Words alone will not eradicate FGM, but they have a critical role to play in supporting the campaign to end FGM internationally.
The lexicon of a special subject field (Sager, 1990)
The relationship between concepts and terms (Sager, 1990)
An idea, feeling or emotion associated with the literal or primary meaning of a word
Language holds power to manifest change, whether good or bad
While the practice can sometimes be back-translated to a "religious tradition/obligation" or "rite of passage", the most commonly found terms in Arabic, English, French and Kiswahili are as follows:
1. "Female circumcision": by drawing a parallel with "male circumcision", this term creates confusion between two very distinct practices. The positive connotation of circumcision for males in some cultures does not reflect the harmful effects of the practice.
2. "Purification" or "ritual cleanliness": while members of the community truly believe that the practice is the right thing to do for their girls, the positive connotation of these terms dismiss FGM's harmfulness and are considered a hindrance to a proper debate around the practice.
3. "Gash": this notion of a "small incision", while medical, implies a benignity which does not reflect reality.
4. "Female genital cutting": used by some medical professionals or international organisations to avoid the stigmatisation of practising communities, the connotation of this term is considered to be neutral. It seems, however, to be little used by the public and is seen by many as not accurately reflecting the gravity of the harm caused by the practice.
5. "Excision": while sometimes designating the practice as a whole as well as Type II, the connotation can be positive or negative according to the speaker. In some practising communities, "non-excised" girls are the ones who are socially mistreated.
6. "Female genital distortion": also meaning "corruption" or "damaging"; the connotation of this term, while on the negative side, is mainly political. The term is rarely used by the public.
7. "Female genital mutilation": UN agencies adopted this term in 2008. "The term is non-judgmental as it is a medical term describing what is done to female genitalia. Mutilation is the removal of healthy tissue" (Declaration: on the Terminology FGM; 6th IAC General Assembly, 2005, Mali). This term, however, has a negative connotation and emphasises the gravity of the harm caused by the practice.
8. "Female sexual mutilation": probably more used by the World Health Organization, this term broadens the notion of the purpose of female organs from the term "genital" to reflect sexual impairment.
Debates surrounding the term "FGM" have covered the "culture vs harmful practices" notion, "imperialistic narratives”, the use of the terms "victim"/"perpetrator”, the "stigmatisation of ritual purification”, the stigmatisation of practising parents, and issues around the “idea or age of consent”.
The supporters of the term "FGM" emphasise that diluting such a term trivialises the nature of female genital mutilation and the suffering of African women and girls who are cut without consultation, as well as the overriding of the consensus reached by African women (Declaration: on the Terminology FGM; 6th IAC General Assembly, 2005, Mali).
The term "FGM" was first coined by feminist campaigner Fran Hosken in 1979, at a time when the types of FGM and the extent of the problem were not discussed. It was first endorsed in 1990 at the third conference of the Inter African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Harm of Women and Children (IAC), by female African activists who wanted to stress the pain suffered by girls and women and to advocate for the empowerment of women in their sexual and reproductive rights.
Since 1991, the term has been widely used in UN documents. The term was also used in the 1997 Joint Statement of the WHO, UNICEF and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). It was adopted in 1995 through consultation and consensus among African experts at the first technical working group meeting held in Geneva. In 2008, "FGM" was officially adopted as a single term by all UN agencies.
Eradicating the practice and protecting young girls involves a linguistic and semantic distinction.
Special thanks to Yasmin Raafat, whose academic research "Sugar-coating the FGM in the UN" (2018) has been the inspiration and the main source for this article. The attached UN Interagency statement in English, French and Arabic highlights the lack of consistency of translation referred to by Ms Raafat.