Karisa Cloward, Assistant Professor of Political Science and Associate of the Tower Center, recently published her first book “When Norms Collide: Local Responses to Activism Against Female Genital Mutilation and Early Marriage.” In her groundbreaking research, Cloward explores the clash between international norms that respect women’s rights and local norms that favor female genital mutilation (FGM) and early marriage as cultural norms. For activist groups and NGOs seeking to change the behavior of these African and Middle Eastern communities, Cloward identifies several important trends and key findings.
One trend focuses on the diversity of the communities involved. In heterogeneous communities, it is much easier to bring change due to the melding of different cultures and beliefs, while homogenous societies were much more resistant to change due to the cultural factor. One of the central forces opposing change in homogenous cultures is that it’s hard for uncircumcised women to get married. Homogenous cultures have many varying beliefs about uncircumcised women, which are untested, that create social pressures for women to undergo FGM. No single activist strategy will match every culture, and activist strategies should account for this. Some cultures see FGM as a rite of passage to womanhood while others see religious significance in it, and many NGOs unfortunately lump these different viewpoints together.
Thus, according to Cloward, local elites should be included in anti-FGM and anti-early marriage efforts alongside current efforts. Convincing the women who undergo FGM raises awareness, but getting the support of local elites helps speed up the cultural change. If the elites of the society, the leaders plus prominent cultural and religious figures, are convinced, it is far easier for the culture to shift in a direction that matches international norms of women’s rights. Many NGOs focus solely on the women directly affected, but the women are not the decision-makers.
Additionally, while there is a lot of public awareness on the international stage surrounding FGM, Cloward points out the need for more awareness of the harm of early marriage. Whereas FGM conjures a shocking, visceral image of immediate harm, early marriage does more harm to women on the long-term. Women subjected to early marriage typically have earlier pregnancies which is dangerous due to the body not being fully developed and the lack of adequate healthcare. Early marriage is typically undertaken for economic reasons, as dowries are seen as a method of settling debts or exchanging goods. For this reason, conditions like drought or poor harvests are correlated with increases in early marriages. International attention only recently began to pay attention to early marriage and more is needed to be done to address the issue.
In sum, Cloward’s book explores responses to activism surrounding female genital mutilation and early marriage. Both FGM and early marriage have international attention surrounding them but more needs to be done to truly make change. NGOs should divert their efforts towards the community elites and customize their message to the community rather than attempt a one-size-fits-all solution. FGM, while the more immediate and visceral of the two in terms of harm, is equally as important to combat as early marriage. Basing activist factors on community-factors will ultimately do more to combat FGM and early marriage and help spread international norms of women’s rights to communities throughout Africa and the Middle East.
Matthew Reitz is from Colleyville, Texas and is majoring in political science and financial consulting. Matthew is in the University Honors program and the Mustang 11 spirit group. He is also a Hilltop Scholar and has served as an inaugural member of the Residential Commons Leadership Corps. He serves as the President of Cockrell-McIntosh Commons and is an active member of the Alpha Kappa Psi professional business fraternity. His key interest is researching and developing policy for US international affairs in the East-Asia region that correspond to US national security and economic interests. He plans to pursue a career in the US government after completing graduate school.