What Are Harmful Traditional Practices (HTPs)? Why Do They Occur?

We can all appreciate the marriage of economics and psychology in this pioneering explanation.

Hilary Burrage

12.05.05 cutting 004a

Harmful traditional practices (HTPs) are group-sanctioned but usually now illegal actions taken to reinforce the power of one person or group over (an)other/s.  HTPs occur in all societies but are more prevalent in less advantaged communities than elsewhere; and women and girls are more likely to be the victims of HTPs than are boys and men, albeit both experience them in specific contexts.  HTPs are historically underpinned by contests for scarce resources and economic control and power. The recent past has seen global moves to address the issues and stop these practices.

Some examples of harmful traditional practices are listed below. NB This is not pleasant reading.

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Through the Eyes of Nigerian Artists Confronting FGM: An Exhibition, Oxford, June 2016

Through the Eyes of Nigerian Artists Confronting Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) 6th – 16th June, Lady Margaret Hall, Jerwood Room, University of Oxford Duke Asidere . Wande George . Helen Idehen .…

Source: Through the Eyes of Nigerian Artists Confronting FGM: An Exhibition, Oxford, June 2016

DAY of the African Child, June 16th, and Bloomsday: on art and FGM

Had you been in Soweto on June 16th, 1976, –forty years ago today –, you would have been awed by about 10,000 children, girls and boys, risking their lives in a ‘long march.’ The two-week protest to improve their schooling was disrupted by government bullets, killing hundreds and injuring far more. To enable our remembering the importance of children’s rights and especially the right to education, in 1991 the Organization of African Unity designated June 16th as the Day of the African Child.

Cheryl-Ann and Nolan Victory

Cheryl-Ann and Nolan Victory in Oxford. In the background are miniatures of paintings by Nigerian artists on FGM.

The struggle to enhance learning goes on, and teaching about FGM is increasingly important. But how can it be taught? What curriculum promises the most? Among strategies of choice, art is a privileged medium.

Somali author and educator Hibo Wardere, for instance, encourages her pupils to draw and paint their feelings when confronted by this painful topic. Community Mediator for Waltham Forest, Wardere brings the abolition message into UK schools, sensitizing pupils and staff at primary and secondary level. Breaking the silence — FGM is never mentioned at home — Hibo highlights danger signals. Is your classmate at risk of being taken abroad for FGM? she asks. It’s getting close to holiday time. Is she nervous, fidgety? “I tell my own story in graphic detail,” Hibo told us at an FGM symposium  at Lady Margaret Hall last year. “Three women come to your house and hold you so tight you can’t breathe. … I was screaming for my mum but all she said was quiet, be quiet, the neighbors will hear.” For Hibo, girls (and boys) should learn about the cutting. Why? In order to refuse. “They have the right to know and to say ‘NO’,” she insists.

But June 16th commemorates not only South African children’s courageous march to learn  – their saying ‘no’ to the ill they endured. It is surely serendipity that June 16th is Bloomsday, too, the twenty-four hours in 1904 when renowned Irish author James Joyce, in Ulysses, traces his hero’s steps through Dublin into the concluding chapter ending in Molly Bloom’s bed with her famous affirmative words – “yes I said yes I will yes.” Scholars devote their lives to this ‘seminal’ text, appropriate to mention here as the nadir of genital assault. For the knowledge that sexual pleasure, — jouissance –, exists stokes the rage at its destruction.

