I recently had a conversation that challenged what I thought I knew about the controversial ritual known as “female genital cutting,” or, more commonly, "female genital mutilation."
FGC, as it is abbreviated, involves an elder or other community member slicing off all or part of a woman’s clitoris and labia as part of a ceremony that is often conducted around the time that the woman reaches puberty. Many international groups are concerned about FGC, which is practiced extensively in parts of Africa and the Middle East and is linked to infections, infertility, and childbirth complications.
Organizations such as the United Nations have campaigned against the practice, calling for its abolition as a matter of global health and human rights. But despite a decades-old movement against it, FGC rates in some countries haven't budged. While younger women are increasingly going uncut in countries such as Nigeria and the Central African Republic, according to a survey by the Population Reference Bureau, in Egypt more than 80 percent of teenagers still undergo the procedure.
So what can foreign activists—as well as locals who oppose female genital cutting—do to curb the practice? For starters, Bettina Shell-Duncan, an anthropology professor at the University of Washington who has been studying the practice in many countries for years, suggests using the term “cutting” rather than “mutilation,” which sounds derogatory and can complicate conversations with those who practice FGC.