Late last month, 330 villages in Senegal held a ceremony to announce that they would end the practice of female genital cutting. That brought the number of Senegalese communities to abandon the practice to 4,229, and when the number reaches 5,000, complete eradication will be achieved. Similar pronunciations and celebrations are occurring in other countries — in Gambia and Somalia, and in Mauritania, where on Tuesday 78 villages participated.
The growing movement to end the ancient practice of slicing off part or all of a girl's clitoris and/or labia — historically done to prepare her for adulthood and marriage — is the result of years of work by local and international activists. Particularly noteworthy has been the success of the nonprofit Tostan, which means "breakthrough" in Wolof. The organization spends almost three years teaching villagers about health and human rights. Thus, when a community opts to end genital cutting, it is generally because of a recognition that cutting not only endangers girls' physical well-being but runs counter to the universal right to stewardship of one's body. And that understanding leads to other changes: As villagers learn about the health effects of childbearing, girls are less likely to be married off as children and more likely to go to school. And as women become better educated, they are more likely to participate in the economy and open businesses.
Into this delicate international effort, the American Academy of Pediatricians blundered with all the finesse of a water buffalo, suggesting last month that the ban on genital cutting in the United States be relaxed so that physicians could accommodate immigrant parents and "nick" the clitoris of young girls. A symbolic procedure performed stateside, the academy maintained, might spare a girl a brutal experience outside the country.
The outcry against such a misguided proposal was immediate. That doctors wanted to save girls from greater harm was commendable, but this policy was potentially disastrous. First, when "minor" cutting has been embraced in Africa, it has often provided a cover for more severe cutting. Second, the purpose of genital cutting is to diminish or destroy female sexual desire; it is the first step toward a girl's subjugation to family honor, to a father's authority and a husband's mastery. Even a symbolic nick is a violation of a girl's human rights. And lastly, fine distinctions about "nicking" could easily have been lost in translation; the new message to the Middle East and Africa would have been that American doctors will cut girls.
Thursday, the academy retracted the proposal and reaffirmed its opposition to all forms of female genital cutting. We commend it for heeding the pleas of activists in the field and women who have survived being cut. Pediatricians have an important role to play as well, but it is to explain to parents why cutting is forbidden here — detailing the health problems it creates for girls and emphasizing the legal consequences parents face by having it done to their daughters.