The illuminating, liberating medium was discussed at the vernissage which took place on June 6th as artist and curator Godfrey Williams-Okorodus reported how, once he’d begun to paint symbolic scenes protesting FGM, the topic wouldn’t let him go. Holger Postulart, of Global Alliance against FGM (Geneva) told a similar tale. Not an artist himself, he and associate Elisabeth Wilson founded an association to promote use of the arts – including music and literature – to address the emotional levels of meaning attached to FGM; they  brought the canvasses displayed at Lady Margaret Hall to the Human Rights Council and, in Switzerland and France, are also promoting a Chair in female genital mutilation studies. Similarly, Maggie O’Kane, recipient of British Journalist of the Year and Foreign Correspondent of the Year awards and head of the Guardian Global Campaign to End FGM, showed how media, acting on a pioneering understanding of the dialectical relationship between reporting and creating news, sponsored a poster competition among schoolgirls in Kenya whose prize-winning billboard was broadcast nationwide. Art, of course, benefits not only viewers but equally creators. Naomi Rosen, Alexander von Humboldt Fellow, described her research into trauma therapy, drama, and FGM as these unstudied but increasingly deployed approaches are implemented by healthcare and NGOs. And finally, Kaddy Touray (Oxford Against Cutting) introduced a key initiative in Oxford which, among many activities, encouraged pupils from age 13 to take up their brushes and easels. From workshops teaching the subject and relevant “campaigning skills,” a booklet emerged “to help professionals start conversations with girls at risk of FGM.” In addition to writing copy, students “ran an art competition,” determining criteria, themes, and winners. [See http://oxfordagainstcutting.org/schools-champions/cheney-school/%5D

To my knowledge, the paintings and sculpture on display at LMH represent the first of the world’s art exhibitions aimed at hastening the end of FGM.

Origins of the Exhibition and FGM in Nigeria. In the 1980s, Nkechi Nnaji, age five, underwent ‘female circumcision’. No simple ‘cut’, the damage was so severe that, while her peers attended school, she was hospitalized, time and again. Advertising executive Joy Keshi Walker met the suffering girl, then age 12, and was so moved by the ‘financial, physical and emotional torture’ she had borne that Joy ‘vowed then and there to do what [she] could’ to end the ‘rite’.[1] A specialist in visual communication, the social entrepreneur approached Sam Ovraiti, principal lecturer in painting and drawing at Auchi Polytechnic in Auchi, Nigeria. Could he gather students to attend a seminar in which Joy would teach them about FGM? There Joy and artist Godfrey Williams-Okorodus joined forces to create this exhibition.

Why art? A paradox, the aptness of the medium lies in its non-verbal, multi-sensory appeal, especially suitable in an environment where not everyone can read and while confronting a controversial issue as painful and dangerous as FGM, able to trigger flashbacks not only in the excised but also in the audience. Emotional impact can indeed be great but may also turn into constructive resolve. The first display in Lagos in October 1998, consisting of 80 artefacts hosted by the Goethe Institute, attracted politicians, diplomats, students, the press, as well as victims, by-standers, parents and girls. Its appeal to decision-makers, too, has been significant. Shortly after the exhibition travelled to a number of regions in Nigeria, two states abolished the practice, and recently, former president Goodluck Jonathan, in his last act in office, banned FGM for the nation as a whole. Given Nigeria’s 120 million people –the most populous African country–, where few of the ca. 250 ethnic groups are free of clitoral excision, Nigeria may account for as much as 25% of FGM worldwide.

When the exhibition moved to Germany, it was welcomed by Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, then Cabinet Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development. In 2000, it attracted the attention of MP Christine McCafferty preparing to welcome passage of the renewed Female Genital Mutilation Act in a joint session of the Houses of Lords and Commons. On 22 November 2000, a selection of paintings displayed here at LMH were shown in Parliament for celebration of the enhanced legislation opposing FGM.

Once returned to Germany, the artworks travelled between 4 February 2000 and 26 February 2006 to more than 65 venues. They were displayed in federal, state and local ministries of health or city halls in all major urban centres. Expo 2000 presented the pictures; the GIZ – German counterpart to DFiD – invited the exhibition twice; women’s groups and civic organizations also found the canvasses appropriate, not only in raising awareness but in stimulating commitment to act. Most adept at breaking taboos, artists share their impressions, calling on intellect, feeling and heart. As Joy Keshi Walker resumes, art ennobles. About FGM, it is also about the artist, the viewer, and a future free from a harmful traditional practice that slows development, inscribes inequality, and causes untold suffering to generations of girls. The end is overdue.

If you are in or near Oxford, join us TONIGHT at Lady Margaret Hall, first in the Chapel, then in the Deneke Common Room, where canvasses address this millennial custom, break the omerta, and confront the viewer in a complex, nuanced way with one of the key on-going scourges of our times. The pictures detail aspects of the ‘rite’ as it has been and, sadly, continues to be practiced in Nigeria.

