Mediating human rights and religio-cultural beliefs : an African feminist examination of conceptualisations of Female Genital Cutting (FGC) in the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) documents.
Worldwide prevalence estimates that between 140 million girls and women have undergone female genital cutting (FGC). Of this estmate, more than 125 million girls and women have been cut in 29 countries in Africa (WHO 2008, UNICEF 2013:2-3, WHO 2014). It is estimated that over 3 million girls are at risk of undergoing the procedures every year (World Health Organisation 2008). A significant focus in the literature on FGC shows an over-emphasis made by the international community that the practice is a violation of human rights. However, the implementation of legislation against FGC in various African countries where the practice has been prevalent has not led to the end or eradication of FGC. In this regard, various United Nations (UN) agencies and international organisations such as OHCHR, UNAIDS, UNDP, UNECA, UNESCO, UNFPA, UNHCR, UNICEF, UNIFEM and WHO collaborate to engage in FGC prevention measures within local communities in Africa. This study: Mediating Human Rights and Religio-Cultural beliefs: An African Feminist Examination of Conceptualisations of Female Genital Cutting (FGC) in the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) Document, focuses to engage with the work of UNICEF in related programmes that address FGC in Africa. This study applied two theoretical frameworks—the reproductive rights framework and the reproductive justice framework within a critical feminist discourse analysis. This approach was applied to analyse how UNICEF frames, conceptualises, addresses and has responded to the practice of FGC in Africa. The study illustrates how discourses on human rights and religio-cultural beliefs are mediated and represented in the UNICEF documents. The study adopted a qualitative methodology that applied a systematic review of literature. In this case, using a critical feminist discourse analysis to examine how UNICEF mediates and represents FGC in its documents reveals several shifts that have taken place over this period of ten years. First, the study shows the reasons for the shift from the use of the term ‘female genital mutilation’ FGM to the application of the term ‘female genital mutilation/cutting’ in the UNICEF documents. Second, an overemphasis on harmful health consequences resulting from FGC that led to the ‘medicalisation’ of the practice brought a shift which underlined FGC as a human rights violation in the 1990s. Third, the study reveals a shift from simply understanding of FGC as a blanket human rights violation to recognising the cultural values attached to the rite which then explains the prevalence of the practice by focusing on religion and culture. This study makes an important conclusion that addressing FGC from a human rights perspective is not enough and might not achieve UNICEF’s intention of eliminating FGC. The findings of the study are that there is a need to address FGC from a collective approach within practicing local communities. Second, the study highlights the need to change mind sets and attitudes regarding FGC. While recognising the important place which cultural rites takes in African communities, the study suggests the need to explore alternative rites of passage through which local communities could still retain the benefits of passing traditional teachings during the transition from childhood to adulthood.