HART Prize for Human Rights 2018| ‘The Difficulties and Solutions in Creating an Effective Human Rights Discourse in Countries which Practice FGM’

March 20th, 2018

HART Prize for Human Rights 2018| ‘The Difficulties and Solutions in Creating an Effective Human Rights Discourse in Countries which Practice FGM’

With the most number of entries we’ve ever received, the competition was even harder with such exceptional submissions that demonstrated inspiring passion for Human Rights advocacy. 

Tabitha Everett, 20, won 1st place in our HART Prize for Human Rights Senior Essay Category 2018 with her essay titled:

The Difficulties and Solutions in Creating an Effective Human Rights Discourse in Countries which Practice FGM

“Women manage and control female genital surgery in Africa and the practice should not be blamed on men or on patriarchy”. [1] This controversial statement made by representatives from the bio-ethics think tank The Hastings Centre confronts the key issue behind the complex problem of tackling Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). FGM often leaves women with serious infections, reproductive issues, increased risk of HIV contraction, and sometimes causes death due to haemorrhage- a list of consequences which is far from exclusive. [2] However, it is often the female relatives of FGM victims who perform the surgery on young girls, and thus essential to engage with why women often deny victimhood or condone the practice. In Sudan, only 53% of women think FGM should end. [3] Herein lies one of the biggest challenges when attempting to confront rituals which are intrinsically linked with the subordination of women; if women support the practice, the possibilities for open debate and the subsequent outcomes are complicated by the presence of compromised witnesses and the difficulty of acknowledging a patriarchal pressure in a primarily matriarchal practice. When trying to reduce the incidence of FGM, only through the educational liberation of women will the physical liberation of women become a tangible aim.

An effective human rights discourse is one which brings about a change in the attitudes of those involved in the violation of human rights. We must recognise that Western frameworks of justice may seem contentious to countries which have historically operated very differently, thus giving rise to scepticism about human rights as a universalised notion. [4] Many women who endorse the practice of FGM do so because they believe that young girls who have undergone the procedure will be more respected in their communities, more likely to marry and less likely to be victims of sexual violence: not unreasonable aims for mothers. Other motivations for performing FGM are undoubtedly more problematic, like the perceived benefit of limiting sexual deviancy or increasing male sexual pleasure. [5] The challenge for human rights workers is to respect cultural relativism while remaining committed to tackling the practise of traditions that violate human rights. Moral superiority is often borne out of western prejudice and can limit the success of conversations with women in FGM-stricken countries; acknowledging this is crucial for adopting the right tone when working with these communities.

FGM is ubiquitously practised in over 30 countries worldwide and has been performed on around 200 million women alive today. [6] Some attempts to work with communities practising FGM have been more successful than others; in Uganda in 1992, a film of the mass circumcision of girls was circulated to promote reform but instead locals were outraged at the way their culture was portrayed, as if it were barbaric and backward. [7] The rhetoric of ‘civilised’ versus ‘uncivilised’ culture is steeped in colonial sentiment, and understandably, many Ugandans took offence to the suggestion that moral corruption influenced their conduct. Such a fervent approach risks disillusioning both victims and those who support such practises. The REACH programme in Uganda is a good example of an initiative which facilitates effective human rights discourse: it has helped to drastically reduce the incidence of FGM in the country. Through this programme, a respectful environment is created for Sabiny people to explore the problematic elements of their own culture, free of judgement. The solution here rests in finding the right balance between encouraging people to be proud of their culture, while questioning the legitimacy of some of its practices. The programme focuses on avoiding inflammatory language that might have connotations of criticism, [8] and the positive response from locals can be attributed to the focus on education as opposed to prescriptive instruction. Helping women to realise that they are at risk and providing them with relevant information to challenge their peers, is instrumental in bringing about change. Men in positions of power who rely on the support of women to buttress their advocacy of FGM are left with little to lean on if said women begin to critically engage with the practice.

There is a lesson to be learned from campaigns which fail to strike the right tone; activists must engage with individuals who are better-placed to sway communities. One thing sure to drive progress with regards to finding a solution to traditional practices is to obtain support from religious leaders or village elders in the communities targeted. When trying to tackle problematic traditions, it is crucial that religious leaders can publicly state that there is no link between religion and the specific tradition, should this be the case. In Sudan, Sheikh Ali Hashim al Siraj scoured Islamic texts to find mention of FGM. [9] He concluded that “[FGM] has nothing to do with the Islamic religion.” [10] It has since been declared that though genital cutting is referenced in certain hadiths, it is not deemed obligatory; the publication of such revelations has proven to be extremely effective in removing motivation to become involved in problematic traditional rituals. [11] When Sabiny elders began supported girls in the fight against FGM, political leaders felt able to follow suit without losing Sebei votes. [13] In these cases, successfully appealing those in influential positions, is vital in achieving the desired outcome.

Though gender empowerment is crucial, more nuanced issues can arise from changes to laws. Indeed, the implementation of laws to ban harmful cultural practices in affected countries marks huge progress; Nigeria abolished the practice in 2015 and a law passed in 2010 banning FGM in Uganda has helped to bring the number of incidents down. However, there is a danger that discourse might rapidly lose momentum once laws to bring about the abolition of traditional practices are passed: unless laws are efficiently enforced, they can be little more than arbitrary pronouncements. Sudan’s Red Sea State Child Act of 2011 is a prime example: after critical analysis it was discovered that the act only banned a specific type of FGM, could not be enacted because the Minister of Health had not issued the necessary decree, and the law failed to outline penalties for offenders.14 Consequently, loopholes were exploited and the effect minimal, merely acting as political placation to appease international donors who have funded anti-FGM campaigns.

