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The Fight to End Female Genital Mutilation: Affirming Our Universal Human Rights or Shutting Our Eyes to Cultural Relativity?

 This article explores the tension inherent in the international community’s ongoing purge against female genital mutilation, and seeks to discern whether a fine balance can in fact be struck between cultural relativism and the global pursuit of universal human rights. 

 Written by Eva Milne, Editor-in-Chief of the Glasgow University Law Review and 4th year student.


 Our world is entering a period of mass global transition: demographically, politically and developmentally. The convergence of different peoples and cultures is both a tense and confusing process. With change and demand for rapid adjustment, there follows an inevitable desire to hold onto old values and traditions, so as to restore familiarity; a comforting sense of one’s identity. Amidst the struggle, our cultural heritage remains the leading source in affirming our identities. Inevitably, there emerges an acute dilemma: in an increasingly multicultural world, where challenges to the attainment of fundamental rights for all are ripe, is it possible to achieve the universality of human rights?


In the face of this clash of cultures, it is imperative that the international community’s ongoing pursuit of the promotion and protection of human rights be one that does not instil ethnocentrism or veiled intolerance. Perhaps one of the most prominent human rights issues encompassing the often impossible task to achieve this fine balance, is that of female genital mutilation (FGM) or female genital surgery: a classic example of a practice prohibited in some cultures, but permitted in others.


Up to 140 million[1] young girls and women worldwide have been subjected to FGM: “the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.”[2] The ancient ritual – estimated to be a custom over 2,500 years old[3] – is common to approximately forty African and Middle Eastern countries.[4] Despite its cultural significance, over the past two decades FGM has “aroused mass condemnation from the West in general and Western feminists in particular”,[5] with non-governmental organisation Amnesty International labelling the practice “a gross violation of human rights of girls and women”[6] for its alleged deprivation of the right to bodily integrity.


Critically, however, in practising communities, even where parents choose for their child not to undergo the procedure, she will often face humiliation and alienation for her failure to endure a culturally recognised tradition. FGM therefore dramatically encapsulates numerous complex universal human rights and cultural relativist arguments, including “perspective, culture, creation, acceptance and imposition of values.”[7] Ultimately, a notion of “cultural relativism versus universality of human rights”[8] has emerged, and with it, a dichotomy of “bad” versus “good”[9]: indeed, does FGM represent a chilling violation of human rights, or has the age-old practice become the subject of a Western campaign that does not value cultural relativism?


While acknowledging the significance attached to the role of universality in building human rights standards, it is equally essential to recognise the importance of cultural relativism, so as “to have an accurate and honest disclosure regarding why FGM has been viewed positively in various cultures.”[10]


Tradition holds that FGM marks the female’s initiation into adulthood through removing the “masculine” part of the girl’s body – the clitoris – and thereby transforming a girl into a woman.[11]More generally, however, rationalisations for the ritual include the beliefs “that it ensures cleanliness or better marriage prospects, prevents promiscuity and excess clitoral growth, preserves virginity, enhances male sexuality and facilitates child birth.”[12] Though FGM is prevalent among Christians, Jews and Muslims, the holy texts of these religions do not prescribe FGM; in fact, FGM pre-dates both Christianity and Islam.[13] Nonetheless, many religious leaders continue to promote the practice, utilising religion as a primary justification for its continuation amongst particular religious groups[14] and viewing efforts to eliminate FGM as an attack on their culture.[15]


