Female Genital Mutilation: A Discussion of International Human Rights Instruments, Cultural Sovereignty and Dominance Theory

Article excerpt

"African women, now and throughout history, have developed analyses and strategies for action to take control of our own lives in those areas that we have collectively determined for redress."(1)


The foundation of international human rights law is the principle that every State has an obligation to respect the human rights of its citizens.(2) Additionally, the international community has a right and responsibility to protest if there is a violation of this obligation.(3) Inherent in this principle is the concept that there are, in fact, universal human rights.(4) However, most of the rights enumerated as "universal" are based on Western values, and can be traced directly to the experiences of France, England, and the United States rather than Islamic, Eastern, and African cultures.(5) Many international law scholars acknowledge "the meaning of human rights depends upon the specific cultural context."(6)

Another tenet of international law is the concept of State sovereignty.(7) The concept of sovereignty means a State is "subject to no higher power."(8) Sovereignty not only refers to a States physical border, but also to its choice of political, social, economic, and cultural systems.(9) Connected with the doctrine of sovereignty is the concept of Nonintervention.(10) Nonintervention means that one State should not interfere with the internal relations of another State out of respect for its sovereignty.(11) Therefore, according to basic international law principles, States should respect the politics, religions, social structures, and cultures of other States and refrain from interfering with such sovereign rights.

This conflict between international human rights and the doctrine of cultural sovereignty is ongoing and controversial. Critics of international human rights law argue that "the international community utilizes treaties to loosen sovereignty's rule of restraint."(12) Some of the most controversial treaties involve the rights of women and children encompassing all aspects of a woman's life, which differs according to culture.(13)

Today, this conflict exists between societies that practice Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and the numerous States and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) that protest the practice.(14) In addition to the existing political conflict between States, there exists an immense cultural conflict where victims of FGM support the practice.(15) There is abundant legal support against the practice including the United Nations Charter,(16) the Universal Declaration of Human Rights(17), and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.(18) However, there is also legal support for the practice based upon the concept of cultural sovereignty.(19) Thus, the conflict centers on the fine line between respecting one's fundamental human rights and the recognition of a State's cultural sovereignty.(20)

This article addresses the conflict between the recognition of international human rights and the principle of cultural sovereignty through an analysis of the cultural, social, and political implications surrounding FGM. Section two introduces the torturous practice of FGM, including the reasons given to justify it, as well as the resulting complications and effects. Section three addresses and evaluates existing international legal instruments that protest FGM. Section four considers the arguments of both FGM proponents and opponents. Section five addresses enforcement mechanisms of international law concerning FGM, and proposes solutions to rectify these issues. In a day and age where it should be commonplace for society to respect women of all cultures and for all women to have the opportunity to make meaningful choices in their lives, the conflicting issues raised in this article show the difficulty women face daily, simply to obtain their freedom.


Female Genital Mutilation is a general term for a variety of surgical operations performed on girls and women primarily in twenty-eight African countries and among some minorities in Asia. …