When you want to save the world but are not sure where to start, a good question to begin with is “what makes people sad?” I'm not sure how it started in my case, but it led me to write my senior thesis on female genital mutilation. Nothing about this is happy. The practice is ethically reprehensible and rather uncomfortable to talk about, which made it the perfect topic for a philosophy paper. My argument against any cultural justification for the practice is supported by the capabilities approach, a theoretical framework which affirms that anything that hinders basic human capabilities is morally evil.
Afflicting millions of girls and women around the world, female genital mutilation (FGM) is a broad title given to various culture-originated medical procedures which critically hinder the development and well-being of their victims. Many of the cultural justifications for FGM are psychologically rooted in women’s fear and desire for social acceptance. One of the least elaborate forms of FGM, clitorectomy or “a ritual nick,” involves the removal of the skin covering the clitoris, and is incredibly painful, especially without anesthetics. Infibulation, the most devastating of the procedures, involves removing the clitoris and labia minora, and it may involve stitching the edges of each side of the remaining labia together. Some cultures bound the legs together for weeks or months at a time to allow for skin and scar tissue to form over the wound, while others may use animal dung to help healing. Not surprisingly, infections are common.
Among the many cultural justifications for FGM is the claim that it upholds virginity and subsequent fidelity by making promiscuity less appealing. Women in these cultures are raised to believe their ultimate purpose is to be good wives and mothers, that being uncircumcised encourages infidelity, and that resisting the practice will cause families to fall apart and society to suffer.
In asserting the authority of gender roles, FGM degrades humanity by defining the victims in terms of their sexuality, and reduces them to a position exclusively concerned with their being female. Effectively preventing the development of a basic human capability in the individual subjected to FGM, the resulting emotional trauma additionally maintains the feeling of helplessness, which clearly indicates the wrongness of the practice. When the functions that allow people to operate to their full potential are limited, it hinders the growth and development of the victim. In limiting opportunities like this, the life of that individual is not as good as it could have been had they had the opportunity to develop their abilities.
Now that you’re good and uncomfortable: This subject is so foreign to the American mind and so upsetting that I couldn’t not talk about it. That an estimated 200 million women currently live in physical pain and mental anguish is repulsive. If you're sickened by the idea of young girls being held down and having the most sensitive part of their physical being sliced by an often-unsterilized blade, talk about it. Talk about how awful this is, and how it is still actively happening in communities and cultures all over the world. But don’t just talk about female genital mutilation. The principle of why this disturbs people is the same as for any other offense against humanity, which includes anything that violates any basic human capability.
On a recent trip to New York City, I was fortunate enough to meet a fantastic young man who established an education initiative to fight FGM in villages across Nigeria after he learned of a friend who suffers from the depression and all the pain that accompanies life with female genital mutilation. And so, the Calabar Youth Council for Women’s Rights (CYCWR) began to fight the oppressive issues women face in Nigeria and surrounding areas, educating young women and girls on their rights, establishing safe houses for victims and pursuing other initiatives. Ultimately, CYCWR aims to completely rid Nigeria of the practice of female genital mutilation, in addition to domestic violence, child marriages and marital rape. While we were speaking, the organization’s founder, Kennedy Chiduziem Ekezie, spoke about how he exercises his patriarchal advantage to work with communities that might not listen if he were not a man. The use of his male privilege allows for a broader range of discourse among community leaders in areas where conditions are poor for women. He thus assumes the responsibility of the privilege to give a voice to the oppressed victims of a silent culture.