Moreover, cultural relativists – those who assert that cultural beliefs are equally valid and that truth itself is relative, depending on the cultural environment – underscore the fact that “those working to eradicate FGM have to acknowledge the risk of alienation faced by women and girls who choose to reject the tradition on account of imperialist imposition.” Interestingly, cultural relativists “regard the human rights perspective as ethnocentric” and view “interventions that interfere with the practice as little more than neo-imperialist attacks on African cultures.”[16] They argue that talk of “universal human rights” denies cultural sovereignty to less powerful societies and that opposition to FGM spawns intolerance to multiculturalism.[17] Importantly, such critics of universalism have also asserted that the international human rights system largely encompass “liberal notions of protecting human rights”[18], and that “human rights universalists seem to have disregarded the fact that human rights are defined differently by cultural relativists.”[19] Indeed, moral values are not identical across all cultures; it is somewhat curious as to why the West have adopted the phrase female genital mutilation as opposed to female genital circumcision - the latter “a more direct term that does not dehumanise individuals in the way FGM does.”[20] This notion of colonial imperialism is bolstered by the fact that FGM was once performed in the West.[21]


The practice of FGM has no known health benefits.[22] In fact, rather unsurprisingly, it “poses serious mental and physical health risks for women and young girls, especially those who have undergone the more extreme forms of genital mutilation”,[23] who often go on to suffer severe pain, haemorrhage, infertility, and psychological and sexual problems.[24] Though the precise number of girls thought to have died from FGM is not known, it is telling that the highest infant mortality rates are in countries where FGM is traditionally carried out. From a health perspective, FGM can be seen to drastically undermine the female’s reproductive rights; certainly, interviews in Sudan revealed “fifty per cent of women who had undergone FGM say that they do not enjoy sexual intercourse, but rather they accept it as their duty.”[25] In turn, it is evident that FGM, to a marked degree, is a tool utilised in the subordination of females at the extent of inflicting horrific complications on the young women who endure the ritual. We are compelled to ask ourselves: can cultural tradition ever excuse such suffering? Or are cultural rights limited to the point at which they violate another human right?


Worldwide recognition of FGM as a human rights issue was sparked in the early 1990s, specifically at the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, which “recognised women’s humans rights as integral to and indivisible from human rights, and also that gender-based violence, including that stemming from culture, had to be eliminated.” [26] Soon afterwards, at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women (the Beijing Conference), governments were encouraged to enact and enforce legislation against FGM,[27] and in 2001, FGM was officially recognised as a human rights violation – of life, liberty and health, amongst many other fundamental freedoms – by the World Health Assembly.[28]


In advocating their defence against cultural relativists and slamming FGM as a discriminatory and violent act against women and girls, proponents of universal human rights argue that “there are certain basic norms that are common to all cultures” and that moreover, “these norms transcend cultural differences because they give expression to basic features of human nature.”[29] Human rights as we know them are essentially a modern achievement; they “reflect the dynamic, coordinated efforts of the international community to achieve and advance a common standard and international system of law to protect human dignity.”[30] To this end, the notion of universal human rights is not “one cultural standard”, but rather “one legal standard of minimum protection necessary for human dignity.”[31] As such, “cultural rights do not justify torture, murder, genocide, discrimination on grounds of sex, language or religion, or violation of any of the other universal human rights and fundamental freedoms established in international law.”[32] Accordingly, to justify FGM as a legitimate practice on the grounds of culture would “have no validity under international law.”[33]

Of course, the eradication of a such a culturally significant practice as FGM, one recognised by countless societies on a global scale, is no immediate feat, as illustrated in the UN initiative to “adopt a joint plan to bring about a major decline in female genital mutilation in 10 years and to completely eliminate the practice within three generations.”[34] Certainly, “female genital cutting remains a deeply rooted cultural practice that is widely supported”[35] which may only be abolished completely when attitudes have altered. Arguably, substantial change can only come about through the will of the countries involved, and not as a result of seemingly well-intentioned efforts by the West.

We cannot have honest and accurate discourse on human rights if we “disregard cultural practices as “wrong” simply because Western-adopted human rights consider it so.”[36] Nonetheless, women and children currently born into communities practising FGM have no meaningful choice concerning their fate: “they are faced with being socially ostracised or violating their own bodily integrity – neither of which are choices”[37] – ultimately violating their personal autonomy, sexual rights, right to health and supporting a dangerous system of patriarchy. Women around the world must, at the very least, be enlightened to the fact that culture cannot always justify such an aggressive infringement of one’s human rights. By all means, let us recognise and welcome the cultural pluralism inherent in our new age - but not at the price of undermining the universal standard of human rights.

