Contesting Female Genital Cutting In Africa

Contesting Female Genital Cutting In Africa

Successful Strategies & Future Hopes

By Professor Diana Tietjens Meyers (University of Connecticut)

September 13, 2016        Picture: Sigfried Modola/Reuters.

This article is part of The Critique’s September/October 2016 Issue “The Bright Continent: Illuminating The Challenges, Opportunities & Promises Of A Rising Africa”.


“States Parties shall prohibit and condemn all forms of harmful practices which negatively affect the human rights of women and which are contrary to recognised international standards. States Parties shall take all necessary legislative and other measures to eliminate such practices, including:

  • creation of public awareness in all sectors of society regarding harmful practices through information, formal and informal education and outreach programmes;
  • prohibition, through legislative measures backed by sanctions, of all forms of female genital mutilation, scarification, medicalisation and para-medicalisation of female genital mutilation and all other practices in order to eradicate them;
  • provision of necessary support to victims of harmful practices through basic services such as health services, legal and judicial support, emotional and psychological counselling as well as vocational training to make them self-supporting;
  • protection of women who are at risk of being subjected to harmful practices or all other forms of violence, abuse and intolerance”.

Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa 2003.



“Culture is dynamic and evolves over time, consciously discarding retrogressive traditions, like female genital mutilation (FGM), and embracing aspects that are good and useful. Africans, especially, should re-discover positive aspects of their culture. In accepting them, they would give themselves a sense of belonging, identity and self-confidence. … There is also need to galvanize civil society and grassroots movements to catalyse change”. Wangari Maathai, Nobel Lecture, Oslo, 2004.


“If I might thus speak to girls and women everywhere, I would issue them this simple invitation: My sisters, my daughters, my friends, find your voices!” Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Nobel Lecture, Oslo, 2011.


Before I turn to my main line of argument, it is necessary to say a word about what I won’t be discussing in this essay. I’m not going to make a case against female genital cutting (FGC) for two reasons. The principal reason is that African political leaders and African women’s organizations identify FGC as a danger and affront to women and girls. So it would be redundant to critique the practice here.

The other reason is that it is imperative to avoid the mistakes of many past Western attacks on FGC. Earlier absolutist, decontextualized condemnations of FGC as different as Alice Walker’s novel Possessing the Secret of Joy[i] and Martha Nussbaum’s philosophical essay “Judging Other Cultures: The Case of Genital Mutilation,”[ii] were not, to put it mildly, well received by African scholars and activists. Obioma Nnaemeka, a staunch opponent of FGC herself, blasted Western treatments of this topic:

“[S]ome of the most egregious manifestations of “degrading treatment” and lack of “respect for dignity” lie in the modus operandi of many Westerners (feminists and others) who have intervened in this matter. The resistance of African women is not against the campaign to end the practice, but against their dehumanization and the lack of respect and dignity shown to them in the process. For the Western interventionists and insurgents to lay claim to any credibility and legitimacy, they must first put respect and dignity back where they belong”.[iii]

The sensationalism and voyeurism of Western representations of FGC, as well as the paternalism of many Western anti-FGC campaigns bespeak a wrongheaded disdain for African women and their capacities as moral agents. African women and men do not need Western intellectuals’ writings to tell them why FGC is bad. Moreover, the neo-colonial flavor of many such tracts is counterproductive, for it frequently lends credibility to those who advocate FGC as an integral part of a valuable cultural heritage and who marginalize opponents of FGC by branding them with the epithet “Westernized.” Thus, I accept the negative verdict on FGC that was pronounced by the African leaders of state who met and authored the Maputo Protocol, as the Protocol on Women quoted above is often called, and that is also instantiated in the ongoing work of countless African NGOs working in African communities to bring an end to FGC.


“African women and men do not need Western intellectuals’ writings to tell them why FGC is bad”.


In this essay, I approach FGC from a different angle – namely, how to acknowledge the dignity of persons in unjust socioeconomic contexts and respect their agency. I argue in favor of (1) approaches to FGC that pivot on women’s self-determination, and (2) human rights discourse as a frame for the issue. Throughout, I assume that expressions of autonomous agency and implementations of human rights are always situated in the specificity of particular communities and cultures, as well as in more generalized patterns of national and global stratification.

Section 1 sketches some conceptual issues concerning FGC in Africa, examines the weakness of law as an antidote to FGC there, and flags some discursive obstacles anti-FGC practitioners must overcome. Section 2 outlines several programs that have had notable success in prompting women and men to abandon FGC. Section 3 identifies and defends four philosophical assumptions that underwrite successful anti-FGC initiatives – the plasticity of culture, the competencies needed for autonomy, the adaptability of human rights to diverse socioeconomic contexts, and the indivisibility of human rights.

Although it is certainly important, I won’t take up the question of what policies regarding FGC are morally appropriate in Global North democracies that are migration destinations for individuals from groups in which FGC remains the norm. I leave this question aside, for it is peripheral if not altogether irrelevant to the topic of Africa’s prospects.


I. The State of Play in Africa

Female genital cutting (FGC) is not a single procedure. Taxonomies vary somewhat. However, there is broad agreement about three distinct types – clitoridectomy, which removes the prepuce and all or part of the clitoris; excision, which removes the clitoris and the labia minora; and infibulation, which removes all external female genitalia and sutures the remaining flesh together in order to cover the vagina while leaving a small opening for urination and menstruation.[iv] Cultural groups vary these practices according to their own traditions and depending on whether medical personnel have supplanted traditional practitioners in performing FGC.

The reasons women invoke for continuing to cut their daughters’ genitals vary widely. They include purification, hygiene, de-masculinization, beauty, standing as a woman, marriageability, chastity, tradition, religion, and men’s sexual pleasure.[v] The timing of FGC also varies widely – as early as infancy but often in the tween or early teen years. Where infibulation is the rule, women are commonly re-stitched after they give birth to babies. There are reports, as well, that some young women who have been sexually active prior to marriage have themselves infibulated before marrying in order to conceal their lost virginity.[vi]

At the end of the twentieth century, debates about terminology in the literature pitted moral rectitude against cultural sensitivity. Scholars and activists who sought to foreground the moral objectionability of the practice and to accent their own condemnation of it insisted on calling it female genital mutilation (FGM). In contrast, those contributors to the discussion who prioritized respect for local cultural practices and affected women opted to call it female circumcision or female genital cutting (FGC). As you will have noticed, I have adopted the term FGC. I do so because it does not imply that mothers who have their daughters cut should be blamed for immoral behavior, yet it also highlights the fact that the procedure uses a sharp instrument to carve off female genital organs. In this connection, it’s important to bear in mind that I write as a philosopher seeking to describe and theorize FGC, not as an activist engaged in eroding it.


