To cut or not to cut? That is the question

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is an issue that has gained global attention in recent years. But despite a rising profile, the practice remains shrouded in mystery for many. What seems to be an inherently abusive practice continues to pervade at such a scale that onlookers, particularly those in the West, are increasingly perplexed by its persistence.

Take for example the case of Egypt where, back in 2013, 13-year-old Suhair al Bataa died after forcibly undergoing FGM at the request of her own family. In the aftermath of this news Suhair’s doctor, Raslan Fadl, faced trial and was eventually convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to two years in prison.

Despite Egypt outlawing FGM in 2008 and having one of the highest FGM prevalence rates in the world, this landmark case was the first conviction of its kind in Egypt.

These events brought about calls by the UN and Egyptian Government for stricter national enforcement of penalties for FGM. However, recent controversy over an Egyptian MP’s comments supporting the continuation of FGM as necessary to “reduce women’s sexual desires” so as to match Egypt’s “sexually weak” men have reignited debates and questions surrounding FGM around the world.

But it is not just Egypt that has a problem controlling and policing FGM. This issue is further complicated when considering how increased global migration has brought what was traditionally considered a ‘developing country practice’ to the doorstep of many societies with vastly different and often conflicting cultural norms and practices.

Even in countries like the UK, where a zero-tolerance stance against FGM is taken, there have yet to be any successful prosecutions for FGM, despite laws dating back to 1985. So how is it that a practice that inflicts so much harm and pain is so widely supported? And why is policing it such a challenge?

Cultural awareness

To the onlooker, the barbaric nature of FGM is self-evident, and the need to fully eradicate it goes without question. But by unpicking and exploring the cultural significance of the practice, its widespread continuation becomes decidedly less incomprehensible.

Current work underway at Open Lab has been trying to do just that. Through drawing on the experiences and insights of relevant UK professionals who work with communities to counter FGM, we have been able to uncover some of the major barriers faced by services in accessing and engaging with practising communities in western contexts, in turn allowing us to consider appropriate opportunities for HCI design to address this issue.

In questioning how a parent can inflict FGM upon their daughter, there is a need to first consider the role that FGM plays in securing that girl’s future. In the highly patriarchal societies from which many practising communities originate, FGM is considered a necessity to ensure marriageability. In contrast to many western societies, in practising communities a woman’s marriageability is still considered paramount to ensuring her social and economic security.

Simultaneously, the physical and emotional threats and social isolation felt by uncut women and girls means that parents are faced with an impossible choice – subject their child to the pain of FGM or subject their child to the consequences of being uncut?

In a western context, a lack of cultural awareness about this complex choice (combined with strict policing and the framing of the practice as ‘barbaric’ by the media) is thought to increase stigma around victims, marginalise communities and further push the practice into secrecy. Wider societal taboos around speaking about intimate and sensitive topics, as well as a fear of appearing culturally insensitive for targeting specific groups are thought to further stagnate open conversations about FGM, in turn perpetuating this shame and secrecy. This is not to say that FGM should be allowed to continue without intervention, particularly given its serious and troubling physical, emotional and psychosexual consequences. Rather, there is a need for western perspectives to consider why FGM prevails before deciding how to stop it.

HCI opportunities

If we are able to reduce this marginalisation, we can encourage the construction of meaningful, sustainable and trusting relationships between services and practising communities. In doing so, we can ensure that services become more accessible, acceptable and available for victims and potential victims and promote the eventual abandonment of FGM through collective choice rather than by force.

Our research has highlighted how the promotion of cross-cultural conversations and the sharing of marginalised voices provides an avenue for reducing this marginalisation. From these findings, moving forward, we can now begin to consider the various opportunities for HCI to facilitate these suggested solutions.

For example, existing cross-cultural HCI work has begun to explore how digital technologies and participatory design can open up conversations and raise awareness and community consciousness over culturally embedded issues.

The process of partaking in participatory design workshops alone offers potential for building trusting and meaningful relationships, regardless of whether the outcome is a tangible product. Equally, work on community decision-making and marginalised groups has provided insight into the ways in which HCI can facilitate the raising and sharing of marginalised voices.

Hope for the future

Whilst it is still very early days for research into FGM within HCI, it would appear that there is significant scope for future HCI design and research to counter these barriers and potentially speed up the eventual abandonment of FGM.

For more information please contact Lydia Michie.

Author: Lydia Michie

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