Katherine Marshall, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, leads the center’s work on religion and global development. She is also a professor of the practice of development, conflict, and religion in the Walsh School of Foreign Service, teaching diverse courses on the ethics of development work and mentoring students at many levels. She helped to create and now serves as the executive director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue, an NGO that works to enhance bridges between different sectors and institutions. In September 2022, she was appointed as a member of the Advisory Committee on Voluntary Foreign Aid at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Marshall has five decades of experience on a variety of development issues in Africa, Latin America, East Asia, and the Middle East, particularly those facing the world’s poorest countries. She was a World Bank officer from 1971 to 2006, and she led the World Bank’s faith and ethics initiative between 2000 and 2006. Marshall is a member of the Working Group on Child Rights and Family Values and the Working Group on Displaced Persons and Hospitality to the Stranger, both part of the Culture of Encounter Project.
Discussions about female genital cutting (FGC, also known as FGM or mutilation) shine a bright light on what human rights mean in practice. Above all, why does a practice widely understood as harmful with no demonstrable benefits persist? Whose responsibility is it to protect the girls involved? And, in addressing this abusive practice, what works and what does not?
There is a powerful international consensus that the ancient practice of FGC serves no useful purpose whatsoever and that it violates the rights of children and women. Yet it persists stubbornly in many parts of the world.
FGC happens every day; the World Health Organization estimates that 200 million women have been cut and three million girls undergo the procedure each year. How it is done varies: from a symbolic nick to slicing off the full genitalia and sewing the opening shut; razor blades and knives are the most common instrument. The girl's age varies, but most often the children who are cut are very young. The trauma they suffer often lasts a lifetime.
Why does it occur? When asked, the women and men concerned often reply that their religion requires it. FGC is most common in Muslim communities but also occurs in Christian and traditional religious settings. Yet neither the Qur’an nor the Bible call for FGC, and almost all theologians, officially (for example through fatwas and declarations) and in scholarly writings and discussions, discount any religious obligation in any world religion. Local religious leaders may simply ignore the practice, though some suggest (even recently in the Washington metropolitan area) that it is a good thing to do.
People (men and women) may also reply that FGC is an integral part of their culture and heritage. Men will not marry girls who are not cut, and the girls (and their families) can be ostracized. Mothers especially are deeply concerned about marriageability of their daughters (and thus grandchildren) and their acceptance within the community. Other supposed benefits include cleanliness. Where FGC is part of initiation rites it marks an important life stage, part of identity and acceptance.
Dig deeper and a fundamental rationale surfaces: FGC is thought to keep women from promiscuous behavior (by limiting their sexual pleasure or curbing their desire). The buried argument is that it can keep women submissive.
The depth of the basic consensus that FGC violates human rights is exemplified in a United Nations General Assembly resolution, passed on on December 20, 2012, by consensus. It sets February 6 each year as “the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation,” calling on all to “use the day to enhance awareness raising campaigns and to take concrete actions against female genital mutilations." The UN resolution has a moral force but no legal teeth or enforcement capacity.
Efforts to end FGC are over a century old. It has strong advocates, but the cause is not always popular (for example Kenya’s Mau Mau rebellion against the British colonial power was fueled by objections to missionary and government efforts to ban FGC). Horrified feminists and ardent advocates of human rights are shocked when women in affected communities respond angrily to outside intervention. Sensitive and informed support both for those opposing the practice and those who execute it is essential. The Senegal-based NGO Tostan, for example, focuses on supporting a community consensus to end FGC and other harmful practices, listening to communities and basing their arguments on evidence. Laws against FGC can drive the practice underground, where it is still more dangerous. Conversely in some places hospitals carry out the practice, so that it is safer but no less a violation of the rights of the girl. The UN resolution is crystal clear in condemning such "medicalization."
The critical issue for FGC (and for other topics on women's rights) is sensitive persistence, listening to those involved. The topic needs to stay high on the priority list, always with the rights of girls and their welfare at the fore. As one activist said, "We must never stop pressing [governments] to honor their commitments, never letting them off the hook until female genital mutilation has been once and for all eliminated the world over."
FGC poses starkly the challenge of applying the rights of children by ending a harmful practice. It illustrates that fighting to implement human rights is rarely simple. With FGC the complex interplay of culture, religion, and modernity is the heart of the challenge. It demonstrates vividly why we need to act to carry out values and beliefs into practice and that the task is rarely easy. It shows how far there is to go before our ideals of equality and a decent life for women are translated into reality.