A Problem of Definition: Female Circumcision vs FGM

The World Health Organisation’s biased classification of female circumcision as FGM from a perspective of harm is not supported by any scientific study. 

The limited, prescribed religious ritual of female circumcision has been regrettably deemed by the WHO to be a form of female genital mutilation.  In their overly broad definition, which encompasses any form of female genital alteration for non-medical reasons, the WHO categorizes the practice of female circumcision as Type 4 or Type 1A FGM. The classification of female circumcision as FGM “reinforces the image of female circumcision as a barbaric one, practiced by an uncivilised people.” Conflating the practice of female circumcision with mutilation prohibits any possibility of impartiality in considering the practice as a legitimate, protected religious rite.  

Center to the WHO’s classification of female circumcision as FGM is a grossly exaggerated finding of harm.

When specifically asked if the organisation [WHO] has recorded any clinical evidence of harm against the Type 1a, WHO said it does not compile individual reports but rather looks at the body of evidence from scientific literature to develop its positions about health risks and the public health and human rights significance of the practice. Upon further insistence for specific clinical evidence, WHO was able to provide…links explaining the consequence of all forms of FGM, but within those reports there was no scientific study to prove that Type 1a has caused any clinical harm. – Female Circumcision – communities call for religious freedom to be upheld”. NewsIn.Asia.

The WHO can provide no objective, independent studies confirming their claim of harm resulting from female circumcision.  Rather, the WHO simplistically lumps together all female genital alterations prescribing to all of them the most serious consequences of FGM.  De minimis procedures such as removal of the clitoral hood or a ritual nick on the external female genitalia are not evidenced to cause functional harm. Therefore, it is difficult to characterise them as unethical or a human rights violation.

Whatever the motivations of the WHO, classifying female circumcision as FGM from a perspective of harm is inappropriate and inconsistent with any scientific study.

In order to further justify their position in their determination of why female genital alterations occur, the WHO wrongly asserts that “no religious scripts prescribe the practice.” The WHO’s definition and position is uninformed, especially in regard to Islamic female circumcision. Female circumcision is a clear Islamic practice, prescribed by the Prophet Muhammad and is recommended and promoted in almost all the primary sources of Sunni and Shia jurisprudence.

Further problematic is the WHO’s definition of ‘non-medical.’  It is inexact, and suggests that only Western notions of what constitutes therapy are acceptable, divorced of any sanction for religious norms that are considered essential, valuable, and beneficial to the devout.  This extends to the WHO’s privileging of the prohibition of physical alteration above all other ‘non-medical’ considerations.  This singular analysis of harm, that of physical – even if only temporary – makes the categorization of female circumcision as FGM problematic.  The WHO completely ignores how female circumcision is defined and valued within the communities that practice the procedure.

The WHO must re-evaluate its categorization of female circumcision as a type of FGM.  Rather, female circumcision should be defined as what it is: a religiously prescribed, limited, meaningful and valued practice that has no evidence of causing functional harm.

Further Reading:

NOTE: The content of the below articles do not necessarily represent the position of this website.  Any opinions expressed in the linked or hosted articles are the author’s own.

Arora KS, Jacobs AJ. Female genital alteration: a compromise solution. Journal of Medical Ethics (2016). 42:148-154.

Available at: http://jme.bmj.com/content/42/3/148

Dr. Kavita Arora and Dr. Allan Jacobs argue for a reclassification of non-therapeutic female genital alterations by effect.  Arora and Jacobs find that practices similar to female circumcision that have no evidence of resulting in long-term harm, do not violate human rights, and are not gender discriminatory should be allowed.  Attempts at advocating against and outlawing all forms of female genital alteration do not respect cultural and religious differences and have not been successful at changing practice.  Rather, in order to safeguard the health of the female child, the authors argue for a strategy that allows de minimus and culturally sensitive female genital alteration practices.


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