Public health, cultural norms and the criminal law: an inconvenient union? A case study of female genital cutting

Med Law. 2012 Sep;31(3):451-72.


Social and cultural stereotypes held about women and their health needs constitute a significant barrier to the enforcement of laws protecting women's health. While the promulgation of remedial legislation to address the problem is a positive step towards protecting women's health, these laws are promulgated in a cultural milieu that remains unwelcoming to women's rights. The clash between long-held cultural perceptions and health laws, such as those affecting women's reproductive health, engenders more problems for women's health because the laws sometimes fail to produce the desired behavioural changes. This paper attempts to debunk the uncritical assumption that legislative reforms without more are positive instruments of change in protecting women's health. In outlining this thesis, the paper examines the legal prohibition of Female Genital Cutting ('FGC') as a case study. To determine whether FGC prohibition laws are likely to be effective in achieving the public health agenda of protecting women's health, the paper analyzes FGC laws against the normative and instrumental theories of legal compliance, as well as against the socio-cultural worldviews underlying the practice. It concludes that legislative efforts to protect women's health may remain ineffective without structured efforts between health systems, governments or legal institutions and the cultural society.

MeSH terms

  • Africa
  • Circumcision, Female / ethnology*
  • Circumcision, Female / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Criminal Law
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Women's Health