“The term FGC does not imply that mothers who have their daughters cut should be blamed for immoral behavior”.


In my reading of the twenty-first century literature, the tenor and aims of the terminological debates have shifted. African scholars and activists catalogue local terminology and analyze its connotations, and they adopt terminology strategically. Discussing her work in Egypt, Amal Abdel Hadi reports that the use of the term FGM precipitated a backlash. Supporters of the practice countered by calling it tahara, which signifies ritual purification, khitan al inath, which analogizes the female practice to the religiously mandatory practice of male circumcision, or khifad, which denotes a reduction of the clitoris and links it to a hadith, a saying of the Prophet Muhammad.[vii]

As a physician, Hadi regards the cutting of girls’ and women’s genitals as mutilation. However, as an activist, she uses the language of female circumcision, for this expression echoes the way in which women and men who adhere to the practice typically understand what they’re doing. In her experience, it is only after a process of reflecting on the dangers of the practice that former proponents come to endorse the term FGM.[viii] Hadi’s attention to the rationalizations for FGC that are implicit in much of the colloquial language for it, and her belief in a gradual process of conscientization leading to linguistic change, are typical of current African discussions of terminology.

Now, it might seem odd that I’ve said nothing as yet about the legal status of FGC. In the Global North, law is widely regarded as a meaningful, albeit limited, tool for addressing social problems. But law’s role in Africa is more ambiguous.

Here is a list of the African countries that have laws prohibiting FGC and the dates when the laws were passed:

“Benin (2003); Burkina Faso (1996); Central African Republic (1996, 2006); Chad (2003); Cote d’Ivoire (1998); Djibouti (1994, 2009); Egypt (2008); Eritrea (2007); Ethiopia (2004); Gambia (2015); Ghana (1994, 2007); Guinea (1965, 2000); Guinea Bissau (2011); Kenya (2001, 2011); Mauritania (2005); Niger (2003); Nigeria (2015); Senegal (1999); South Africa (2000); Sudan (state of South Kordofan 2008, state of Gedaref 2009); Tanzania (1998); Togo (1998); Uganda (2010); Zambia (2005, 2011)”.[ix]

Even in countries that outlawed FGC twenty years ago, it remains common. This list of countries where the UN says FGC is practiced today hardly differs from the list of countries that have prohibited FGC:

“Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda and Zambia”.[x]

The lists differ only because some countries where FGC is practiced have not outlawed it, not because legal bans have eradicated it anywhere.

Neither has the Maputo Protocol had much impact on FGC. Thirty-six countries signed and ratified the Maputo Protocol. Fifteen signed but haven’t ratified it. Three neither signed nor ratified. Some states where FGC is practiced signed and ratified the Maputo Protocol and passed legislation prohibiting FGC – e.g., Kenya. Some states where FGC is practiced neither signed nor ratified the protocol but nevertheless passed legislation prohibiting FGC – e.g., Egypt. Some states where FGC is practiced signed and ratified the protocol but have not passed legislation prohibiting FGC – e.g., Liberia. Nominal commitment to the Maputo Protocol’s ban on FGC may but need not coincide with laws against FGC.

More importantly, laws prohibiting FGC seldom correlate with effective enforcement of the bans. Not only is it unclear whether African heads of state are sincerely committed to eradicating FGC, as the Maputo Protocol requires, but also, in many African countries the infrastructure necessary to maintain the rule of law throughout their respective geographical territories has never been established.[xi] As a result, local authorities – elders, clergy, and so forth – exert tremendous power over the conduct of community life. The combination of entrenched local authority and cultural inertia greatly diminishes the efficacy of laws against FGC.

I conclude this section by taking up two obstacles to contesting the prevalence of FGC in Africa. First, I examine a controversy that has arisen over whether FGC is hazardous to women’s health. Second, I point up to the taboo that surrounds the discussion of FGC in communities where it is the norm.

During the 1990’s anti-FGC rhetoric focused on harms to girls and women’s health – infections, fistulas, childbirth complications, and the like. Health issues remain a staple of opposition to FGC in the twenty-first century. However, debates have erupted over whether the negative health consequences are as bad as has been claimed and, if they are, over the tactical wisdom of emphasizing them.

In 1999, Carla Obermeyer published a groundbreaking study arguing that the severity and frequency of negative health outcomes caused by FGM are not supported by reliable evidence.[xii] In 2003, Gerry Mackie replied to Obermeyer’s skepticism by questioning her methodology and her standards of scientific proof, and Obermeyer published a rebuttal of Mackie’s critique.[xiii] I am not qualified to adjudicate this disagreement. However, I can comment on its relevance to anti-FGC activism in Africa.

Decisive evidence that FGC causes high morbidity and mortality rates would be essential to anti-FGC activism only if opponents were advocating a top-down government eradication campaign deploying punitive sanctions sufficient to deter parents and practitioners. Such a program would be paternalistic, and such paternalistic interference in people’s lives can only be justified to fend off imminent danger of severe harm. In the absence of solid evidence of severe harm, vigorous, intrusive legal suppression is unjustified.

As we have already seen, however, the legal bans on FGC that are on the books are toothless. So opponents of FGC need not worry that they are complicit in unwarranted paternalism. Moreover, as we shall see in section 2, successful anti-FGC initiatives take a bottom-up approach that rests on women’s personal experience of harm to their and their daughters’ health, not on statistical data. It is entirely appropriate for mothers to make decisions about whether to cut their daughters’ genitals based on their own experience of complications and for communities to make collective decisions to abandon FGC based on their shared knowledge of such harms.

However, a troubling trend has emerged that stems from the emphasis on health problems in anti-FGC programs. Convinced of these potential harms, many parents now arrange to have the procedure performed by trained medical professionals in sanitary, well-equipped medical facilities. Medicalization, as this workaround is called, makes FGC “safer” while leaving it as prevalent as ever. This is not to say that medicalized FGC is safe, let alone good for women’s health. But in response to the medicalization of FGC, activists are increasingly framing the problem as a women’s human rights issue. I’ll defend this move in section 3.


“Medicalization makes FGC “safer” while leaving it as prevalent as ever.”


Before I turn to a discussion of effective strategies in anti-FGC work, I need to bring out what might be called a pre-discursive problem confronting efforts to come to grips with FGC. Activists working in disparate regions of Africa call attention to the taboo surrounding discussion of FGC.[xiv] FGC is something to be done, never a proper subject of conversation. This socially mandatory silence is, then, the first hurdle that local activists must surmount before FGC can gain traction as an issue.

