Accepted paper:

Cutting edge: notions of cultural heritage and development in anti-FGM/C strategies in Africa


Lotte Hughes

Paper short abstract:

Notions of cultural heritage intertwine with 'development' in the social space of Alternative Rites of Passage, an invented ritual popular in anti-FGM/C campaigns in East Africa. Since 'culture' is rarely defined by the organisers, the ritual often involves a confusing mish-mash of messages.

Paper long abstract:

FGM/C (female genital mutilation/cutting) has cultural heritage connotations that are unacceptable to development actors, such as international donors and agencies that fund and implement efforts to eradicate the practice. Its proponents assert that FGM/C constitutes a cultural tradition that ought to be upheld, and that efforts to stop it demonstrate imperialistic, 'western-driven' disrespect for the heritage of practising communities. Its opponents oppose harmful cultural practices, while expressing guarded respect for culture. However, development actors have had to embrace some elements of 'tradition' when designing alternatives to FGM/C, such as the ritual of Alternative Rites of Passage (ARP) which is increasingly popular in East Africa. ARP involves marking the passage from girlhood to womanhood in ways that mimic cultural tradition, but without the physical cut. Beloved by donors, governments and agencies, because it appears to offer a quick fix to a major development and human rights issue (in fact, there is little evidence that it does), ARP can be read as an invented tradition and cultural performance that involves intensive social engineering carried out in the name of development and progress. 'Culture' is rarely defined, by the NGOs or communities involved, and consequently the ritual often involves a mish-mash of notions of culture and past-ness - which can impart very mixed and confusing messages to the girls concerned, and their families. This paper will discuss what happens when 'development' meets 'culture' in the melting pot of extreme gender violence.

panel O3
History and development: practicing the past in pursuit of 'progress'