Tonight’s program includes Dr. Tobe Levin von Gleichen offering a narrated tour of the artwork followed by discussants Comfort Momoh MBE, FGM/Public Health Specialist; Hilary Burrage, sociologist and author; Nolan Victory, Equalities, Diversity & Human Rights Manager, London North West Healthcare NHS; Dr Barbara Harrell-Bond, OBE Rights in Exile Legal Aid; Dr Sharon Dixon, Donnington Medical Partnership in Oxford; Dr Phoebe Abe, Dr Abe Foundation and Fatou Ceesay (Oxford Against Cutting). Dr. Maria Jaschok, Director of the International Gender Studies Centre at LMH, will welcome you.

Finissage 16th June 6:30 p.m. in the CHAPEL, then in the DENEKE COMMON ROOM from 7 p.m. Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford

[1] Through the Eyes of Nigerian Artists: Confronting Female Genital Mutilation. Exhibition Catalogue. Vernissage in the USA. 6 April – 15 June 2006. Women’s Studies Research Center. Brandeis University.

Resources include Twitter: SupportGuardian@EndFGM

The Guardian Campaign: http://www.theguardian.com/society/video/2015/feb/06/highlights-of-the-guardians-global-media-campaign-to-help-end-fgm

The exhibition: https://www.facebook.com/stopfgmnow/photos/?tab=album&album_id=427511341804

Urhobo Bride

Godfrey Williams-Okorodus. The Urhobo Bride. Oil on Canvas. 1998. The painting was part of the original exhibition.


Olubunmi Temitope Oyesanya The Scourge. Oil on Canvas. 2009

Olubunmi Temitope Oyesanya. The Scourge. Oil on Canvas. 2008.

Through the Eyes of Nigerian Artists confronting FGM. An Exhibition at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford

Godfrey Williams-Okorodus. "The Queue" [at a VVF clinic]. Watercolor. 1998.

Godfrey Williams-Okorodus. “The Queue” [at a VVF clinic]. 1998.

The United Nations declared 23 May the Day to End Obstetric Fistula (A/RES/67/147), a devastating side effect of FGM, “one of the most serious and tragic injuries that can occur during childbirth. [It] is a hole between the birth canal and the bladder or rectum caused by prolonged, obstructed labour without treatment” [www.un.org/en/events/endfistuladay/].

Artist Godfrey Williams-Okorodus evokes the search for therapy in “The Queue,” among eighty paintings expressing aspects of female genital mutilation committed to canvas when a travelling exhibition, conceived by Joy Keshi Walker, was first displayed in Lagos in October 1998.

The International Gender Studies Centre, Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford, with support from Oxford without Cutting and 28 Too Many, is hosting twenty of these artworks from 6th to 16th June 2016 in the Jerwood Room, welcoming viewers weekdays from noon until 6 p.m.

Vernissage 6th June 6 p.m. with Godfrey Williams-Okorodus, artist and curator; Hibo Wardere, author and educator; Holger Postulart and Elisabeth Wilson, the Global Alliance against FGM (Geneva); Maggie O’Kane, award-winning head of the Guardian Global Campaign to End FGM; Naomi Rosen, Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship recipient, and Kaddy Touray  (Oxford against Cutting)

Finissage 16th June 6 p.m. with Comfort Momoh MBE, FGM specialist midwife; Hilary Burrage, author; Nolan Victory, Equalities, Diversity & Human Rights Manager, London North West Healthcare NHS; Dr Barbara Harrell-Bond OBE, Rights in Exile Legal Aid; Dr Sharon Dixon, Donnington Medical Partnership in Oxford;  Dr Maria Jaschok, Director, IGS, and Fatou Ceesay.

Curator: Dr Tobe Levin von Gleichen. Historical exhibition curated by Joy Keshi Walker in Lagos and sponsored from 2000-2006 by FORWARD-Germany.

