A very basic definition of culture is the cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, and material objects and possessions acquired by a group of people in the course of generations through individual and group striving (Hofstede, 1997).
Undoubtedly, most humanitarians, community workers, and public health specialists would be able to supply a sufficient definition for culture. The words may vary somewhat, but the basic concept would be the same. However, how many of them truly grasp the vitality of this definition? Moreover, truly value why various practices or beliefs came to be and have continued for generations even in today’s fast-paced and shrinking world with advances in technology, increased availability of education, increases in family income, et cetera.
One cultural practice common in parts Africa and a part of the Middle East is the practice of female genital circumcision (FGC). FGC is believed to have been initiated in the fifth century B.C and continues today, affecting an estimated 2 million girls annually (Shah, Luay, & Furcroy, 2009).
FGC is a coming-of-age tradition for females which takes a variety of forms. It includes the partial or total removal of the external female genital, near complete sewing-up the vagina with only a small opening for urination and menstruation, introduction of corrosive substances into the vagina, and other injury for non-therapeutic reasons (WHO, 1997). Some of the biomedical consequences include infection or hemorrhaging which can lead to loss of life, bowel and bladder incontinence, painful intercourse, and complications with childbirth.
Many persons would consider this to be an atrocity and defilement of girls; as a result, there has been a great deal of global support to implement programs and various interventions to support the cessation of this act. However, termination of FGC continues to be an uphill battle.
I believe us, as professionals, sometimes, do not grasp how deeply ingrained FGC is believed to be necessary in the preparation of a young girl for womanhood. The roots of this practice are so deeply psychologically and emotionally based that families have risked breaking judicial law to continue preparing their child for womanhood. For example, Kenya’s Children’s Act of 2001 made it illegal to subject girls to any form of FGC; consequently, it is believed that practicing tribes are now performing the act secretly, to decrease the risk of being imprisoned. This theory has been supported by people being caught in the act or dealing with girls who are infected or bleeding after going through the procedure (Library of Congress, 2011). What’s more, families who have migrated to Europe and the United States bring their daughters back to their country of origin when they come of age to have this procedure performed.
The complexity of cultural beliefs and their unseen components are sometimes difficult to conceptualize, thus, making it challenging to influence health behavior change. FGC is not just a physical alteration to the body; it is a celebration among friends, mothers, grandmothers, aunts, cousins, and neighbors. It means the individual has now graduated to the next level. She is now of age and ready to progress to the next stage in life. Yes, female genital mutilation is a procedure with unfortunate consequences and it should be addressed by community workers, public health professionals, and humanitarians. Nevertheless, we have to proceed respectfully and view cultural practice in a holistic manner to be effective in implementing sustainable behavioral changes.