The Economist prompts outrage as it backs 'minor FGM'

An article in the Economist magazine has angered anti-FGM campaigners by suggesting that some forms of female genital mutilation (FGM) should be permissible. Campaign groups have condemned the leading article, which argues that allowing “minor” forms of the practice might prevent girls from more extreme harm.

The London-based FGM charity Orchid Project has called the article “grossly irresponsible” and started a petition calling for the Economist to retract its position on FGM.

FGM is defined by the World Health Organisation as procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. More than 200 million girls and women alive today have been cut, mostly before they reached puberty. FGM has no health benefits and is recognised as a violation of the human rights of girls and women.

The article, titled An Agonising Choice, claims there has been slow progress in eradicating FGM and that a new approach is needed. Instead of issuing a blanket ban against all forms of the practice, the Economist advocates that governments should “permit [forms of FGM] that cause no long-lasting harm”, labelling some forms of FGM as “merely bad”.

The article continues “it is better to have a symbolic nick from a trained health worker than to be butchered in a back room by a village elder”, drawing comparisons between some forms FGM and male circumcision, claiming that both cause no lasting physical impairment.

A letter condemning the “dangerous and entirely unfounded” article was also sent to the Economist last week by Orchid Project and ActionAid. It has been signed by Womankind, Forward, 28 Too Many and Plan UK.

Julia Lalla-Maharajh, the CEO of Orchid Project, told the Guardian “Working on taboo and neglected issues like ending FGM is hard enough without well-respected publications like the Economist creating policy on the hoof and taking a line that puts our discussions back by decades. It discredits the experiences of women who have undergone FGM and is a highly regressive step.”

She added: “The ripple effect of how people will use the Economist’s ‘respected’ stance to legitimise the practice is wide-ranging, worrying and, as we can see, has repercussions that will spread around the world. These could be that more women and girls will be at risk of this devastating practice.”

The Guardian has learned that the article is directly affecting groups that practise FGM. The Dawoodi Bohra are a sect of Shia Islam who live mostly in western India and traditionally carry out forms of FGM including cutting the clitoris. Members of this sect have sent messages, seen by the Guardian, praising the article and stating “for the first time, a prestigious paper writes something in our favour, and has challenged WHO and the anti-FGM lobbyists”.

The petition was launched hours after the article was published and is directed at the editor-in-chief of the Economist, Zanny Minton Beddoes. It claims that the article contains “many misguided assumptions about FGM and the progress that has been made in recent years” and that instead of a “new approach” current strategies are effective and need to be further supported.

The petition also heavily criticises another article about FGM published by the Economist last week. The second article “The Unkindest Cut” again distinguishes between “harmless” and “atrocious” forms of cutting.

Naana Otoo-Oyortey, executive director of Forward said she was “outraged” and Caroline Haworth, CEO of Womankind said the article was “an abhorrent view to take”.

When asked to respond to this criticism, Helen Joyce, who commissioned and edited the lead Economist article said: “Our article is our statement. We have no further comment.”


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