[1] The Guardian Newspaper, British girl leads Guardian campaign to end female genital mutilation, 6/2/14, available at: (last accessed: 9/08/14).

[2] World Health Organisation, Eliminating Female Genital Mutilation: an Interagency Statement, 2008, 8.

[3] Linda Cipriani, Gender and Persecution: Protecting Women Under International Refugee Law, GEO. IMMIG. L.J. (1993), 511, 525-26, 7.

[4] Preston D. Mitchum, Slapping the Hand of Cultural Relativism: Female Genital Mutilation, Male Dominance, and Health as a Human Rights Framework, Wm. & Mary J. Women & L. 585 (2013), 589, 19. Available at: (last accessed 9/5/14).

[5] Henriette Dahan Kalev, Cultural Rights or Human Rights: The Case of Female Genital Mutilation, Sex Roles, Vol. 51, Nos. 5/6, September 2004, 339.

[6] Amnesty International, Female Genital Mutilation: a Human Rights Violation, available at (last accessed: 9/4/14).

[7] Pamela Goldberg, Women, Health and Human Rights, 9 Pace Int’l L. Rev. 271 (1997), 271.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Mitchum, supra note. 4, 587.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Sandra Danial, Cultural Relativism vs. Universalism: Female Genital Mutilation, Pragmatic Remedies, Prandium, The Journal of Historic Studies, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Spring, 20130), The Department of Historical Studies, University of Toronto Mississauga, 1-10, available at: (last accessed: 10/4/14).

[12] Efua Dorkenoo, Female Genital Mutilation: Human Rights and Cultural Relativity, (August 2001), The Banyan Tree Paradox, Culture and Human Rights Activism, International Human Rights Internship Program 2006.

[13] Ibid., 6.

[14] Mitchum, supra note. 4, 593.

[15] World Health Organisation, supra note 2, 6.

[16] Robert Brym, John Lie, Sociology: Your Compass for a New World, Brief Edition: Enhanced Edition, Wadsworth Publishing Co Inc; 2nd edition (2 Jan 2009), 43.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Mitchum, supra note 4, 606.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Danial, supra note. 11, 1.

[21] Jacqueline Castledine, Female Genital Mutilation: An Issue of Cultural Relativism or Human Rights?, Mount Holyoke College, available at: (last accessed: 11/5/14).

[22] World Health Organisation, supra note. 2, 16.

[23] Mitchum, supra note. 4, 592.

[24] Population Reference Bureau, Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: Data and Trends – Update 2010 3 (2010), available at: (last accessed 10/4/14).

[25] Leigh A. Trueblood, Female Genital Mutilation: A Discussion of International Human Rights Instruments, Cultural Soveriegnty and Dominance Theory, 28 Den. J. INT’L & POL’Y (2000), 433.

[26] Human Rights Watch, “They Took Me and Told Me Nothing” – Female Genital Mutilation in Iraqi Kurdistan, June 16th, 2010, 36, available at: (last accessed: 10/5/2014).

[27] United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, “Platform for Action,” U.N. Doc. A/CONF.177/20/REV.1, September 1995, available at: (last accessed: 10/5/14).

[28] UN Commission on Human Rights, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences,” E/CN.4/2002/83, January 31, 2002, available at:$File/G0210428.pdf?OpenElement (last accessed: 10/5/14).

[29] Henriette Dahan Kalev, supra note. 5, 346.

[30] Diana Ayton-Shenker, The Challenge of Human Rights and Cultural Diversity, United Nations Background Note, available at: (last accessed: 4/09/14).

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[35] World Health Organisation, Sexual and Reproductive Health: FGM and Other Harmful Practices, available at: (last accessed: 12/5/14).

[36] Mitchum, supra note 4, 607.

[37] Ibid.

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