The 4 ‘E’s Of FGM Eradication – My Paper On The Economics Of FGM, At The UN Geneva IAC Meeting

Excellent contribution, Hilary, that reminded me of the theme chosen for the first exhibition of paintings against FGM with which your co-panelist Godfrey is associated. In 1998 in Lagos, Nigeria, curator Joy Keshi Walker’s catalogue featured the three S’s — the Sorrow, the Suffering, the Set-back, the last meaning precisely economic loss to the nation wounding half its people.

Hilary Burrage

16.05.12 IAC FGM Geneva Kaillie IMG_ (43)The Inter-African Committee on Harmful Traditional Practices affecting Women and Girls (the IAC) held an International Conference to End FGM at the United Nations in Geneva on 10 and 11 May 2016. The theme was ‘From Goals to Action: Working Together to Bridge Gaps‘. I spoke on the Economics of FGM. My main point? … that ending FGM will be achieved most quickly if we fully engage economic analysis of the wider contexts and use that analysis to inform Public Health budgets and strategies, with top-level leaders who accept direct accountability for delivery.

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For International Women’s Day, links and LIKES

Apprised of the suffering inflicted on millions of girls – an estimated 137,000 in the UK – Guardian journalist Maggie O’Kane believes in media’s power to help. With empathy and insight, she approached her editor. Would he agree to feature FGM? She wanted the paper to confront the custom in a way that had not been tried before – in a well-funded, tenacious multi-national campaign. He agreed, stating on camera, ‘We as a paper have committed ourselves to an international campaign to eradicate FGM’.

Launch of the Guardian campaign in the USA

Launch of the Guardian campaign in the USA

Thus, with full support, she and her team have gone on to expose what may be the most widespread crime of which, before The Guardian campaign, few people had heard. Even U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon joined in.Ban Ki-moon 2

Now, for International Women’s Day, a new facebook page is being launched. Your LIKE will ensure the campaign  carries on! Thank you! https://www.facebook.com/gdnendfgm/timeline

Plus, as Maggie writes, “the new and very moving film from Nigeria about one couple,  Abu and Gift Augustine, [who]   fight back.”  http://www.theguardian.com/end-fgm

And last not least, you, too, are certain to appreciate Alice Walker’s gift: http://alicewalkersgarden.com/2015/09/waging-empathy-alice-walker-posessing-the-secret-of-joy-and-the-global-movement-to-ban-fgm/




Breaking the Omerta on FGM. Reflections on Mothers on Mothering Sunday

Mothering Sunday, or Mother’s Day in the UK, falls three weeks before Easter. The tradition dating from the sixteenth century encouraged the dispersed young to return to villages of birth for a family meal that broke the fast for Lent. A simnel cake with marzipan icing often expressed gratitude to women who raised children.

The role of mothers in perpetuating FGM, however, is one of the thorniest aspects of the subject. How are we to understand this particular ‘act of love’, as a Dutch educational film of the early nineties famously called it? The following anecdote meanders toward an answer.

In fall 2004, had you been at Mt. Holyoke College researching FGM, you could hardly have found yourself on more fertile ground. That term prizewinning Senegalese film-maker Ousmane Sembène was on campus, invited to present the first full-length feature film against, in the cineaste’s words, “female genital mutilation,” Moolaadé, introduced by Samba Gadjigo, Sembène’s translator. That same semester, renowned Egyptian physician and novelist Nawal el Saadawi offered a 6-week colloquium at Smith. Twice in South Hadley, these two giants of African resistance to the harmful custom came together. Their message to avid attendees was unequivocal. African leaders and allies alike must break the omerta – the secrecy – that smothers action to end FGM.

Painting and Poem (on FGM)

Godfrey Williams-Okorodus. Painting and Poem (on FGM) Oil on Canvas. 2011

My role as an Associate of the Five Colleges Women’s Studies Research Center included making speeches on FGM. One, on October 7, 2004, early on in the semester, attracted a trio of bright Somali students – let’s call them Amina, Nadija, and Ayan (not their real names). The three, having found my presentation “awesome,” invited me to address the African and Caribbean Students’ Association and to form a study group. Weekly we met to discuss films and readings; we also prepared to spread the word. “What would be better than peer-to-peer encounters,” Amina proposed, “the three of us college students visiting local high schools?” Great idea, I thought. They would bring their cultural sensitivity to the theme. Soon, Northfield Mount Hermon invited us; Amnesty International’s campus group would sponsor.

