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Global governance and the politics of culture: campaigns against female circumcision in East Africa

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International organizations, national governments, and civil society organizations have condemned female genital cutting (FGC). In doing so, campaigners and policy-makers often describe female excision as backward, barbaric, and a problem of African culture. What does widespread international condemnation of FGC as a so-called traditional practice mean for campaigns against excision ‘on the ground?’ Drawing on critical global governance scholarship, this article argues that pervasive understandings of female excision as a problem of African culture obscure the far-reaching politics of campaigns against genital cutting. Focusing on efforts to criminalize female circumcision and educational projects in Tanzania and Kenya, I illustrate ways in which campaigns against female circumcision are dynamic sites of conflict characterized by politicized negotiations and resistance. I argue that initiatives that view FGC as a cultural problem in narrow terms may have unanticipated consequences when campaigns inscribe the communities they identify with female excision as local, traditional, and marginal. Notably, campaigns against the so-called traditional culture can counterproductively politicize diverse practices of excision as reified markers of ‘insider’ cultural identity. As a result, campaigns against excision may lead to outcomes antithetical to their stated goals of reducing practices of genital cutting.
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Keywords: East Africa; Kenia; Maasai; Tanzania; cultura; culture; derechos humanos; female genital cutting; global governance; gobernancia global; human rights; mutilación genital femenina; África del Este

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Politics Department, Women's and Gender Studies Program, Willamette University, 900 State Street, Salem, OR,97301, USA

Publication date: February 7, 2014

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