Post by: Judithe Registre, Program Director for Because I am a Girl, Plan International USA.
Female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) is a procedure through which the external female genitalia is partially or totally removed. A process prominent in Africa and the Middle East, girls are often compelled to undergo this practice for societal and cultural reasons. A girl who has undergone FGM/C is traditionally viewed as “pure” and therefore fit for marriage. According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 140 million girls and women have undergone this procedure.
In recent years, there has been pushback from humanitarian and women’s groups seeking to end the practice. Arguments have almost always focused on the humanitarian aspect of the debate, citing the barbaric nature of the practice and its scarring and long-lasting effects on women. While these are certainly important points to bring up and although the discourse is well-intentioned, it is difficult to easily eradicate FGM/C because, unfortunately, it is a well-established cultural practice. For the individuals of that particular culture, it shapes their identity and group affiliation. Culture is an evolution of time and circumstance. Culture is not static; it is dynamic.
Until recently, a critical piece of this argument has been missing: the inclusion of boys and men. Men and boys must be viewed – and included -- as active agents of change in this process. Unquestionably, they have a critical role to play in transforming social norms around this practice.
The engagement of adolescent boys and young men is proving to be a changing force in the discourse around and practice of FGM/C. During a recent trip to Egypt, I was shocked to learn in a meeting with a group of more than 20 boys in a community outside of Cairo how adamant they were about marrying a woman who did not undergo FGM/C. While the first known campaign against FGM/C in Egypt dates back to the 1920s with the Egyptian Society of Egyptians, 91 percent of Egyptian women and girls still experience FGM/C – and this is a decline from 97 percent in 2000. With this data, the practice is fairly universal.
But I was taken aback by reactions of the group of young men as they expressed to me their views on FGM/C. They did not want to marry a woman who went through FGM/C because, as they said, they “do not want a dead wife.” Fascinated, I asked what that meant. They explained to me that because FGM/C removed a woman’s ability to appreciate and enjoy intimacy, there is then no enjoyment for the man either. It seems that there is a new sentiment: The enjoyment of their wives during a sexual experience was now somehow a testament to their masculinity.
However, like most changes in history, the reasons are not altruistic and they did not come at this from a moral argument. I get that…but isn’t that enough if it contributes to the decline of the practice?
While FGM/C is rightfully categorized as a human rights violation, it was not initiated by communities to violate and torture girls and women. So it is interesting that this group of men I met in Egypt are reclaiming what they see is a right for them: the right to enjoy their partners and to be with a woman who can equally enjoy the experience. This is a significant societal rebranding of what it means to be masculine in relationships.
While this change in perception is, yes, all about men, we can still appreciate the benefits for women. The process of change is a constant rebranding process – rebranding masculinity will rebrand femininity and vice versa.
I do not believe this societal rebranding has been deliberate. It is a byproduct of urbanization, time, exposure, and change of circumstances. Whether this shift is permanent, only time will tell. While FGM/C is still prevalent in Egypt, the rate for women aged 15-19 is 80 percent, compared to women in their 40s with a rate of 96 percent. We’re moving in the right direction.