On December 3, 2004, in Northfield, I gave the speech alone. What had transpired in the meantime? Thanksgiving intervened. The girls, having gone home to Minneapolis, returned with a message from their mothers. “They don’t want us working on this issue,” they told me with considerable regret, “and they forbid us to make any speeches.” “Why?” I asked, though assuring them we wouldn’t – couldn’t – go against their parents’ wishes. “The community is tight-knit,” Nadija explained. “Word would get back and embarrass them.”

Embarrassment is one reason why, in Diaspora, the theme is hushed, though no discomfort accompanies revealing it ‘back home’. In Somalia and other cutting cultures, if performed but NOT disclosed, mortification ensues. Why? For the many reasons the custom prevails. An over-determined behavior, genital ablation is policed by overlapping insistent beliefs, feelings, and fears.

Which beliefs? One rarely discussed but important motive behind mothers’ actions is aesthetic. “Il faut souffrir pour être belle,” the French contend, and any number of constraining customs, advocated and advanced by women, come to mind. Simply glance out the window at the four to five-inch spikes and think not of footwear embroidered to encase the Chinese lotus, for instance, but of sartorial genres closer to home, like corsets or, though not quite as bad yet not known for comfort, the bindings of my adolescence, girdles.

This is beauty in the service of utility, a means to the end of attracting a spouse.

But beyond utilitarian, the judgement – what is beautiful? — is emotional, not rational; and the difficulty lies in that the lovely is defined by culture.

In Aman. The Story of a Somali Girl, amanuensis Virginia Lee Barnes describes the protagonist having inadvertently observed a white woman giving birth. “When I saw that,” Aman notes, “I thought, they’ve got a lot of cow pussy…” (1)

The notion of scalpels slicing the genitals of children should upset us; but a boom in the services of Harley Street surgeons – or visiting a German sauna – tells us that attractive vulvas are domestic, not foreign, ‘exotic’ desires, and mothers who want them for their girls aren’t unlike us. After all, as Simone de Beauvoir notoriously wrote, women are made, not born, and gender identity includes an ideal beauty.cropped-uncut-logo-godfrey.jpg

Consider the following analogy. Inspired by Kafka’s Gregor Samsa who fell asleep as a human being and awoke to find himself a bug, suppose you slumber through the darkness to awaken – if you had lain down a woman- fully bearded. Think a youthful Santa Claus. The ensuing gender dysphoria would be overwhelming, and before leaving the house, you would shave. … After all, a full-furred face obliterates the gendered self. Whiskers aren’t womanly. Nor in cutting cultures is a clitoris.

As Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf notes, “As far as adherents of the practice are concerned, an uncircumcised female is not a woman. Because of the nature of this belief, its effects on consciousness cannot be underestimated.” (2) Or as Fadwa El Guindi phrases it in an essay about “Female Circumcision Among Nubians in Egypt”: “’Had This Been Your Face, Would You leave It as It Is?’” (3) Cultures where the contours of private parts are public may be challenging to some of us, but feelings for ugliness or beauty that fuel support for FGM can resonate.

To quote another  French author, Madame de Stael: “Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner.” To fully understand is to forgive.

Not quite, but the dilemma of the mothers should be seen for what it is: coercion under patriarchy and emotional attachment to concepts of beauty their cultures gave them in their youth.


1 Virginia Lee Barnes, Janice Boddy. Aman. The Story of a Somali Girl. NY: Random House, 1995. P. 280.

2 Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf, ed. Female Circumcision. Multicultural Perspectives. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania P., 2006.

3 Fadwa El Guindi. “’Had This Been Your Face, Would You leave It as Is?’ Female Circumcision Among Nubians of Egypt.” In Female Circumcision. Multicultural Perspectives. Ed. Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania P., 2006.

THANKS to Godfrey Williams-Okorodus for the paintings above.