Friday, March 18, 2011

Zero tolerance of female genital mutilation

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

Globalization as a new stage of humanity and the Earth itself, has not only put individuals and peoples in contact with each other, but also has spread their viruses and bacteria, plants and fruits, cuisine and fashion, their worldviews and religions, including their values and negative values, worldwide. It is characteristic of human nature and history -- not a defect but an evolutionary sign -- that we are sapient (sapiens) and demented (demens) and, therefore, emerge as contradictory beings. Hence, alongside the bright dimensions, which are the best side of human beings and through which we enrich each other, dark dimensions also appear, age-old traditions that penalize large sectors of the population. Thus, we must be critical of each other, to identify inhumane practices that are no longer tolerable.

We Westerners, for example, are individualistic and dualistic, so focused on our identity that we have great difficulty accepting those who are different from us. We tend to treat those who are different as inferior. This provides an ideological basis to our colonialist and imperialist spirit, to impose our values and worldview on the whole world.

Such limitations are found in all cultures. But there are limitations and limitations. Some of them violate all parameters of decency, and just simple common sense makes them unacceptable. They seem more like violations and crimes than cultural traditions, however ancient they appear to be. And it's useless for cultural anthropologists and sociologists to go on defending them in the name of respecting differences. What is cruel is cruel in any culture, anywhere in the world. Cruelty, because it's inhumane, has no right to exist.

I am refering specifically to female genital mutilation. It has been practiced for centuries in 28 countries in Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and several European countries where there has been immigration from these areas. It is estimated that worldwide there are currently between 115 and 130 million genitally mutilated women. Another three million, including five hundred thousand in Europe, are still subject annually to such horrors.

What is it? It is the removal of the clitoris and both labia and in some places even the stitching together of the labia in girls aged 4 to 14. This is done without any hygienic concern with scissors, knives, needles and even with sharp pieces of glass. The screams of pain and horror, the emotional impact and untold suffering, and the hemmorrhages and infections that can kill are unimaginable, as can be seen in some YouTube videos on the Internet, which I don't advise anyone to watch.

In Europe, such practices are prohibited. The mothers then take their daughters to their home countries under the pretext of meeting their relatives. And there this horror, that is more an assault and gross violation of human rights than a cultural practice, awaits them. Behind it is the most primitive form of machismo that seeks to prevent a woman's access to sexual pleasure, transforming her into an object for the exclusive pleasure of man. The World Health Organization rightfully denounced the practice as unacceptable torture.

I see two reasons that discredit certain cultural traditions and lead us to fight them. The first is the suffering of others. Where the cultural difference involves dehumanization and mutilation of the other, there is the limit and it should be inhibited. No person is entitled to impose unreasonable hardship on another. The second reason is the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights, signed by all states. All cultural traditions should be compared with its precepts. Practices involving violation of human dignity should be prohibited and punished. The supreme law is to treat human beings humanely. In genital mutilation, we are faced with a social convention that is inhumane and harmful. This is why February 6th has been established as International Day of Zero Tolerance of Female Genital Mutilation.

Each day of the year and especially every March 8th, International Women's Day, we should stand in solidarity with these girls, victims of a harsh cultural tradition that is the enemy of life and pleasure.

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