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Genitals and ethnicity: the politics of genital modifications

Reprod Health Matters. May 2010, 18(35):29-37.

Genitals and ethnicity: the politics of genital modifications

Johnsdotter S, Essen B

ABSTRACT

The discrepancy in societal attitudes toward female genital cosmetic surgery for European women and female genital cutting in primarily African girl children and women raises the following fundamental question. How can it be that extensive genitalmodifications, including reduction of labial and clitoral tissue, are considered acceptable and perfectly legal in many European countries, while those same societies have legislation making female genital cutting illegal, and the World Health Organization bans even the “pricking” of the female genitals? At present, tensions are obvious as regards the modification offemale genitalia, and current legislation and medical practice show inconsistencies in relation to women of different ethnic backgrounds. As regards the right to health, it is questionable both whether genital cosmetic surgery is always free of complications and whether female genital cutting always leads to them. Activists, national policymakers and other stakeholders, including cosmetic genital surgeons, need to be aware of these inconsistencies and find ways to resolve them and adopt non-discriminatory policies. This is not necessarily an issue of either permitting or banning all forms of genitalcutting, but about identifying a consistent and coherent stance in which key social values – including protection of children, bodily integrity, bodily autonomy, and equality before the law – are upheld.

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