Puzzled Westerners can get a purchase on the uneasiness, embarrassment, and shame – in some quarters, outrage – associated with speaking publicly about FGC by imagining the feelings likely to be elicited if a woman were to bring up menstruation in the midst of a traditional holiday dinner with extended family present. Add to this ingrained reticence the distrust that often greets a newcomer to a tightly knit community – in this case, a practitioner working for an NGO or a state agency – and it becomes clear that initiating discussion of FGC can pose a formidable challenge.


II. Anti-FGC Initiatives in Africa

In this section, I present three anti-FGC initiatives that have proven successful – one in Kenya, one in Senegal, and one in Egypt. Although none has completely halted FGC in any host community, each program led to significant changes in attitudes toward FGC and substantial reductions in the rate of FGC. The programs differ from one another in details, but they resemble one another in certain noteworthy respects that I’ll analyze in section 3.


A. Kenya

In 1992-1993 Maendeleo Ya Wanawake Organization (MYWO), a grassroots Kenyan organization dedicated to improving women’s health and wellbeing, surveyed four rural Kenyan districts.[xv] Having learned that 90% of the women there had had their genitals cut, MYWO formed an alliance with the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH) to develop anti-FGC interventions.[xvi]

To overcome the taboo on speaking about FGC, MYWO and PATH identified local women who already believed that FGC was harmful, trained them in communication techniques, provided them with educational materials, and encouraged them to facilitate discussion about FGC among village women.[xvii] Soon community members from different religious groups, teachers, and healthcare workers volunteered to form a cadre of peer educators.[xviii] In due course, some men and boys in the community also became interested in the issue and were trained to serve as anti-FGC liaisons to other men and boys.[xix]

The ensuing community conversations made taken-for-granted values, norms, practices, and fears explicit.[xx] As well, group meetings disseminated accurate information about the causal connections between health problems the women brought up and FGC.[xxi] Two innovations ultimately proved vital to catalyzing cultural change – alternative rites of passage and public pledges.

In this community, FGC was part of an initiation ritual that prepared girls for womanhood and celebrated their advent into womanhood. Understandably, therefore, many participants in the community discussions who came to oppose FGC were nevertheless reluctant to discontinue the ritual. Instead they chose to create a parallel ritual that includes a period of seclusion during which mothers and other teachers impart information about sexuality, reproduction, and family life to daughters. Despite omitting the genital cutting, the ritual concludes with a community celebration of the girls’ coming of age.[xxii] The girls who undergo the alternative initiation process benefit both by learning accurate information about their bodies and by bonding as a cohort that the community will recognize and respect.

Through “circumcision with words,” as these alternative rites of passage are called, a valued cultural tradition is preserved, reconfigured to ensure that girls receive accurate information, and stripped of its attack on girls’ bodily integrity. Moreover, the new ritual summons the very values that previously underpinned genital cutting – sexual fidelity and satisfaction, fertility, and successful childbirth – to justify foregoing it.[xxiii] Thus, cultural values are repurposed, not repudiated.

A public pledge not to cut the genitals of daughters supplements the alternative ritual.[xxiv] As a result of education programs to assure boys and their parents that intact genitals do not prevent women from bearing children, some of them match the pledge of parents of daughters and promise not to require FGC as a condition of marriage. Together, the pair of pledges consolidates the commitment of the parents of daughters to dispense with genital cutting.[xxv] Because the pledges ensure the marriageability of uncut girls, they safeguard the prime feminine cultural values of marriage and motherhood, which are also the main source of women’s economic security in these communities.[xxvi] Initially, anti-FGC proponents do not aim to secure pledges from all parents in the community, but rather to establish a critical mass of community members – a group sufficiently large to protect the respectability of the nonconforming parents and their daughters. Building on this public proclamation, however, the first group of parents who took the pledge became ambassadors to other families recruiting them to pledge and reduce the future incidence of FGC.[xxvii]

In addition to sparing their daughters the ordeal of FGC, community women benefited from their involvement with the MYWO/PATH program. In the process of conceiving the alternative ritual, persuading their husbands to join them in signing the pledge, and implementing the new practice, they laid claim to their individual voices and their collective cultural authority. They became “custodians of the culture” – persons entitled to be cultural change agents as well as cultural adherents.[xxviii]


B. Senegal

Tostan, an NGO based in Senegal, did not originally set out to promote an anti-FGC agenda but rather to promote women’s empowerment and economic development. Here is how the organization characterizes its method:

“Tostan uncovers local knowledge, values and beliefs and uses a holistic educational approach that encourages program participants to reflect on their own experiences across a wide range of subjects. Working from what they already know and what they hope for their future, they can better define and solve community problems. In Tostan classes, villagers design, undertake, evaluate and sustain new actions that they believe will help them reach personal and community goals.

Tostan is careful to include those who already hold influence and power in the community and those who have traditionally been marginalized. In this way, women and men, adolescents and adults, religious and traditional leaders, people of different social and economic backgrounds and locally elected officials come together to find solutions that benefit everyone”.[xxix]

The heart of Tostan’s program is its informal, participatory educational system. The program has evolved over time. Although in its earliest iteration it enrolled only women, it now offers instruction to men in separate classes.[xxx] The current version of the curriculum consists of two phases. The first takes a year to complete, and it covers topics ranging from democracy, human rights, and problem solving to health, hygiene, and mental and physical development and wellbeing.[xxxi] The second phase focuses on economic empowerment, and it includes reading and writing in the local language and basic mathematics, along with management skills and skills needed to do feasibility and cost/benefit assessments.[xxxii] From beginning to end, facilitators encourage students to use their newly acquired knowledge and skills to take action aimed at improving the quality of their lives.

Although Tostan’s educational program now includes instruction about the dangers of FGC and invites participants to consider whether FGC is compatible with women’s human rights, it did not always do so, and the organization’s first experience with the issue of FGC is worth recounting.[xxxiii] In 1995, the village of Malicounda Bambara invited Tostan into the community. In response to their study of women’s health and human rights, the women students in the program requested a session devoted to FGC. So the Tostan facilitator assigned the women the project of adapting a story about a girl who dies as a result of being cut as a play that they would perform. Although at first uneasy about discussing this taboo topic, the women completed the assignment, and this small undertaking had far-reaching effects.