Using community leaders and victim testimonies to help women realise that FGM is a damaging practice is an essential step in the quest for its eradication. This starts by adopting a non-judgemental approach, understanding why some women opt for the procedure or perform it themselves. 88% of women in Sudan have undergone some form of FGM; with such all-encompassing numbers, it would be a dangerous and careless oversight to brand every woman complicit in the process morally corrupt or barbarous. The Hastings Centre is wrong to suggest that patriarchy plays no part in the ubiquity of FGM- it is a prime example of violence against women. However, without the acquiescence or active participation of women, the practice would likely not have endured with such longevity. Tackling tradition requires a shrewd understanding and appreciation of its importance and gravitas; it is about exercising tact and recognising political subtleties. If we fail to empathetically evaluate why some women deny the damaging impact of FGM, then the battle for its eradication is lost before it has begun.


1 Carey Goldberg, ‘In Defense Of Female Circumcision? Panel Presents Seven Facts’, 2012.

2 UNICEF, Female genital mutilate/cutting: a statistical overview and exploration of the dynamics of change, 2013 <https://www.unicef.org/media/files/UNICEF_FGM_report_July_2013_Hi_res.pdf>

3 Hillary Burrage, ‘What Is Female Genital Mutilation? Why Does It Occur? What Are Its Health And Wellbeing Impacts?’, 2013, <https://hilaryburrage.com/2013/01/15/why-does-female-genital-mutilation-occur-and-what-are-its-impacts/>

6 World Health Organisation, ‘Female Genital Mutilation’, <http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs241/en/>

7 WOMENAID, ‘The Reach Programme: A remarkable success story.’ <http://www.womenaid.org/press/info/fgm/fgm-uganda.html>

8 Ibid. 9 UNICEF, ‘Sudan: Religious leader speaks out against female genital mutilation/cutting,’ <https://www.unicef.org/protection/sudan_29886.html>

10 Ibid.

11 Inside Islam, ‘The Truth About Islam and Female Circumcision’ <https://insideislam.wisc.edu/2011/02/the-truth-about-islam-and-female-circumcision/>

13 Umar Weswala, ‘Eliminating Female Genital Mutilation is Possible in 2016’, 2015. http://www.monitor.co.ug/OpEd/Commentary/Eliminating-Female-Genital-Mutilation-is-possible-in-2016/689364-3013882-eov2bf/index.html

14 Samia Al Nagar, Liv Tonessen, Sharifa Bamkar, Sudan Working Paper, Weak law forbidding female genital mutilation in Red Sea State, Sudan. 2017.


Al Nagar, Samia. Tonessen, Liv. Bamkar, Sharifa. Sudan Working Paper, Weak law forbidding female genital mutilation in Red Sea State, Sudan, 2017

A.R.Sharfi, M.A.Elmegboul, A.A.Abdella, African Journal of Urology, Volume 19, The continuing challenge of female genital mutilation in Sudan

Burrage, Hilary ‘What Is Female Genital Mutilation? Why Does It Occur? What Are Its Health And Wellbeing Impacts?’, 2013, <https://hilaryburrage.com/2013/01/15/why-does-female-genital-mutilation-occur-and-what-are-its-impacts/>

D.Higgins, Michael, ‘The human rights discourse: Its importance and its challenges’, Human Rights comission’s annual lecture on International human rights, 2012.

Goldberg, Carey ‘In Defense Of Female Circumcision? Panel Presents Seven Facts’, 2012.

Jahren, Use and Abuse of Human Rights Discourse, E-International relations students. http://www.e-ir.info/2013/10/27/use-and-abuse-of-human-rights-discourse/
Inside Islam, ‘The Truth About Islam and Female Circumcision’ https://insideislam.wisc.edu/2011/02/the-truth-about-islam-and-female-circumcision/

Murphy, Maggie “’Traditional values’ vs human rights at the UN”, https://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/maggie-murphy/traditional-values-vs-human-rights-at-un

Reid, Graeme. The Trouble With Tradition, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2013/country-chapters/africa

Unesco, Culture and Human Rights, http://www.unesco.org/new/en/culture/themes/culture-and-development/the-future-we-want-the-role-of-culture/culture-and-human-rights/ UNICEF, Sudan: Religious leader speaks out against female genital mutilation/cutting, https://www.unicef.org/protection/sudan_29886.html

Musalo, Karen. When Rights and Cultures Collide, https://www.scu.edu/ethics/ethics-resources/ethical-decision-making/when-rights-and-cultures-collide/

Mutebi, Brian. Female circumcision: Uganda still has a long way to zero tolerance, http://www.monitor.co.ug/artsculture/Reviews/Female-circumcision–Uganda-still-has-a-long-way/691232-2614430-m6ytpoz/index.html

Weswala, Umar. Eliminating Female Genital Mutilation is Possibly in 2016, 2015.

WOMENAID, The Reach Programme: A remarkable success story. http://www.womenaid.org/press/info/fgm/fgm-uganda.htm

World Health Organisation, ‘Female Genital Mutilation’, <http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs241/en/>

See the full list of HART Prize for Human Rights 2018 winners and shortlisted entries here

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