Academic journal article Law & Society Review

Legislating Change? Responses to Criminalizing Female Genital Cutting in Senegal

Academic journal article Law & Society Review

Legislating Change? Responses to Criminalizing Female Genital Cutting in Senegal

Article excerpt

Although the international community has recently promoted legislation as an important reform strategy for ending female genital cutting (FGC), there exist divergent views on its potential effects. Supporters argue that legal prohibition of FGC has a general deterrent effect, while others argue legislation can be perceived as coercive, and derail local efforts to end the practice. This study examines the range of responses observed in rural Senegal, where a 1999 anti-FGC law was imposed on communities in which the practice was being actively contested and targeted for elimination. Drawing on data from a mixed-methods study, we analyze responses in relation to two leading theories on social regulation, the law and economics and law and society paradigms, which make divergent predictions on the interplay between social norms and legal norms. Among supporters of FGC, legal norms ran counter to social norms, and did little to deter the practice, and in some instances incited reactance or drove the practice underground. Conversely, where FGC was being contested, legislation served to strengthen the stance of those contemplating or favoring abandonment. We conclude that legislation can complement other reform strategies by creating an "enabling environment" that supports those who have or wish to abandon FGC.

At the United Nations (UN) Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995, then U.S. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton declared in a keynote address that, "it is a viola- tion of human rights when young girls are brutalized by the painful and degrading practice of genital mutilation" (http://www.youtube .com/watch?v=GkLStUgkeJ4).1 Mrs. Clinton repeated her stance before several international bodies, and in April 1998 she traveled to Senegal to praise men and women who "come together to stand against and speak out against a key ancient custom" (quoted in Hecht 1999). Ten months later, in the wake of active debate among Senegal's parliamentarians, legal scholars, religious leaders, as well as some local anti-FGM (female genital mutilation) activists and program leaders, parliament enacted legislation that makes it a crime to carry out "female genital mutilation" or to encourage anybody else to do so.2 International media drew attention to the fact that this law was passed just one month before the release of the American State Department's Annual Report on Human Rights (e.g., Economist 1999; Hecht 1999), arguing that this report is used as a guide for Congress and U.S. agencies in allocating foreign financial assistance. Based on this, the article in the Economist con- cluded that Senegal's government, which receives substantial aid from the United States, implemented the law "only to please American sensitivities" (1999). The passage of the Senegalese anti- FGM law was thus portrayed as an imposition of Western values on an African nation, overlooking the long history of debate on female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) among Senegalese intellectuals and the leadership of Senegal in the international human rights movement.3

Although media reports failed to highlight the internal debates in Senegalese society, they captured the centerpiece of these debates by posing the question, "Is it a crime or is it culture?" (Economist 1999). The enactment of the law did, in fact, create a formal legal system for regulating FGM/C that was at odds with the cultural values in a minority of Senegalese communities with long-standing histories of practicing FGM/C. In doing so, Senegal joined a growing number of African nations that have adopted legislation as a reform strategy for ending FGM/C. In the background of these events lies an unanswered question: Is legislation an effective tool for ending the practice of FGM/C? Divergent views have been forwarded. On one hand, some com- mentators and activists believe that legal prohibition will accelerate abandonment of the practice, while others argue that such a top- down approach can be perceived as coercive and may impede or derail local efforts to end the practice. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.