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by Cynthia J. Wood

The purpose of this research is to look at female genital mutilation, also known as FGM, to better understand how the problem can be addressed through US Foreign Policy, domestic initiatives within different regions of the world, and international reinforcement. In this article, these specific groups are broken down, categorically, to determine sector influences, efforts to end, and the future outlook on female genital mutilation. Many organizations are working on solutions to end FGM; however, a lack of collaboration and consistency seems to exist between these groups. With FGM so deeply rooted in cultural and religious beliefs, it has been difficult to find a universal solution to this problem.

This research article looks at female genital mutilation on a multi-level, global scale so that we may better understand how to change worldviews on a domestic, national, and international level as a combined effort, rather than attempting to solve this global issue at an individual level.

Female genital mutilation is also known as female circumcision around the world as a practice deeply intertwined in historical belief systems based on culture, religion, or both (Rahman and Toubia, 2001). According to Edim, et al. (2012), the ‘United Nations, under Bejing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995)’ defined female genital mutilation as ‘any act of gender-based violence that result in or is likely to result in physical, sexual, psychological harm or suffering to women, including the threat of such act, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.’

Female genital mutilation affects all ages and classes of women. It is a ritual of cutting their genitals either as a child, as a rite of passage, or as a religious or cultural practice. Regions of Africa tend to have the highest rate of female genital cutting in the world with approximately 90% of families being affected by this act. Given its ties to personal beliefs systems, it has been hard to find a solution that completely eliminates female genital mutilation on a global scale. Law relating to female genital mutilation are not consistent from country to country and the United States has had a difficult time enforcing human rights laws to protect women and children against this crime (Rhaman and Toubia, 2001).

In order to protect these basic human rights, we must consider this crime on a multi-level global scale. What efforts are being made to eliminate female genital mutilation through means of U.S. Foreign Policy Reinforcement? What efforts are being made to eliminate female genital mutilation through means of Domestic Reinforcement? What efforts are being made to eliminate female genital mutilation through means of International Reinforcement? Answering these questions will allow us to tie these areas of reinforcement together to better understand the efforts being made to end this practice, on a grandeur scale, across the world.

According to Terry and Harris (2013), the World Health Organization (WHO) defined FGM, female genital mutilation, by the severity of the procedure, which ranged from a very small laceration of the genitalia to completely removing the entire section of the genitals of a female. WHO suggested that approximately 140 million women and girls have been affected in some way throughout their lives. In Africa, the number rises to approximately 3 million girls who are in danger of undergoing this procedure each year.

Terry and Harris (2013) suggest that most of these girls are encouraged by the adults within the family who have experienced female genital mutilation in the past. Without education and awareness of the mental, physical, and emotional dangers of this procedure, the mindset of these families continues to support female genital mutilation procedures for subsequent generations. Terry and Harris (2013) suggested that as parents become more aware of these issues, they are less and less likely to support it. Also, they will choose to keep their children away from the older generation who may perform this procedure on babies and children without their parent’s consent.

USFP Reinforcement
Throughout history, the U.S has continued to support efforts to create humanitarian laws that protect women and children against female genital mutilation.

US Foreign Policy Influences
Shell-Duncan, et al. (2013) stated that Hillary Clinton spoke out on several different occasions against female genital mutilation. While attending a conference in Senegal, Clinton stated that female genital mutilation was a crime against humankind and must be stopped (Shell-Duncan, et al., 2013). A survey was taken in Senegal, prior to Hillary Clinton’s visit to the region, to determine how the people of Senegal viewed female circumcision. The survey showed that societies, from an economic standpoint, will act in accordance to what the law states to be appropriate behavior. However, according to their evaluation of Senegal relating to societal control, societal norms that people place on each other will control behavior most effectively. After this visit, officials in Senegal announced to their people that female genital mutilation would be considered a crime going forward (Shell-Duncan, et al., 2013).

U.S. Foreign Policy Officials can gain support in eliminating female genital mutilation through economic encouragements and deterrents. Given the amount of support that the United States has provided to Senegal, perhaps we would have the ability to sway the government’s stance on how female genital mutilation is treated within their country. In order to continue to receive foreign aid, countries could tighten their laws condemning crimes against human rights (Shell-Duncan, et al., 2013).

