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In the face of the practice of Female Genital Mutilation, do human rights truly exist all around the world, or are they simply a Western product? This article will examine the history of human rights, and then will focus on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), a practice that continues to occur around the world, in the context of the conflicting doctrines of cultural relativism and universality. The paper will then question the true nature of human rights in the light of such violations: do they exist all around the world, or are they simply a Western product?
History of natural rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)Human rights are the prerogatives one possesses simply because they have the virtue of being human. Locke (1. 82. 1) argues that people have rights (such as the right to life, liberty, and property) whose foundation is independent of the laws of any particular society (Locke, 1. The UDHR echoes such notions, but expands them. Indeed, women were often viewed as irreparably deficient, both morally and rationally, being thus incapable of exercising the full range of human rights (Danchin, 2. After World War Two, the human rights globalisation began.
The atrocities committed during the war ‘caused the world to cry out for justice’, prompting the need for a more universal system of accountability and responsibility (Bigambo, 2. Yet violations of human rights have continued to occur, as exhibited by the practice of FGM. Female Genital Mutilation FGM is defined as the partial or complete removal of the external female genitals for cultural rather than medical reasons (Better Health Channel, 2.
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The World Health Organisation has estimated that around 1. World Health Organisation, 2. Recently, international efforts have successfully classified it as a health hazard and as a form of violence against women. Whilst the origins of FGM are obscure, many suggest that the practice is linked to the need to control women’s reproduction and their sexuality (Peters and Wolper, 1.
FGM reflects deep- rooted inequality between the sexes, being an extreme form of discrimination against women. Moreover, the practice also violates one’s rights to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, as well as the right to life when the procedure results in death (World Health Organisation, 2. In December 2. 01. UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on the elimination of FGM (BBC News, 2.
But at national level, while publicly denounced, it has seldom been transformed into laws prohibiting its practice (BBC News, 2. Furthermore, even where laws have been enacted, prosecutions are rare. MPs have declared this to be "unforgivable" (BBC News, 2. Nevertheless, the first UK prosecutions have now been announced by the Crown Prosecution Service (BBC News, 2.
Perhaps it takes just one country to initiate remedies for others to follow. The French Government has been described as possessing a ‘hard- line stance’ on the issue (Davis, 2. In France, girls are checked by medical professionals up to the age of 6 and there have been a number of prosecutions (Davis, 2. Cultural Relativism. A view opposing the belief that FGM constitutes a human rights abuse is that of cultural relativity, a belief held by Western liberals and elite African women that advocate for a right to cultural self- determination (Dorkenoo, 2. Cultural relativism is defined as the doctrine that knowledge, truth, and morality exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context, and are not absolute (Oxford Dictionaries). Different societies have different conceptions of human beings, and thus a failure to recognise this would amount to the imposition of ‘an alien analytical framework that misrepresents the social and ethical foundations and functioning of a society’ (Donnelly, p.
Danial (2. 01. 3) highlights the important distinction between rejecting the practice of one’s own accord, compared to an outsider demanding its abolition. Abolition would imply inequality among cultures and would also result in the violation of Article 1. UDHR (the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion) and Article 2. Universality. Proponents of universalism assert that everyone is endowed with certain entitlements simply in virtue of being human, and that such rights should be universal to the extent of their nature (Bigambo, 2. Indeed, human rights are defined as the rights of all, ‘without distinction of any kind’ (Article 2, UDHR). There has been immense progression since Locke’s notions of the morally inept female.
Women’s rights are now embodied in a multitude of international instruments such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The negation or violation of any human right of a woman becomes a feminist issue that sparks global interest (Danial, 2.
While Western views cannot simply be imposed on other countries, patriarchal views are difficult to accept. Weak cultural relativism cannot be used to deny the existence of a right, but its implementation could be altered as to ensure that it does not offend the basic norms of a society (Howard- Hassmann, 1. Donnelly (2. 01. 3) argues that a failure to speak out against gross human rights violations on the grounds of cultural relativism equates to moral cowardice. Cultural relativists may argue that allowing FGM to continue is a matter of defending an ancient African practice, yet FGM occurs all around the world. International instruments are necessary as part of the universal fight against its perpetuation.
Furthermore, is the continuous occurrence of FGM a matter of disparate moral views, or more realistically is it simply due to a gap in knowledge? Indeed, after villagers in Burkina Faso were informed of the dangers of FGM, many were eager to have restorative operations. But devastatingly, those who did not make it to the operating theatre before it was shut down by the Catholic Church ‘go back to their village with little hope of return or of being restored’ (Lloyd- Roberts, 2. The protest against FGM is ‘constantly thwarted by tradition, prejudice, religion and distrust’ (Newsnight, 2.
Whilst there is clearly a need to surpass such barriers, and introduce laws to prohibit its practice, this is not a simple solution. Many are concerned that the practice will instead be forced underground (BBC Ethics Guide, 2. Extensive education is needed in order to bring about cultural change (Danial, 2.
Howard argues that women should possess the ability for women to opt out of national practices, thereby granting them the autonomy to choose their own culture or the terms under which they will participate (Danial, 2. To conclude, the continued practice of FGM prompts a need to truly discard notions of cultural relativism which pose a threat to the effectiveness of international law instruments which have been meticulously constructed over decades (Bigambo, 2. This would grant legitimacy to the widespread disregard, abuse and violation of human rights (Bigambo, 2.
Instead, the breadth of international instruments, the recent prosecutions, and prospect of educating communities reveal the promise of important developments in the future. Clearly this is an ongoing battle, but hopefully it will not be long before the horrific practice of FGM will be brought to a halt and women all around the world, regardless of race, culture or religion, will be able to enjoy the rights they have been granted.