CAB/LEG/24.9/49 (entry into force 29 November 1999).
  • Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, adopted 11 July 2003, Assembly of the African Union (entry into force 25 November 2005).
Appendix 5

Definitional Comparison Between FGC and FGCS

Types of FGCComparable types of FGCS
Type I: Partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or the prepuceHoodectomy: “removes the excess tissue [of the clitoral hood/prepuce] allowing the clitoris to become more easily exposed” (Harley Medical Group, 2020).
Type II: Partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majoraLabiaplasty: “surgery to reduce the size of the labia minora…unwanted tissue is cut away with a scalpel” (NHS, 2016)
Type III: Narrowing of the vaginal orifice with creation of a covering seal by cutting and appositioning the labia minora and/or the labia majora, with or without excision of the clitorisVaginoplasty: aims to “tighten the vagina…removing excess vaginal lining and tightening the surrounding soft tissues and muscles” (Manhattan Centre for Vaginal Surgery, 2020)
Type IV: All other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, for example: pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterisation (WHO, 2008:4)Genital Piercings/Non-Surgical Vaginal Rejuvenation, e.g. laser treatments (London Bridge Clinic, 2020).