A 14-year-old girl in Burkina Faso who has decided not to undergo female genital cutting, pictured with her parents in 2014. (Jessica Lea/U.K. Department for International Development).

When it comes to female genital cutting, headlines provoke and call out for concern. One headline called it the “curse of blades and powders,” while another warned that school holidays were a “cutting season.”

This month a team of Kenyan teenagers have received a lot of media attention for creating a mobile phone app, i-Cut, geared toward affected girls that helps them get medical and legal assistance. The team is celebrated because it proposes using technology to solve what is seen as an archaic injustice.

Given the way female genital cutting is talked about in the West, the title of this post is controversial. Human rights groups and advocates refer to female genital cutting as female genital mutilation, because doing so “identifies the practice as a human rights violation because of the violence associated with the procedure and because it is mostly carried out on young girls.”

In this week’s installment of the African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular, we draw insights about female genital cutting from Bennington College anthropologist Miroslava Prazak’s latest book, “Making the Mark: Gender, Identity, and Genital Cutting.”

“Making the Mark” provides a richly detailed grass-roots perspective of the procedure (and of male circumcision) among the Kuria people in southern Kenya. Through this perspective, Prazak’s book offers three important lessons that are often overlooked in the international debate over female genital cutting:

  1. While circumcision is a tradition, its practice has transformed over time in response to changing circumstances. From Prazak’s book: “. . . this set of rituals is not unchanging and does not follow a primordial mold, even though people connect the acts of today with the practices of their ancestors. Instead, the rituals are a part of people’s lives and are always responsive to the exigencies of everyday life and the various influences on the practice.” In Chapter 4 of her book, Prazak shows how national campaigns against female genital mutilation have spurred dialogue among girls about to undergo genital cutting and how HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns have made alternative forms — particularly medicalized female genital cutting — more acceptable.
  2. In some cases, girls decide whether to undergo female genital cutting, but their decisions are made according to a broader context of family desires and community norms. There are two girls featured in Prazak’s book who demonstrate this: Leah Mokami and Janet Robi (names are pseudonyms). Twelve-year-old Leah had decided not to be cut, arguing with “her immediate family that she could become an adult without having her genitals cut.” But as initiation season approached, she faced pressure from her sisters and mother, and she changed her mind. Janet, on the other hand, was supported by her parents in her decision not to undergo genital cutting; her parents protected her from neighbors’ harassment and spoke with extended family to convince them to support Janet’s decision. Her experience suggests there is room for girls to have agency, but Leah’s experience demonstrates the constraints of that agency.
  3. The women and girls who are the intended beneficiaries of international advocacy campaigns are the ones who initially face significant costs in foregoing female genital cutting. As Prazak writes, “. . . women who abandon the practice often have a lot to lose: their position in the community is affected, they are less desired as marriage partners. . . . To them, it does not appear that ending female genital cutting will improve their rights and status in the community.”

While Prazak’s book examines female genital cutting only among one population in Kenya, it provides a model for understanding the grass-roots dynamics shaping the practice. “Making the Mark” points out how national bans and negative political rhetoric can have little immediate currency in local communities. On remarks made by then-Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi, Prazak wrote, “Despite the president’s assurance that he would back any girl not wishing to be operated on, the reality of daily life made that assurance an empty gesture.” Whatever one’s opinion, Prazak’s book demonstrates the value and importance of seeing the practice through the perspectives of girls, their families and leaders in their communities.