USFP Efforts to End Female Genital Mutilation
The United States has continuously supported programs that target certain regions of high occurrences of female genital mutilation. Under the 14th Amendment, Congress has the power to seek out ‘equal protection, due process, and privileges, and immunities classes with appropriate legislation’ through state action (White, 2001). According to the 13th Amendment, slavery and involuntary servitude toward another is considered an act against someone’s constitutional right. In America, married women who are abused or sexually harassed, including talk of or performing cuts on the female genitalia, should be protected by their constitutional rights (White, 2001). The United States has a history of setting a precedence for universal norms throughout the world. These norms should serve as a foundational premise on which to build international guidelines of appropriate behavior and protection of human rights. International legislation, governing the mistreatment and degrading acts toward women, should be created to protect women and children on a global scale, rather than only in select areas of the world (White, 2001).

US Foreign Policy – Outlook on the Future
In the United States, women are covered under the Female Genital Mutilation Act of 1996. According to White (2001), this Act protects children from having female circumcision forced on them by generations before them. This Act also allows women of a certain age the ability to choose whether or not they wish to have this procedure performed on them. Then, at an appropriate age, they are able to decide for themselves and have the opportunity to seek the advice of a medical professional. This Act could set precedence around the world and contribute to the creation of U.S. Foreign Policy relating to universal norms of human rights in the future (White, 2001).

The United States must be respectful in how U.S. Foreign Policy is designed for countries other than our own. The United States must also remember to consider states where an obvious threat may not be prevalent, but female circumcision still occurs, such as Finland. According to Johansson (2008), immigrants who moved from Somalis to Finland have a high rate of female genital mutilation throughout their households. Perhaps, the first and foremost effort to lessening the occurrence of female genital mutilation is to create broad-reaching awareness programs, which educate people on the health dangers associated with this procedure. Once awareness of the high rate of occurrences is worldwide, then the United States can work with foreign officials to draft the language around policies to protect the human rights of these women and children (Johansson, 2008).

The United States has worked with Finland to help prevent female genital mutilation through a Child Welfare Act, constructed similarily to the legislation found in the U.S., providing strict guidelines regarding child endangerment, and the prosecution of those who perform this procedure on children (Johansson, 2008). The United States and Finland have also taken part in the United Kingdom’s Convention on the Rights of Children to find a solution to protect children across the world from crimes including, and similar to, female genital circumcision (Johannson, 2008).

Domestic Reinforcement
Domestic Influences
In domestic regions of Egypt, Kenya, Mali and Sudan, doctors are performing female circumcisions to decrease the traumatic events of having an unlicensed individual perform the procedure. The aid of medical personnel also cuts down on the increased exposure to AIDS that could be contracted through unlicensed persons performing the cutting procedure on the female (Edim, et al., 2012).

According to White (2001), prevention relating to female genital mutilation should start at home, on a local level. White (2001) suggests that local people, who are already engrained into the culture, have more credibility in providing awareness programs and creating new ways of thinking for the people who support female circumcision. These local, domestic influences stand a better change of helping other individuals, living in the same region, overcome the mindset of accepting this procedure in their families, and adopting this Act as part of their culture (White, 2001).

Domestic Policies to End Female Genital Mutilation
According to Johnsdotter (2012), the American Academy of Pediatrics suggest an alternate view of resolving the issues around female genital mutilation. Although the members of the American Pediatric Society created a policy to condemn female circumcision, Johnsdotter (2012) offered a different solution to suggest that doctors should perform the surgery on infants, similar to male circumcision, to offset any medical, social, or psychological harm that the procedure may inflict on the victims of FGM (Sipsma, 2012). A domestic policy could set the foundation for future procedures internationally so that this practice is not presented and classified in a derogatory manner, with being define as ‘mutilation’ (Johnsdotter, 2012).

Before progress to end female genital mutilation can be made internationally, domestic policies should be in place at home to encourage similar behavior throughout the world. According to Dubourg, et al. (2011), female circumcision is prevalent in approximately 28 countries, as well as Latin America, the Middle East, and some parts of Asia. Unlike America, some European countries continue to support female circumcision. America must take the initiative to be the leader in awareness and prevention of female genital mutilation (McGargill, 2009). Policies that are created in the United States serve as a strong foundation for human rights protection laws around the world (White, 2001).

