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A Cultural Perspective

Studies of female circumcision always look at adverse health effects. Very few studies have explored health benefits of female circumcision, while many have reported benefits of male circumcision (prevention of urinary tract infections, penile cancer and HIV acquisition). For circumcision, which is such a culturally embedded practice, it is just as important to document benefits—or the lack thereof—as it is to document adverse effects. I don't believe that female circumcision confers a physical health advantage—but I think that as public health professionals we need to listen to the needs of women and provide scientific evidence to further progress.

During the 19th century in the U.S., female circumcision was offered by physicians who had perfected their techniques on slave and immigrant women. Today so-called "hymen reconstruction" and "labial and clitoral reduction" are marketed by Beverly Hills surgeons who promise to make women "look gorgeous absolutely everywhere."

So what's the difference between female circumcision in the U.S. and in developing nations? It involves the prevalence, the providers, the tools and technique, who decides, and when it occurs. I think that misconceptions abound. In the West, we condemn the parents who do this to their daughters—but parents view circumcision as a duty, and in my early findings from Nigeria, just as many women as men support female circumcision. Interventions at the grassroots level require a culturally sensitive approach, and the language emanating from the West needs to be toned down.

A native of Nigeria, Y. Abisola Noah has researched the health effects of female circumcision as well as men's and women's attitudes toward it. A graduating MD-PhD-MHS student in Population, Family and Reproductive Health, and International Health, Noah uses the term female circumcision in order to avoid alienating certain cultures.

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