After completing their educational program, the women took it upon themselves to continue their discussions of FGC, to work out their arguments against it, and to present their arguments to the village council. The upshot is now called the Malicounda Oath (or Pledge). On July 31, 1997 in the presence of invited journalists and government officials and with the assent of the village council, the people of Malicounda collectively vowed to abandon the practice of cutting their daughters’ genitals. Subsequently the rate of FGC in the village plummeted, and the movement to abandon FGC spread to nearby villages.[xxxiv]

Inspiring as this FGC story is, it’s not a stand-alone story. Tostan’s combined gender equity and economic advancement mission undergirds its anti-FGC success. Nafissatou Diop and Ian Askew point to Tostan’s strengthening of women’s status in civil society.[xxxv] Leslye Obiora argues that Tostan’s success in reducing FGC hinges on embedding FGC abandonment in a larger social justice agenda.[xxxvi] Tostan’s educational program takes a comprehensive view of empowerment that conjoins claiming civil and political human rights to claiming social, cultural, and economic human rights. Thus it equips participants to press for cultural change while also taking steps to better their material conditions.


C. Egypt

The Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services (CEOSS) is a grassroots Christian NGO that is active in Egyptian cities and rural villages. Like Tostan, its primary focus is economic development through active community participation. Included in its program are literacy education, instruction in healthful practices, and training in better agricultural techniques. Like Tostan, as well, CEOSS is committed to gender equity and enters communities only at their invitation.

Deir El Barsha, a Christian village in rural Egypt, was one of the first communities to solicit the services of CEOSS. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, CEOSS worked with villagers on development projects, and women played an active part in conceiving and ultimately managing those endeavors. Although the committees that govern rural Egyptian villages typically exclude women, CEOSS establishes independent women’s committees in the villages where it works. In Deir El Barsha, the women’s committee is composed of twelve married women who represent the village’s various Coptic denominations. CEOSS selected married women for the committee because compared to single women they enjoy greater freedom of movement and greater freedom to speak about sexuality and reproduction.[xxxvii]

The fact that most of Deir El Barsha’s men found it necessary to migrate to Egyptian cities or to wealthy Arab countries for work created additional opportunities for the village’s women to gain practical experience and confidence in their judgment. Left at home, the women took responsibility for running their households and producing goods to be sold at markets. Moreover, their husbands sent them remittances, which many of the women used to buy land and build well-equipped homes. When they returned to Deir El Barsha, many of the men discovered that they and their families were far better off than when they left. Undeniable as their wives’ accomplishments were, the husbands’ trust in their competence grew apace.[xxxviii]

During the same period, the women’s committee in Deir El Barsha sponsored classes in literacy, family planning, and household economy. They also held discussions of traditional practices that they deemed harmful to women and contrary to women’s human rights. Starting in the 1990s, the members of the committee took aim at FGC. In addition to organizing seminars and workshops, they divided the village into sectors, and each committee member made monthly household visits to follow up on health issues, including FGC, with the women and their families in her assigned sector.[xxxix]Soon, the women’s committee was able to parlay the skills and authority they had gained through their development and education work to make their case against FGC to the village committee.

In 1992, in response to the women’s committee’s advocacy against FGC, village leaders, the local clergy, and the village’s traditional practitioners banded together to sign a public document repudiating FGC. It read in part:

“All individuals present here asserted that whoever engages in this practice from this day onwards would be questioned before God, the village committee and state law”.[xl]

Henceforth, when a women’s committee member discovered during a home visit that a family intended to have a daughter’s genitals cut, she could call upon a village leader to help persuade the family not to follow through. In the same spirit, the local clergy set an example by publicly announcing that they would not subject their daughters to FGC.[xli] Their participation in the anti-FGC proclamation together with their personal vows to refrain from the practice divested FGC of its aura of religious sanctity and encouraged other villagers to follow their lead.

Although some Deir El Barsha families persisted in cutting their daughters’ genitals, the rate of FGC markedly decreased. Amal Hadi’s analysis of the data she collected in the village provides grounds for hope that FGC might eventually disappear there.[xlii] She finds a positive correlation between participation in CEOSS-sponsored development projects and abstention from FGC, which suggests that experience taking part in planning and executing community betterment projects translates into expanded autonomy, including greater freedom to abandon FGC. Done right, economic development fuels cultural transformation that benefits women and girls. Also heartening, she finds a positive correlation between younger generations of women and men and rejection of FGC, which suggests that the anti-FGC message is getting through to those members of the community who will chart its future trajectory.


III. Philosophical Analysis of Successful Strategies

 The anti-FGC programs I’ve described rest on several philosophical assumptions that I’ll now explore and defend. The most important are the plasticity of culture, the competencies undergirding autonomous agency, the adaptability of the human rights framework to diverse social contexts, and the indivisibility of human rights. I’ll take them in turn.

Two unfortunate phenomena make it necessary to point out that no flourishing culture is static.[xliii] First, some Westerners exoticize the very idea of culture and think of it as a feature of distant, alien societies that are locked into ancient traditions. Second, some defenders of cultural norms that other community members are questioning argue that change is tantamount to cultural betrayal and destruction. Both positions are mistaken. Like all societies, Western societies have cultures. To thrive, moreover, all cultures need to evolve.

All three of the anti-FGC initiatives presented in section 2 assume that cultural transformation is compatible with cultural perpetuation. FGC need not persist for the cultures that have prescribed it in the past to continue to guide social relations and sustain community cohesion going forward, for cultures are plastic.


“Cultural transformation is compatible with cultural perpetuation”


Moira Gatens’ account of the role of systems of social meaning in cultural change helps explain the ability of cultures to maintain their integrity despite major alterations of their gender norms. Gatens calls the meaning systems constitutive of cultures “social imaginaries.” They consist of “images, symbols, metaphors and narratives that help structure forms of embodied identity and belonging, social meaning and value, and which, because they appeal to the imaginative faculty, attract strong affective commitment.”[xliv] Within any culture there are multiple social imaginaries pertaining to different dimensions of human life, such as religion, politics, morality, commerce, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and so forth.[xlv] Conflicts within or between these social imaginaries provide openings for social critique and cultural reform.[xlvi]

Studies of anti-FGC efforts in Sudan illustrate how Gatens’ theory works in practice. No doubt, Sudanese opponents of FGC simply intended to enlist influential support by inviting Muslim clergy and scholars to their educational sessions. However, when some of these leaders agreed that FGC should be abandoned, their view precipitated a conflict between worshippers’ religious imaginary and their gender/sexuality imaginary. Because a hadith is commonly cited as Islamic authority for FGC, the practice is lodged in the religious imaginary. Nevertheless, wherever FGC is the norm, it is also a salient element of the gender/sexuality imaginary. Thus, undermining FGC’s position in the religious imaginary triggers a confrontation with the gender/sexuality imaginary.

