Sare Harouna, in southern Senegal, is one of more than 5,000 villages where female genital cutting has been abandoned. (Credit: Lynsey Addario for The New York Times)

Right now, there’s an excellent series going on over at the Gender Across Borders blog called “Culture and Human Rights: Challenging Excuses for Gender Based Violence.”

I will be following the posts in this series, but I also wanted to bring up discussion about the topic over here. Cultural relativism is used worldwide as an excuse for human rights violations, and particularly violence and discrimination against women. To quote the blog:

Throughout the world culture is employed to justify discrimination and violence against women. ‘Culture’ is used to impose control over women’s bodies, sexuality, emotions, decisions and actions, preventing them from expressing their own free will and enjoying their fundamental freedoms and human rights.  Regardless, of who we are, where we are, we are all under the ‘control’ of ‘culture.’

A more specific example: In my undergraduate Amnesty International group, I remember a discussion we held about FGM/FGC and the cultural arguments for and against the practice. To me, FGM/FGC seems undoubtedly to be an extremely painful, unsafe practice that violates the rights of children who cannot choose for themselves. FGC is frequently done without medical instruments, without painkillers, and without the true consent of young girls. It has severe lifelong medical and health consequences, and to me it seems clear that the practice, especially when not done with proper medical equipment, is a violation of the basic human rights of girls.

Yet, culture is often used as a reason to excuse violent practices such as FGC. While I do believe that each culture has a different set of behaviours, beliefs, attitudes, and traditions — and should be deeply respected — we should not use culture to justify practices that infringe on basic human rights. The bottom line is that culture is not static. It changes over time. Some time ago in the U.S. we had a culture that accepted that women could not vote, and that African-Americans were considered nothing more than property. How much our “culture” has changed in the past two hundred years! Today, we have an African American president, and women working at high levels in the government, corporate, and non-profit sectors. Certainly, we still have a long way to go. I am not implying we are a post-racial or post-discriminatory society, but our “culture”? It has undoubtedly shifted over the years to a more equitable one.

Culture is not static. I was born in India, but economic development and growth has shifted culture and women’s rights and opportunities in my motherland too.  And the same thing is happening in Senegal, thanks in large part to the innovative efforts of a non-profit called Tostan. An amazing NYT article discussed the growing movement to end FGM:

The movement to end genital cutting is spreading in Senegal at a quickening pace through the very ties of family and ethnicity that used to entrench it. And a practice once seen as an immutable part of a girl’s life in many ethnic groups and African nations is ebbing, though rarely at the pace or with the organized drive found in Senegal.

A young woman holds up a sign that advocates the abandonment of circumcision as Senegalese gather for a panel discussion and celebration the day before an abandonment ceremony in the village of Niaming, in southern Senegal's Kolda region, May 28, 2011. (Credit: Lynsey Addario for The New York Times)

Specifically, Tostan, which means “breakthrough” in Wolof, has pioneered an education program on the danger of FGM for the health of young girls. At the same time, they are careful not to “denounce it as barbaric as Western activists have been prone to do.” So, they are being respectful of culture — while also educating people on the topic.

The method Tostan uses to build the movement to end FGC is through a collective commitment. Tostan encourages entire villages to become educated on the risks of the practice, and then come together to make a commitment to end the practice. The collective pledge and concept of public declarations has proven to be an incredibly powerful tool for uniting villages for a common cause:

The only way, he said, was to persuade villages whose young people intermarried to abandon the practice simultaneously — the defining idea for Tostan. “Even though our villages seem small, behind each village are many other villages,” Mr. Diawara said in an interview.

So Mr. Diawara, 77, visited the 10 intermarrying villages of his extended family. He won over the village chiefs and convinced imams that there was no religious requirement for cutting, which predates Islam by centuries. He was tactful, never using the term “female genital mutilation,” but he explained its consequences. At his family’s annual council, the villages agreed to give up the tradition and in 1998 held what is believed to have been Africa’s first collective abandonment.

This deeply inspiring movement has proved to me that culture is not static– things can change significantly in just one generation. Of course, we must continue to respect cultural diversity worldwide. Cultural relativism still remains an important lens to view social issues, but we also cannot use that as justification for what we know to be basic human rights. It’s a thorny path fraught with difficult questions, but we must navigate it if we are to make progress on women’s rights.

What are your thoughts on cultural relativism and women’s rights? You can also join the discussion through GAB’s blog posts in the series here and here.