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There was an outstanding piece on PRI’s The World a couple of weeks back. It centered on the a land transfer between Liberia’s Sande Society for women and the Poro Society for men. The land, which has been in the hands of the Sande Society since 2005, will now be used by the men for their training and ceremonies. The transfer also shuts down the principal activity of the women-led Sande Society, Female Genital Cutting (or Mutilation, depending on your approach to the activity. As a Westerner, I will call it mutilation, or FGM).

We are all products of the cultures in which we were raised, and coming from this time and place, I admittedly approach the world with a predictable sort of biased cultural relativism. I find the practice of FGM inexplicable and barbaric and join the worldwide chorus calling for its end. But I’ve always wondered if the chorus is ultimately not accomplishing its goal, and possibly even undermining it, by shouting loudly, while not actually looking at the reasons the practices are still in place and trying to work within the culture to change the practices so that cultural traditions are still honored without producing victims.

Different types of FGM and how they differ from normal female anatomy. Wikipedia

FGM is the partial or complete removal of the female genitalia. This can range from the removal of the clitoral hood only to the removal of all of the inner and outer labia and clitoris. In the later cases the resulting wound is sewn shut leaving only small openings for urine and menstrual blood. It is performed on girls generally aged from just a few days old to puberty. According to the World Health Organization it is practiced in 28 countries throughout Africa, in parts of the Middle East and even within some immigrant communities in Europe and North America. The WHO reports that between 100 and 140 million women and girls have had the procedure.

As I write this, I’m am scouring the internet for the origin of FGM. One document will site a religious context, the next will negate that; one will point to a certain cultural heritage and again, that will be shown as wrong. It seems there is no agreement on where the practice began, just that its become an embedded cultural tradition in many parts of the world. The more I read and the more I try to understand, the more I feel befuddled and wonder why? How could such a rich sense of cultural tradition revolve around such seeming brutality for a rite of passage?

Records show the practice dating back to ancient Egypt. Arguments in support of the practice site it as a rite-of-passage linking girls to the generations of women who have come before them; that it prevents excessive growth of the clitoris; and that it elevates a girl’s position in society and “purifies” her. Some even argue that this will prevent rape and other violence against women without noting the remarkable irony of the violent nature of the cutting itself.

The Prevalence of FGM across Africa in 2008.

According to the historian Lynn Thomas, it is often the primary context in which women come together. It also serves as a way for women to participate as powerful members of society or even just earn a living at all. Additionally, many of the women who participate in the practice come from desperately poor communities where marriage is seen as the only way a woman can ensure her future, uncircumcised women are less likely to marry well if at all and, without other economic opportunities, run the risk of becoming a burden to their families, prompting mothers to continue to subject their daughters to the practice.

Of course, cultural rituals are nothing new and are around us every day. We no longer watch the Christians thrown to the lions or bind the feet of Chinese women, but many Catholics still don’t eat meat on Fridays, and many Jews remain Kosher despite the idea that the initial calls for this practice, sanitation concerns, no longer hold true. Of course, there are many who no longer ascribe to these possibly outdated traditions, but still consider themselves loyal to their religious beliefs – I have quite devout friends who none-the-less wouldn’t consider dinner served without meat on the plate regardless of the day of the week and I’ve shared many a bacon heavy brunch with Jewish friends.

Where girls and women with FGM live (% of the 91.5 million girls and women with FGM). From 2011 WHO Report

Nor is it unusual for one group to imperialistically dictate how another should behave. The meaning of the message, no matter how noble, will always be lost because of the delivery of the message. We call for tolerance in the case of Trayvon Martin while each side hurls insults at the other. We insist that those who aren’t embracing a local, organic diet are deliberately harming their children, while neglecting to look at the economic struggles of the families we condemn. We argue the issue of choice as a matter of rights or as outright murder. None of these are necessarily as shocking as FGM (although certainly in the case of Trayvon Martin, regardless of the circumstances, a child is dead), but we would go further in each case if we tried to create a path for understanding our position which worked within each other’s needs.

Human rights groups have declared a war on the practice of FGM. Is “war” the right terminology for the struggle to end the practice? Should we be declaring a partnership with the cultures that practice FGM and work within the culture to create the avenues for its end rather than declare a side whose victory necessitates a loss for the other side. If the practitioners of FGM, or really anything we don’t approve of from racism to a fast food diet to issues of choice, feel that those trying to influence their decisions are looking at doing so using a language of conquering them, doesn’t that actually make them more inclined to hold to their position, even as they are becoming aware of its faults?

The British novelist Alicia Little, who had written extensively about Victorian mothers preparing their daughters to marry well, was uniquely prepared to understand the practices of foot binding when she moved to China in 1887. Or, if not understand, at least be sympathetic to them. She wrote of the efforts of one Chinese congregation of parents who pledged to neither bind their daughter’s feet nor allow their sons to marry women with bound feet. The practice ended within a generation.

Reduction in FGM in 2012 according to a report by UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Apparently a total of 8,000 communities have renounced the practice.

Certainly, it’s not that simple, but if the leaders of the practice become participants in its end, then that end will be far easier to bring about.  The women of the Sande Society are considered some of the most powerful in Liberia, so much so that even the country’s female president hasn’t previously come forward to decry their practices, but the government has now reached out to the traditional societies to bring about an end to FGM. To me, that makes this land transfer and cessation of activities so significant. The practitioners themselves have put an end to the practice, at least temporarily.  The girls who benefit from this moratorium are going to be able to spend the time that they would be undergoing the ritual and healing from it, going to school, which may likely lead to other opportunities for them. Hopefully working with the Liberian government and with the attention of international human rights groups, this temporary cessation can turn into a permanent one.

Poster for Campaign Against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) or Female Circumcision by . Courtesy layalk on Flickr

If we continue to work within societies to offer opportunities for education and economic empowerment, rather than imposing our will unilaterally, we will not only be able to bring about an end to the practice, it can happen in a way that enhances the lives of so many who have been effected by it. The playwright Eve Ensler has helped found City of Joy in the Congo through her V-Day Foundation. As the V-Day website describes it City of Joy was

“conceived, created and developed by the women on the ground {to} support women survivors of sexual violence to heal and provide them with opportunities to develop their leadership through innovative programming. Through its groundbreaking model, the City of Joy will provide up to 180 women a year with an opportunity to benefit from: group therapy; storytelling; dance; theater; self-defense; comprehensive sexuality education (covering HIV/AIDS, family planning); ecology and horticulture; and economic empowerment.”

While I might place economic empowerment above dance in a list of priorities, this is certainly a model of how to work within a society to help its most vulnerable members.

I’ve celebrated the campaigns Ensler and her V-Day Foundation have undertaken for over 10 years and I’ve been grateful for her acknowledgement of the many men who want to aid her in her mission to end violence against women. Which makes me also wonder how men can become part of the conversation and efforts to end of such an intimately female practice. Could men, as they did in China, vow to only marry women who had not undergone the procedure? Would that help to bring about an end to the practice more quickly? Could they commit to creating economic opportunities for women, even if it meant jobs may be taken from men? Are there other ways men could effect change for the girls at risk?

Write your ideas in the comments section below.

Information about FGM and how to help raise awareness to end the practice can be found here.