Some Sudanese religious leaders adopted strong anti-FGC positions. Daw El beit El-Bashir, the Imam of the mosque in Kosti, concluded that FGC clashes with Islam, for Islam holds that “no harm should be exerted on an individual from a presumably Islamic practice.”[xlvii] He not only proclaimed this message in the mosque, he also refused to permit his daughter’s genitals to be cut. Likewise, Sheik Sideeq Abdul Hay, President of the Religious Education Council, maintains that “God has created every organ for a specific purpose and mutilating any organ is defying the sacredness of God’s creation.”[xlviii] Both of these men resolved ostensible tensions within Islam on the side of opposition to FGC. The views they broadcast to the faithful compelled their followers to wrestle with incompatible commitments. On the one hand, FGC is integral to their gender/sexuality imaginary, but on the other hand, their religious authorities are propounding a sanctity-of-the-created-body religious imaginary.

Testimony from Ellen Gruenbaum’s most recent study in Sudan might be interpreted as evidence for the diffusion of Islamic, anti-FGC sentiment into both imaginaries. Several laypeople she interviewed assert that “both the husband and the wife have ‘a right’ to sexual satisfaction in Islam.”[xlix] Perhaps this newfound right is a popular elaboration of the clerics’ principled repudiation of FGC – a win/win reconfiguration of the gender/sexuality imaginary and the religious imaginary. By incorporating intact female genitals into both systems of meaning, this novel doctrine eliminates the cognitive and affective dissonance that the inconsistency between them provoked.

Gatens provides a convincing explanation of how it is possible for a culture to survive while accommodating as radical a change as discontinuing FGC. However, apart from commenting that human desires spark change, she has nothing to say about the engine of cultural change.[l] Yet, feminists have long argued that desires often comply with an oppressive status quo, and that renegade desires are not necessarily salutary. So it matters which desires are driving cultural change (or maintaining longstanding cultural traditions). Tostan signals its sensitivity to this concern by using the term abandonment rather than abolition or eradication to refer to the goal of decreasing the rate of FGC. Whereas the latter two terms call to mind forcing an end to the practice, for example, by wielding the coercive power of the state, abandonment connotes an individual or collective choice to discontinue the practice for self-affirmed reasons.

Tostan’s FGC vocabulary of abandonment comports with its commitment to promoting economic development by strengthening community members’ agentic skills. In fact, cultivating decision-making skills and boosting women’s confidence in their own competence as choosers and actors are central to all of the successful anti-FGC strategies I’ve discussed. In philosophical terms, what these programs are doing is promoting personal autonomy. By training participants in the use of introspective, imaginative, memory, analytical, reasoning, communication, self-nurturing, and executive skills, these programs endow them with capacities for self-discovery, self-definition, and self-direction.[li] Thus, Tostan invites students to reflect on and prioritize their own needs desires, and values, to assemble relevant information and analyze their options, and to carry out plans that will accomplish the goals they’ve identified.

As we have seen, in the village of Malicounda Bambara, the women in Tostan’s program did not confine their agentic powers to establishing needed facilities and devising income-generating activities.[lii] They discussed their personal experiences with FGC. They questioned the need to incur the risks associated with FGC. They inserted their concerns about FGC into the human rights framework they had studied. And they successfully argued their case against FGC to the village council. In other words, they rallied the agentic skills they had learned for purposes of economic development to probe a seemingly unassailable cultural conception of gender. They applied their skills to discovering why this conception of gender dissatisfied them, to redefining womanhood according to their own values, and to taking action so as to realize those values in practice. Thus, they autonomously opted to abandon FGC. Moreover, by originating the Malicounda Oath, they jumpstarted cultural change as autonomous agents.[liii]


“They rallied the agentic skills they had learned for purposes of economic development to probe a seemingly unassailable cultural conception of gender”.


Ownership and buy-in are buzzwords in transnational development work, but it’s often unclear what they mean. Sometimes they function as camouflage for externally, although perhaps inadvertently, imposed values and goals.[liv] But in their nonimperialistic usage, they refer to autonomous participation in conceiving and implementing development projects. Autonomous engagement is clearly superior to forced or manufactured “cooperation.” Not only does ensuring autonomy respect the people who are supposed to benefit from economic development, but also it is conducive to weeding out unsustainable projects or ones with other downsides that outsiders are likely to miss. Moreover, this approach has beneficial spillover effects, for the agentic skills it cultivates are transferrable to other spheres of social life and facilitate cultural transformation without threatening cultural survival.

As critical as autonomy skill enhancement and reproductive health education are to successful FGC-abandonment programs, African opponents of FGC find that women’s human rights awareness is also indispensable. In Kenya, MYWO and PATH connect the health problems caused by FGC to the human right to health and to the rights of the girl child.[lv] In Senegal, Tostan highlights FGC’s incompatibility with women’s right to bodily integrity as well as their right to health.[lvi] In Egypt, CEOSS argues that FGC violates women’s rights to health and wellbeing.[lvii] The human rights component of these programs is essential in order to foreclose medicalization as a remedy for FGC-related health complications.


“The human rights component of these programs is essential”.


Yet, human rights discourse has its detractors. The objection that the human rights regime is a Global North neocolonial ideology imposed on the Global South has lost much of its potency. As Serene Khader puts it, “[W]e have a level of cross-cultural agreement on the normative concept of the human being: it is the human rights regime.”[lviii] Or in Sally Merry’s words, “The present system was born in radical French revolutionary thought at the end of the eighteenth century, but by the end of the twentieth, the new human rights system had become the preeminent global language of social justice.”[lix] I don’t deny that cultural traditionalists can and sometimes do allege that local advocates of women’s human rights are dupes of Western interlopers. However, to judge by the anti-FGC programs I’ve discussed, such charges no longer have the bite they once had.

Theresa Tobin raises a more troubling objection to human rights discourse: “One danger … is that these rights’ standards becomes [sic] fixed or static moral starting points for a kind of top-down approach to moral reasoning in the global arena.”[lx] With regard to FGC, she adds, this framing of the issue presumes that the immorality of the practice is beyond question and preempts historical and cultural analysis of gender relations and the functions of FGC in particular communities.[lxi] Although she acknowledges that human rights discourse allows cultural particularities to be taken into consideration “at the level of implementation,” and she ultimately concedes that human rights are important “tools for moral assessment and political activism,” she saddles women’s human rights with a simplistic view of patriarchy and condemns human rights discourse for this association.[lxii]

In the introduction to this essay, I acknowledged that some Western feminist proponents of women’s human rights have employed an absolutist, paternalistic moral rhetoric to criticize FGC. However, it is equally important to acknowledge that a number of leading feminist human rights advocates conceptualize and deploy these rights in an entirely different way. Brooke Ackerly offers the most fully developed, feminist, bottom-up theory of human rights that I’m familiar with.

