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Questioning the Zero Tolerance Paradigm and Legal Reform Strategies for Ending Female Genital Cutting: An Emerging Public Discourse in Africa

The Twilight of Cutting: African Activism and Life after NGOs is a tour-de-force ethnography in which medical anthropologist Saida Hodžić richly and lucidly interrogates many of the intertwined debates shaping the politics of efforts to end female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as female genital cutting (FGC), or simply, cutting. Readers are often drawn not to conclusions, but to ongoing debates that build, wane, and resurface at new times, and sometimes in new contexts where anti-cutting efforts are contested. Hodžić reveals that understanding Ghanaian politics surrounding FGC requires analyses of transnational flows of discourses, funding and strategies to end cutting that can only be captured by what Merry has called “deterritorialized ethnography” (Merry 2001, 28). Hodžić points to numerous entanglements, including some that have produced a double standard in public discourse: those discussing FGC in “the global North require a public performance of cultural sensitivity” (2017, 4), while Ghanaian commentators feel an imperative to publicly adopt rhetoric of the “Zero Tolerance against FGM” paradigm that forcefully condemns all forms of FGC, as well as any measures taken to minimize health risks. Tracing the roots of the zero tolerance campaign, Hodžić reveals that what has been touted as “an African solution” in fact has global reach not only in its current expression, but also in its origin (Hodžić 2017, 40). Indeed, it emerged from the transnational movement aimed at framing FGC as a violation of human rights, prioritizing legal reform as a key element of anti-cutting strategies. In 2008 I reviewed the works of scholars who cautioned that human rights approaches, while offering promising solutions, also bear potential perils and pitfalls that must be recognized and averted (Shell-Duncan 2008; see also Kennedy 2004).  Scholars have warned against the tendency to portray women as powerless victims in need of protectionist measures from the state, an image that does little to illuminate the liberating power of the law (Kapur 2002, Mutua 2002). Moreover, debates over the ability of adult women to provide consent have pointed to the exceptional standard applied to FGMC when compared to other forms of body modification such as cosmetic surgeries (including female genital cosmetic surgeries) (see also Boddy 2016).

Despite the fact that the prevalence of FGC has declined significantly in Ghana and a law banning the practice was adopted in 1994, activists advanced an agenda to bolster this law by drafting and introducing a bill that raised penalties and expanded restrictions such as criminalizing cutting among adult women. Hodžić recounts that some Ghanaian NGO workers and civil servants were ambivalent about the legal reform efforts, expressing privately, but not publicly, doubts about their faith in the power of the law. During my own research in Kenya, where cutting has also precipitously declined, I have witnessed a similar course of events. The 2001 Children’s Act banned FGM among minors, and 10 years later the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act added steeper penalties and restrictions on cutting among women of all ages. And during interviews with Kenyan legal professionals, I also found the sort of ambivalence that Hodžić describes; one informant commented, “I wonder, are arrests and criminal trials the best way to change culture?” Upon hearing this, I was reminded of the title of a 1999 article in The Economist that asked, “Female genital cutting: Is it a crime or is it culture?” It appeared in the wake of a wave of scholarly debates over competing rights claims: how can the right to health, the right to bodily integrity, the right to freedom from torture and rights of the child be weighed against the right to culture? These debates have lingered unresolved, and resurfaced during Hodžić’s research. She found that in Ghana, “not everyone agreed with the demands to imprison cut women,” (2017, 27) but those who objected were often reluctant to publicly voice their views in the face of the dominant zero tolerance rhetoric. Gradually, however, a sea change has begun, and scholars, legal and medical professionals, and activists involved in anti-cutting campaigns have begun to openly question the zero tolerance approach. On January 4, 2018 a BBC show called The Inquiry featured interviews with commentators from Africa and the global North alike in a segment called “Is Zero Tolerance the Right Approach for FGM?”, offering a critical voice on what has for so long been the dominant rhetoric. Even more dramatically, in January 2018 a female Kenyan physician filed a case charging that the 2011 Kenyan law banning FGM among adult women is unconstitutional for denying them the freedom to make decisions about their own bodies, and further argued that women should be granted access to medical care should they elect to have FGC performed (Bhalla 2018). The court certified the case as “raising a substantial question of law” and was referred to the Chief Justice for the constitution of a 3-judge bench to hear the case. Hence, private questions about FGC have now shifted to a very public forum.  While awaiting the decision, many involved in anti-cutting campaigns worry about how this case will influence not only the zero tolerance paradigm, but also responses to decades of programming aimed at accelerating the abandonment of FGC. Hodžić’s choice to tell stories without ends points to the fact that final resolutions have not been attained, and indeed the next chapter of the politics of anti-cutting campaigns has begun to unfold.

Works Cited

BBC, The Inquiry. 2018. “Is zero tolerance the right approach for FGM?”  January 4. Accessed from https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3csvsyj on February 10, 2018.

Bhalla, N. 2018. “Kenya doctor goes to court to legalize female genital mutilation.” Reuters, January 19. Accessed from https://af.reuters.com/article/commoditiesNews/idAFL3N1PE3NK on February 5, 2018.

Boddy, J. 2016. The normal and the aberrant in female genital cutting:  Shifting paradigms. HAU:  Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 6(2): 41-69.

The Economist. 1999. “Female genital cutting:  Is it a crime or culture?” February 11.

Hodžić, S. 2017. The Twilight of Cutting:  African Activism and Life after NGOs. Oakland: University of California Press.

Kapur, R. 2002. The tragedy of victimization rhetoric: Resurrecting the “native” subject in international/post-colonial feminist legal politics. Harvard Human Rights Journal 15: 1-37.

Kennedy, D. 2004. The Dark Sides of Virtue: Reassessing International Humanitarianism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Merry, S. E. 2001. “Changing rights, changing culture.” In J. K. Cowan, M. B. Dembour, & R. A. Wilson, Eds. Culture and Rights: Anthropological Perspectives, 31-55. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mutua, M. 2002. Human Rights: A Political and Cultural Critique. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Shell-Duncan, B. 2008. From health to human rights: female genital cutting and the politics of intervention. American Anthropologist 110(2): 225-236.


Bettina Shell-Duncan is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Washington. Her recent research has focused on the dynamics of change in the practice and meanings of female genital cutting (FGC) in Senegal, The Gambia, and Kenya. She has also examined debates surrounding the adoption of a human right framework for addressing FGC, responses to legislative reform efforts, and debates over the medicalization of the practice. Through her work with WHO and UNICEF, she has examined the politics of the international campaign to end FGC, and has recently become involved in an international research consortium funded by the U.K.’s Department of International Development investigating decision-making regarding FGC and intervention strategies in six African countries.


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