A former "cutter" displays the tools of her trade, a knife and herbs, in Salemata, Senegal, 31 January 2003. (AP Photo/Alexandra Zavis)

A former “cutter” displays the tools of her trade, a knife and herbs, in Salemata, Senegal, 31 January 2003. (AP Photo/Alexandra Zavis)

By Nelson Graves

Earlier this week, News-Decoder published an article about a traditional rite-of-passage for millions of girls and women in Africa and part of the Middle East.

In Uganda, ending female genital cutting” has generated a lot of interest among our readers.

Many outside of Africa and the Middle East may have wanted to learn more about what is being done to halt a practice that human rights groups decry as barbaric and down right harmful to women’s health.

I hope there is more to their interest than that.

We struggled with the article because the subject represents a trap we want to avoid at News-Decoder.

It’s easy for someone on the outside to criticize the rite of cutting a girl’s clitoris and labia. It’s more difficult to try to understand why the tradition persists and how it can be ended.

Some readers may have wondered why Pauline Bock’s article refers to FGM/C — female genital mutilation/cutting.

Judgement and condemnation

As is many things, the choice of words is packed with significance. In this case, FGM/C strikes a balance between two perspectives on the rite — that of outsiders and that of insiders.

The evolution of terminology describing the rite reflects changes in thinking over the years. It used to be called “female circumcision” until activists objected, saying one cannot equate female and male circumcision.

As an admirably thorough study by UNICEF notes, the term “female genital mutilation” was then adopted by several world bodies. “However, objections have been raised because the term also confers judgement and condemnation of what is an age-old practice in many communities,” the UNICEF report says.

Experts have now settled on “female genital mutilation/cutting” as a more culturally sensitive description that does not demonize the relevant cultures, located in a broad swathe cutting clear across Africa all the way to Yemen and Iraq in the Middle East.

In News-Decoder’s article, we spelled out some of the many reasons why the rite-of-passage is important to the Sabiny people in Uganda.

Status, privilege, friendship, community, respect for elders, income, prestige, bravery: the list of reasons is long and gives a very different perspective on the rite than that of an arm-chair critic outside the region.

That is a point that Patti Ricotta, who is working with the Sabiny to try to find an alternative to FGM/C, makes in a comment she has written at the end of the News-Decoder article.

A new rite-of-passage?

“The Sabiny are not terrible people!” Ricotta wrote. “Like so many others around the world who still practice FGM, the Sabiny are dear men and women who have lived without the knowledge they’ve needed to make a better choice.”

Ricotta is working with Sabiny women to try to come up with an alternative rite-of-passage that “honors and lifts girls up into womanhood without mutilating their bodies.” They hope to come up with something acceptable by January.

“We do not want to encourage the Sabiny to take something away from girls/women without encouraging them to find something far more wonderful and powerful to put in its place,” Ricotta said.

Before concluding, Ricotta offers each of us an opportunity: to suggest a new rite-of-passage that will replace FGM/C and help Sabiny girls enter into womanhood.

News-Decoder wants to look at issues from multiple perspectives, and FGM/C is one that demands sensitivity to different outlooks.

We also want to kindle a global discussion about issues that fosters contrasting viewpoints in a forum where respect, balance and trust are watchwords.

So we encourage you to speak up.

Tell us what you think and send a suggestion to Patti Ricotta for a new rite-of-passage for Sabiny women.

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World Africa Your chance to change an ancient rite