Ackerly constructs a democratic, egalitarian method for theorizing human rights. In her view, a persuasive account of human rights must be derived from the insights and concerns of activists working worldwide to advance the interests of women. Thus Ackerly observes discussions at international feminist conferences and on feminist networking websites, and she also conducts open-ended interviews with participants about their work and their values.[lxiii]

In her data collection and in her analysis of the data, Ackerly relies on “feminist curb cutting” epistemology. Her metaphor refers to the unanticipated benefits to be gained by seeking out the voices of marginalized people and responding appropriately to their concerns. In particular, listening to the voices of persons with disabilities prompted cities and towns to cut ramps into curbs at corners in order to facilitate the mobility of people using wheelchairs, but these ramps have benefited all sorts of other people, such as people pushing strollers or carrying cumbersome loads.[lxiv]So feminist curb cutting epistemology is an epistemology of moral and political inclusiveness, both with respect to whose voices are heard and with respect to practical arrangements and policies that do not harm, and preferably that benefit, many disparately situated people.

As an advocate of feminist curb cutting, Ackerly is alert for signs of marginalization and attuned to the effects of power relations on communicative exchanges. Because her method commits her to attending to individuals who are often silenced, her method is dialogical both at the stage of data collection and at the stage of theorizing the implications of the data.[lxv] Thus she defends what she calls an “immanent universal theory of human rights” – an inferred inventory of the norms that guide the work of diverse feminist activists and that are universal in their applicability.[lxvi]

Now, my purpose in sketching Ackerly’s view is not to endorse, never mind defend it – that would be far beyond the scope of this essay. Rather, my purpose is to demonstrate that Tobin’s critique does not undercut all accounts of human rights and should not be seen as a reason to extricate anti-FGC activism from pro-human rights activism.[lxvii]

Starting, as she does, from the Beijing Platform (1995) and its denunciation of FGC, Tobin seems to forget that the very idea that violence against women in the so-called private sphere is a violation of women’s human rights was itself a hard-won insight. It took the cries of abused women and their courageous willingness to tell their stories, the grassroots activism of women who had experienced abuse together with women concerned about their plight, and the theoretical work of scholars to advance the claim that violence against women that is not committed by the state or agents of the state is nevertheless a type of human rights abuse.

This multi-sited political process eventuated in the 1993 Global Tribunal on Violations of Women’s Human Rights in Vienna, which was convened concurrent with the UN World Conference of Human Rights.[lxviii] Participants from all over the world gathered to testify to the abuse they had suffered as women. This was not a moment in which privileged feminists enlightened other women about the immorality of the harms to which they had been subjected. This was a moment in which diverse women shared and decried their horrific experiences. Thanks to the sympathies of a few delegates to the official conference, these voices received a hearing, and in due course these women’s grievances were incorporated into the corpus of codified human rights. The participatory methods of MYWO/PATH, Tostan, and CEOSS replicate this experience-based moral epistemology at the micro-level of the village.

Some of the human rights that successful anti-FGC programs appeal to are rights that FGC directly violates, but these programs also invoke ancillary rights, such as the right to education, the right to work, the right to a decent standard of living, and the right to participate in culture, that help prevent abrogation of women’s human rights to bodily integrity and health. In other words, these programs take advantage of some supporting relations that obtain among human rights.

Their practice reflects the doctrine of the indivisibility of human rights, which is enunciated in many human rights instruments.[lxix] Indivisibility is the idea that no category of human rights can be fully realized unless every other category is fully realized too – e.g., civil and political rights, on the one hand, and social, cultural, and economic rights, on the other.[lxx] Some advocates of women’s human rights who also oppose FGC explicitly assert the indivisibility of human rights.[lxxi]What they are claiming is that the freedom to abandon FGC and the realization of women’s rights to bodily integrity and health with respect to FGC depend on the implementation of other rights, especially social, cultural, and economic rights.


“The freedom to abandon FGC and the realization of women’s rights to bodily integrity and health depend on the implementation of other rights”. 


Kawango Agot supplies a case that corroborates this claim.[lxxii] One strategy for reducing the incidence of FGC involves promoting the education of girls in order to promote their economic self-sufficiency. Such programs are based on the conjecture that educated girls who can earn their own living will not need to sacrifice their genitals in order to get married and achieve economic security through a husband. However, in Tanzania in the late 1980s, as families’ ability to pay school fees eroded and employment opportunities for educated young people shrunk, girl students returned to their communities and had their genitals cut in order to increase their marriageability. As implementation of the right to education and the right to work weakened, the girls waived their rights to health and bodily integrity with respect to FGC. Their decisions are a subgenre of subsistence exchange contracts – agreements in which one or more rights are traded away in order to avoid subsistence deficits.[lxxiii]

All of the anti-FGC programs I discussed in section 2 couple women’s economic security and civic participation with FGC abandonment. I cannot undertake an examination of the general thesis that full realization of women’s economic rights and social participation rights is logically or practically necessary to fully realizing women’s rights to health and bodily integrity. However, the evidence of these programs suggests that the former rights lend substantial, possibly necessary, support to the latter rights.

Explanations of the dependence of FGC abandonment on women’s economic and cultural rights readily come to mind. In Tostan’s and CEOSS’s programs, the skills women acquire in the relatively uncontroversial arena of economic development – who objects to better health services, more reliable crops, or increased income? – may be redirected to raising potentially incendiary issues, such as FGC abandonment. Furthermore, supposing that economic development targeting women brings greater wellbeing and prosperity to them, the sense of security associated with material good fortune may in turn embolden women to question other unsatisfactory aspects of their lives and to speak up about their grievances. The synergy between competence and motivation leads to cultural change.

In contrast, MYWO’s FGC abandonment program emphasizes cultural and social rights, especially the right to participate in culture and the right to health, and it downplays women’s economic rights. Whereas Tostan and COESS address women’s rights to a decent standard of living and to be free from hunger by asserting women’s right to work and thus to undertake development projects, MYWO assumes that women’s rights to a decent standard of living and to be free from hunger are guaranteed by marriage. Instead of trusting economic empowerment to translate into social empowerment, MYWO tackles social empowerment directly. It seems, then, that securing women’s rights to health and bodily integrity does require the support of other human rights, as weaker versions of the indivisibility doctrine hold. However, it also seems that no other specific human right is necessary to achieve that goal.


