Today is International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation. The WHO statement on this is lacking, which I don’t find surprising. (emphasis added)
The International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation is observed each year to raise awareness about this practice. Female genital mutilation of any type has been recognized as a harmful practice and violation of the human rights of girls and women. WHO is committed to the elimination of female genital mutilation within a generation and is focusing on advocacy, research and guidance for health professionals and health systems.
Female genital mutilation (FGM) refers to all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. Female genital mutilation has no known health benefits. On the contrary, it is associated with a series of short and long-term risks to both physical, mental and sexual health and well-being.
FGM is affecting about 140 million girls and women, and more than 3 million girls are at risk every year. A special focus for WHO this year, is the troubling trend of health-care providers increasingly being the ones performing female genital mutilation, and thereby contributing to legitimize and maintain the practice.
Today, I’m not going to discuss the comparison to male circumcision beyond the one inherent in this sentence. I am going to use WHO’s approach to male circumcision to compare why its last sentence shouldn’t be a surprise.
Stating that FGM has no known health benefits works from the premise that the possibility of benefits could justify FGM. No benefit could justify forced FGC (i.e. mutilation). The human rights principle is superior. WHO should state that as its foundation, and be consistent and repetitive. In reminding readers about this lack of benefits, WHO almost apologizes for being against FGM. The absence of benefits is not why this shouldn’t be done.
Think back to when the AAP issued a revised policy statement on FGC, later retracted. As I wrote here and here, I didn’t/don’t think it said what people read into it. But the reaction was universal and swift. On the idea that permitting limited forms of genital cutting could prevent greater harm to females, activists stood on the absolute principle. Whether or not this makes sense is a worthwhile discussion. (My posts linked above set out my thoughts on the issue. The principle still matters more.) Regardless, that incident demonstrates that activists would never excuse FGC/M if benefits were proposed or found. Can anyone imagine a scenario where any scientific committee allowed research into possible benefits? For those inclined to accept possible benefits as a justification, everyone else must discourage this thinking. Lazy statements that lack the courage to defends what is morally and ethically correct fail that goal.
WHO’s approach, which informs its stance on male circumcision, enables the predictable problems described in the last sentence. Because the organization refuses to stand for principle where courage is necessary, it creates the conflict of legitimizing genital cutting through “medical” male circumcision programs. I know of no populations that cut females that don’t also cut males. So, WHO drives campaigns to legitimize genital cutting while driving campaigns to delegitimize genital cutting. The flaw is obvious. The principle and consistency matter.