So my partner sent me a link this morning to this article about Uganda's recent decision to outlaw female genital cutting (FGC) in its borders. I'm simultaneously overjoyed and concerned. Primarily, I'm overjoyed. Having formal recognition from the political leader in a country with citizens that still practice FGC that the practice is dangerous, damaging, and pointless is a huge leap forward.
My concern has to do with the connection between law and practice. The legality or illegality of a practice doesn't change whether or not the practice is performed; it just changes the circumstances of that performance. I'm concerned that making FGC illegal will mean that families will continue to practice it, but in increasingly unsanitary and unsafe conditions. I wonder if a viable option would be an exemption for medical doctors, who could (in theory) perform FGC in conditions that minimize the risk of trauma, infection, and mistakes. Of course, that possibility also raises questions about the consent of the girls who get the procedure done, and the affordability and geographic accessibility of the procedure.
When I mentioned this to Emily, she responded that it reminds her of the abortion debates in the United States, to the extent that the law can make an unsafe procedure safer when it legalizes it under certain circumstances. Without legal codification of abortion rights, she pointed out, women seeking illegal abortions would be putting themselves at high risk for all kinds of infections, complications, and of course, death.
Obviously, the two issues are quite different in a lot of ways; the abortion example is a way of illustrating the ways in which law can protect women during procedures that are likely to continue to occur regardless of their legality. It'll be interesting to see how Uganda's law impacts the procedure over the next few years, and to see how the grassroots organizations that respond to FGC as it is (and here I'm thinking of the organizations that promote alternative rituals to FGC, since FGC has a history of being a significant ritual in the attainment of maturity of girls and young women) adapt their work (or expand it!) under the new policy.