IV. Conclusion

Returning to the epigrams that precede this essay, I conclude that the Maputo Protocol is unobjectionable chiefly because its provision for punitive anti-FGC sanctions has not been implemented. It is to be hoped that this heedlessness will continue and that cultural change will continue to take place autonomously. The protocol could make a positive contribution, however, were the States Parties to deliver the health services that it promises to women who have undergone FGC. It is to be hoped that these benefits will be provided going forward, but also that the need for FGC-related medical attention will gradually diminish as fewer and fewer girls and women are cut. Meanwhile, because governments have by and large left education regarding FGC, as well as FGC abandonment initiatives to NGOs, and because influential NGOs are committed to women’s autonomous engagement with their cultures and to the ideals of gender equity and human dignity encoded in human rights, they have forged slow, patchy, but lasting declines of FGC. These organizations are the vehicles of Maathai’s and Sirleaf’s calls for respect for African cultures, as well as for women to speak up for needed change. Continued support for these NGOs’ work is the path to democratic FGC abandonment and the realization of women’s human rights in Africa.

Footnotes & References

[i] New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (1992).

[ii] Martha C. Nussbaum. Sex and Social Justice. New York: Oxford University Press (1999): 118-129.

[iii] Obioma Nnaemeka. “African Women, Colonial Discourses, and Imperialist Interventions: Female Circumcision as Impetus.” In Female Circumcision and the Politics of Knowledge: African Women in Imperialist Discourses. Ed. Obioma Nnaemeka. New York: Praeger (2005): 27-45 at 30.

[iv] WHO “Classification of Female Genital Mutilation.” 1997, (accessed 6/25/2016); Ellen Gruenbaum. The Female Circumcision Controversy: An Anthropological Perspective. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (2001) 2-3; Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf. “Introduction: The Custom in Question.” In Female Circumcision. Ed. Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (2006): 1-24 at 4; Hamid El Bashir. “The Sudanese National Committee on the Eradication of Harmful Traditional Practices and the Campaign Against Female Genital Mutilation.” In Female Circumcision. Ed. Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (2006): 142-170 at 145.

[v] Asha Mohamud, Samson Radiny, and Karin Ringheim. “Community-Based Efforts to End Female Genital Mutilation in Kenya: Raising Awareness and Organizing Alternative Rites of Passage.” In Female Circumcision. Ed. Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (2006): 75-103 at 77; Fuambai S. Ahmadu and Richard A. Shweder. “Disputing the Myth of the Sexual Dysfunction of Circumcised Women: An Interview with Fuambai S. Ahmadu by Richard A. Shweder.” Anthropology Today 25 (6) 2009: 14-17 at 14; Amal Abdel Haji. “A Community of Women Empowered.” In Female Circumcision. Ed. Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (2006): 104-124 at 107; Nafissatou J. Diop and Ian Askew. “Strategies for Encouraging the Abandonment of Female Genital Cutting: Experiences from Senegal, Burkina Faso, and Mali. In Female Circumcision. Ed. Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (2006): 125-141 at 126.

[vi] Gunning 1991-1992, 216n117; Ellen Gruenbaum. “Sexuality Issues in the Movement to Abolish Female Genital Cutting in Sudan.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 20 (1) 2006: 121-138 at 129.

[vii] Hadi, 107.

[viii] Hadi 108.

[ix] (accessed 6/1/16)

[x] (accessed 6/1/16)

[xi] Abusharaf, 14-15; for discussion of the problematics of holding African governments to their commitments, see Rose Gawaya and Rosemary Semafumu Mukasa. “The African Women’s Protocol: A New Dimension for Women’s Rights in Africa.” Gender and Development 13 (3) 2005: 42-50.

[xii] Carla Makhlouf Obermeyer. “Female Genital Surgeries: The Known, the Unknown, and the Unknowable.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 13 (1) 1999: 79-106. In addition to querying the negative health consequences of FGC, Obermeyer questions the empirical support for claims that FGC interferes with women’s sexual pleasure. Although some groups that practice FGC believe that FGC enhances women’s sexual desire and pleasure, to the best of my knowledge, women’s sexual satisfaction has not been a prominent theme in anti-FGC programs. However, a debate has erupted in Western intellectual circles over this matter (Fuambai S. Ahmadu and Richard A. Shweder, 15-16).

[xiii] Gerry Mackie. “Female Genital Cutting: A Harmless Practice?” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 17 (2) 2003: 135-158; Carla Makhlouf Obermeyer. “The Health Consequences Of Female Circumcision: Science, Advocacy, and Standards of Evidence.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 17 (3) 2003: 394-411.

[xiv] Monica Arac de Nyeko. “Ugandan Monologues.” Agenda: Empowering Women for Gender Equity No. 63, African Feminisms 2 (2) 2005: 100-103 at 100; Mohamud, Radiny and Ringheim 2006, 79; Shahira Ahmed. “The Babiker Scientific Association for Women’s Studies and the Eradication of Female Circumcision in the Sudan.” In Female Circumcision. Ed. Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (2006): 75-103 at 170.

[xv] Mohamud, Radiny, and Ringheim, 75-76.

[xvi] Mohamud, Radiny, and Ringheim, 76.

[xvii] Mohamud, Radiny, and Ringheim, 79.

[xviii] Mohamud, Radiny, and Ringheim, 83.

[xix] Mohamud, Radiny, and Ringheim, 80.

[xx] Mohamud, Radiny, and Ringheim, 82.

[xxi] Mohamud, Radiny, and Ringheim, 81.

[xxii] Mohamud, Radiny, and Ringheim, 87-90.

[xxiii] Mohamud, Radiny, and Ringheim, 99.

[xxiv] Mohamud, Radiny, and Ringheim, 89.

[xxv] Mohamud, Radiny, and Ringheim, 95, 98.

[xxvi] In a related vein, Claire Robertson examines the history of the rise of women’s political activism and the founding of self-help economic cooperatives in relation to the decrease of FGC in a different Kenyan ethnic group (“Grassroots in Kenya: Women, Genital Mutilation, and Collective Action, 1920-1990.” Signs 21 (3): 615-642.

[xxvii] Mohamud, Radiny, and Ringheim, 91.

[xxviii] Mohamud, Radiny, and Ringheim, 90.

[xxix] “Tostan: Community-Led Development” 2009, 4.

[xxx] Diop and Askew, 132.

[xxxi] Tostan, 9-10.

[xxxii] Tostan, 11.

[xxxiii] I rely mainly on Leslye Amede Obiora’s treatment of Tostan’s experience in Malicounda Bambara below (“A Refuge from Tradition and the Refuge of Tradition.” In Transcultural Bodies: Female Genital Cutting in Global Context. Ed. Ylva K. Hernlund and Bettina K. Shell-Duncan. New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers University Press (2007): 67-90 at 76.

