Making Choices

April 14, 2015

Should culture be harmful, and if so, can an individual make the choice not to participate in this culture and still remain a part of it?

This was the key issue at the first Choice Club meetings held at our three high schools: Shiners High school in Nakuru Kenya, Gayaza High School and Mount Of Olives Kakiri in Kampala, Uganda.

The students wanted to establish whether it is possible or even acceptable for a woman to make a unilateral decision not to participate in harmful cultural practices such as FGM (Female Genital Mutilation). The answer at the Gayaza High School meeting was almost unanimous; nearly all the girls were vehement in their desire to refuse to be cut. They expressed that even though it is generally unacceptable for women to fail to ‘obey their culture,’ in the case of FGM, ‘disobedience’ is necessary because the practice is medically harmful, unnecessary and can result in death.

One student, however, said she might have to listen to what her mother tells her to do and be obedient even at such a great risk to her health. This is because girls who are ‘properly’ raised must obey their parents; she would trust that her mother knows best and would not knowingly put her daughter’s life in danger.

Another student offered the thought that since every woman is allowed to make a choice, women who choose FGM should also have their choices respected. The question that seemed to linger after this statement was voiced was ‘was this really a choice, after all?’

What followed was a lively debate that has become the hallmark of our Choice Club meetings. The Choice Club in each school was established as a forum for candid discussion of all issues that pertain to the welfare and progress of women. All our members are aware that we must remain respectful of each other’s opinions and disagreements are solved amicably and rationally.

In this case, we focused the debate on the universal rights of women and scientific evidence available on the practice of FGM. The students acknowledged that while it is a fundamental right for every woman to participate in her culture, it should not infringe on her well-being. They also reviewed with greater scrutiny the practice of FGM and agreed the harm far more than outweighed any benefits, and that in fact, there are no benefits to a woman that can be scientifically established. Therefore, women should not have to make such a choice in the first place.

We were soon back to the subject of obedience to cultural elders such as our parents and possibly clan leaders. Even though some of the girls remained incredulous that parents can be disobeyed, all the members agreed there should be a distinction between ‘obedience’ for purposes of maintaining a good relationship with your elders, and what they called ‘blind obedience’ which can result in those elders abusing the rights of female children by forcing them to participate in dangerous and harmful rituals.

Evidently, the path to womanhood for the Ugandan girl is fraught with many dangers, some of them as innocuous as obedience to her elders. While this is a positive attribute that is still considered a characteristic of ‘proper upbringing,’ the members of the Choice Club were able to make an important distinction: our cultures, as well as our parents, are not above scrutiny. Culture should not be used as a vehicle to abuse the rights of individuals.

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