Can you change a culture? A constructivist approach to Female genital mutilation

Article by Matilde Monteleone | Illustration by Francesco Moretti


At the end of April, the Government of Sudan approved, through an amendment to the penal code, a landmark draft law for the elimination of the practice of female genital mutilation. In the country, FGM is practiced on approximately 88% of girls.

The law makes this practice a national crime, punishing anyone who practices it, either illegally or by relying on medical facilities of up to three years of imprisonment. This is undoubtedly a very important step forward, but the risk is that FGM will continue to be practised illegally, as it is in Egypt, despite a law passed in 2008.

An overview

The practice of female genital mutilation is widespread throughout the world. Africa and the Middle East are the areas where this custom is most widespread, but they are not the only ones. In fact, due to migration flows, it is not uncommon to find cases of FGM in Europe, Australia and America. On average every year three million girls in the world undergo female genital mutilation, and according to statistics 200 million girls over 9 years of age have been victims of this practice.

According to a United Nations report, in 2020 alone there are approximately 4.1 million girls at risk of being subjected to this practice. In Africa and the Middle East, the FGM is concentrated in the range from the Atlantic Coast to the Horn of Africa and is present in 29 states. In countries such as Egypt, Somalia, Mali and Sudan, approximately eight out of ten girls undergo genital mutilation.

Percentage of girls undergoing FGM, Unicef report 2013

According to the World Health Organization, female genital mutilation involves the partial or total removal of external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. The practice is classified into four types depending on the mode of operation: partial or total removal of the clitoris, removal of the clitoris and minor lips, infibulation and any other type of harmful procedures such as pricking, incising, scraping or cauterizing the genital area. Usually these operations are performed by traditional practitioners, but often also by medical personnel when the girls are between 5 and 14 years old.

A constructivist approach to a sexist practice

But what are the reasons for such a barbaric practice that continues to be perpetuated on millions of young women? It is impossible to try to understand the reasons behind female genital mutilation without taking the constructivist approach into account (Jackson, Robert, Georg Sorensen, and Jorgen Moller. Relazioni internazionali. EGEA spa, 2014).

This meta-theory takes on an epistemology that emphasizes the social construction of meaning. According to constructivist thinking, the reality we live in is nothing more than the result of a social construction made possible through social interactions between individuals. Just as the social world within which we move is the set of actions, ideas, languages and beliefs of the individuals who compose it (the structure), identity is not something given, but depends on social interactions between subjects.

Therefore, constructivism denies the conception of an objective reality, precisely because it is the result of a social construct. Depending on the different norms and beliefs perpetuated over time, which define their identities, different social groups present different conceptions of reality. In the context of female genital mutilation, the constructivist approach is extremely useful.

Thanks to it, it is possible to frame this practice as the result of social norms, ideas and interactions that have lasted for centuries and have become an integral part of the culture of certain social groups. FGM is a purely cultural phenomenon and therefore extremely deeply rooted in certain societies. In countries like Egypt or Mali, where almost all mothers have been subjected to this practice, it is intuitive to understand how difficult it is to abandon such a practice, which has now become the norm despite its brutality and dangerousness.

In most cases, FGM is practiced to make women socially acceptable. The clitoris is seen as a symbol of female evil and perversion, and should therefore be severed to free women from their true nature and make them pure. Furthermore, this practice minimizes the risk of a girl having sexual intercourse before marriage and this is fundamental in view of marriage. For this reason, although many parents are aware of the atrocity of this practice, they still choose to perpetuate it to ensure that their daughter is a good bride.

So, the main motivations are chastity, purity and the preservation of a woman’s morality.It is clear, therefore, an absolutely sexist vision of the woman, which is born as wrong and perverse and only through a modification, a mutilation, can she be saved and made pure. Constructivism teaches us that culture and traditions are nothing more than the result of a social construction of man, so how can this practice be eliminated?

How do you change a social norm?

Certainly the introduction of laws banning FGM is essential to fight this practice, but it is not enough. In fact, according to a UNICEF Report, when a tradition is particularly entrenched, the fear of social exclusion is often much stronger than the threat of sanctions and imprisonment. Several studies have shown that the actual abandonment of a social norm occurs when social expectations change. For this to happen, it is necessary for a group in society to begin to detach itself from the common tradition and abandon a particular shared practice.

Subsequently, this group will try, through education and the sharing of useful information, to convince the rest of society to do the same. At this point those who do not adhere to the new social norm will feel excluded from society. When this happens, it is because social expectations have changed.

Fundamental in this process is therefore education. In fact, by making parents and young women aware of the dangers of FGM (from health problems to permanent psychological damage) and by educating young women about women’s emancipation and a vision that values the role of women in society, it is possible to start this process.

Therefore, returning to constructivist discourse, we can say that it is possible to change a norm that has been accepted for centuries precisely because it is nothing more than a social construct of man. As the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says in a famous TED Talk: “Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture”.


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