[xxxiv] Obiora, 76; Diop and Askew, 133. But note that Diop and Askew issue a caveat. There is evidence that girls whose genitals are being cut are undergoing the cutting at earlier ages – that is, before they are in a position to resist the practice (136).

[xxxv] Diop and Askew, 136.

[xxxvi] Obiora, 79, 81.

[xxxvii] Hadi, 113-114.

[xxxviii] Hadi, 119-121.

[xxxix] Hadi, 114.

[xl] Hadi, 104.

[xli] Hadi, 121.

[xlii] Hadi, 117.

[xliii] For valuable discussion of cultural change, see Abdullah A. An-Na’im and Jeffrey Hammond, “Cultural Transformation and Human Rights in African Societies.” In Cultural Transformation and Human Rights in Africa. Ed. Abdullah A. An-Na’im and Jeffrey Hammond. London: Zed (2002): 13-37 and Sally Engle Merry, “Changing Rights, Changing Culture.” In Culture and Rights: Anthropological Perspectives. Ed. Jane K. Cowan, Marie-Bénédicte Dembour, and Richard Wilson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2001): 31-55.

[xliv] Moira Gatens. “Can Human Rights Accommodate Women’s Rights? Towards an Embodied Account of Social Norms, Social Meaning, and Cultural Change.”Contemporary Political Theory 3 (2004): 275–299 at 283; see also Merry, 41-42.

[xlv] Gatens, 282.

[xlvi] Gatens, 287.

[xlvii] El Bashir, 156-157.

[xlviii] Ahmed, 183.

[xlix] Gruenbaum 2006, 134

[l] Gatens, 287.

[li] For a full account of this view of autonomy, see my Gender in the Mirror. New York: Oxford University Press (2002): 20.

[lii] Diana Tietjens Meyers. “Feminism and Women’s Autonomy: The Challenge of Female Genital Cutting.” Metaphilosophy 31 (5) 2000: 467-491 at 480-483; see also Obiora, 82.

[liii] It might be thought that public FGC abandonment pledges foist an FGC-abstention morality on pro-FGC community dissenters. However, the purpose of the pledges is to open social and moral space that permits those who reject FGC to decline to cut their daughters without wrecking their chances of marriage. The pledges protect FGC nonconformists and their children. As the persistence of FGC in communities where pledges have been instituted shows, the pledges do not coerce compliance with an anti-FGC ethic.

[liv] Serene Khader. “Beyond Inadvertent Ventriloquism: Caring Virtues for Non-paternalistic Development Practice.” Hypatia 26 (4) 2011: 742-761.

[lv] Mohamud, Radeny, and Ringheim, 82, 97.

[lvi] Diop and Askew, 128; Obiora, 76.

[lvii] Hadi, 105.

[lviii] Serene Khader. Adaptive Preferences and Women’s Empowerment. New York: Oxford University Press (2011) 62.

[lix] Merry, 38.

[lx] Theresa W. Tobin. “Using Rights to Counter ‘Gender-Specific’ Wrongs.” Human Rights Review 10 (2009): 521–530 at 524. For an examination of some of the complexities attendant on invoking human rights to reduce FGC rates, also see Bettina Shell-Duncan. “From Health to Human Rights: Female Genital Cutting and the Politics of Intervention.” American Anthropologist 110 (2) 2008: 225-236.

[lxi] Tobin, 524.

[lxii] Tobin, 523, 525, 528.

[lxiii] Brooke A. Ackerly. Universal Human Rights in a World of Difference. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2008): 144.

[lxiv] Ackerly, 134.

[lxv] Ackerly, 144-148, 157.

[lxvi] Ackerly, 22, 197-231.

[lxvii] Other important feminist work on human rights that I think eludes Tobin’s critique includes Khader, Adaptive Preferences; Gatens; and Alison Jaggar. “Challenging Women’s Global Inequalities: Some Priorities for Western Philosophers.” Philosophical Topics 30(2) 2002: 229-253. In fact, Tobin cites Gatens with approval at the end of her article, so it’s somewhat puzzling that she presents such a negative view of feminist human rights theory in the body of her paper (2009, 529). I believe that my work on the role of victims’ stories in the advancement of human rights also eludes her critique (Victims’ Stories and the Advancement of Human Rights. New York: Oxford University Press (2016).

[lxviii] Charlotte Bunch and Niamh Reilly. Demanding Accountability: The Global Campaign and Vienna Tribunal for Women’s Human Rights. New Brunswick NJ: Center for Women’s Global Leadership (1994); Niamh Reilly. Testimonies of the Global Tribunal on Violations of Women’s Human Rights. New Brunswick NJ: Center for Women’s Global Leadership (1994).

[lxix] The Beijing Platform for Action is one such document. Article 213 states, “The Platform for Action reaffirms that all human rights – civil, cultural, economic, political and social, including the right to development – are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated.” (accessed 6/24/2016).

[lxx] James W. Nickel. “Rethinking Indivisibility: Towards a Theory of Supporting Relations between Human Rights.” Human Rights Quarterly 30 (4) 2008: 984-1001 at 984.

[lxxi] For example, Obiora, 78. For a thoughtful exploration of the claim that human rights are interdependent and indivisible, and for arguments that strong interdependence and indivisibility don’t obtain in nation states early in the process of implementing human rights, see Nickel.

[lxxii] Kawango E. Agot. “Women, Culture, and HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa: What Does the ‘Empowerment’ Discourse Leave Out?” In Global Empowerment of Women: Responses to Globalization and Politicized Religions. Ed. Carolyn M. Elliott. New York: Routledge (2007): 287-303 at 290.

[lxxiii] For discussion of subsistence exchange contracts, see Elizabeth Ashford. “Responsibility for Violations of the Human Right to Subsistence.” In Poverty, Agency, and Human Rights. Ed. Diana Tietjens Meyers. New York: Oxford University Press (2014): 95-118 at 111-112.

Diana Tietjens Meyers
Diana Tietjens Meyers
Diana Tietjens Meyers is Professor Emerita of Philosophy at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. She has held the Laurie Chair in Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University and the Ignacio Ellacuría Chair of Social Ethics at Loyola University, Chicago. She currently works in four main areas of philosophy – philosophy of action, feminist ethics, aesthetics, and human rights. Her most recent monograph is Victims’ Stories and the Advancement of Human Rights (Oxford University Press, 2016). Her most recent edited collection is Poverty, Agency, and Human Rights (Oxford University Press, 2014). Her website is
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