Domestic Polices — Outlook on the Future
Domestically, female genital mutilation has been addressed mostly by non-government organizations that work with at-risk groups to provide education and support to those affected by FGM. The Research Action and Information Network for the Bodily Integrity of Women, also known as RAINBO, works with these groups to protect the rights of women and children and to provide awareness programs to end this practice (Rhaman and Toubia, 2001).Rhaman and Toubia (2001) discuss the difficulties of eliminating female genital mutilation all together. Social behavior is difficult to understand, states Rhaman and Toubia (2001), and the right approach to end female genital mutilation around the world has not yet been discovered.

Other domestic regions around the world, including the region of Mauritania, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs continues to educate women on the negative (sometimes life threatening) physical, mental, and social issues directly related to female genital mutilation (Sipsma, 2012). Creating domestic policies on a local level, where word can be easily spread around the region, allows the individuals in those regions the opportunity to take control of their own health and provide guidance to others (Mgbako, et al., 2010).

According to Gbadebo (2011), female circumcision is a violation against a woman’s right to not endure any type of torturous or inhumane acts against her life. USAID, the United States Agency for International Development, and WHO, the World Health Organization, have joined together to support efforts on a domestic level in hopes that these programs will spread worldwide (Gbadebo, 2011).

International Reinforcement
International Influences
The United Nations’ Children’s Fund, also referred to as UNICEF, is a leader in protecting children’s rights across the world. UNICEF, along with the United Nations’ Population Fund, also known as UNFPA, have addressed these issues in the most high risk areas around the world, including Africa where this procedure is commonplace in everyday life. According to Sipsma, et al. (2012), the United Nations’ Children’s Fund studied 10 countries in Africa to determine the number of females who had experienced female genital mutilation. Over 90% of these families have gone through, or have children who have gone through, female genital mutilation within their life (Rahman and Toubia, 2001; Sipsma, et al. 2012). According to the high percentage of female genital mutilation procedures still occurring since 2001, very little advancement has been made in finding a solution to lessen the occurrence of this procedure, much less eliminate it.

International studies continue to be conducted to determine how prominent female genital mutilation is in cultures around the world. In Belgium, there are close to 22,000 women and children who have had some experience with female circumcision (Dobourg, et al., 2011). Most of the women surveyed, who said they had experienced female circumcision, indicated that they were immigrants from Africa, where the prevalence rates of FGM are the highest in the world. Daughters of these immigrants were at a higher risk too, more than any other group threatened to undergo this procedure (Dobourg, et al., 2011).

Belgium could also be used as an example to set an international precedence against female genital mutilation by prosecuting those who go back to their originating country to have the procedure performed (Dubourg, et al., 2011). By continuously evaluating the rate of occurrence throughout Belgium, policymakers and officials are able to adequately assess the rate of effectiveness of these programs. According to Dubourg, et al. (2011), once the effectiveness has been positively measured, these strategies and programs can contribute to the progress being made in the international system to end female genital mutilation.

International Policies to End Female Genital Mutilation
According to Allotey, et al. (2001), there is an increasing number of non-government organizations supporting the cause to end female genital mutilation. The World Health Organization, also known as WHO, assures government readiness to launch such programs on a global scale. In Australia, the National Program on Female Genital Mutilation was created to support those affected by FGM, providing holistic health services to women and children (Allotey, et al., 2001).

The United Nations has worked for several years to pass laws to make the act of female genital mutilation prosecutable by the General Assembly. In support of these initiatives, The United Kingdom Population Fund and the United Kingdom Children’s Fund have developed programs to end female genital mutilation, which meet the needs of diverse cultural and religious backgrounds, while also discovering other options that may substitute performing a complete circumcision on females (Allotey, et al., 2001).

Other international organizations have worked to end female genital mutilation as well. Organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO); the Human Rights Subcommittee of the World Health Organization; the Convention on the Rights of a Child; the Foundation for Women’s Health, Research, and Development (FORWARD); the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF); the United Nations’ Children’s Fund (UNICEF); the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of Children; the Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW); the European Union with Amnesty International; and, the United Nations’ Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act have all spent time and resources to end female genital mutilation throughout the world. These organizations work to create culturally-sensitive awareness programs, new pieces of legislation, and propose laws to eliminate female genital mutilation, while being sympathetic to the cultural beliefs and needs of women and children on a global scale (Allotey, et al., 2001, Bradshaw, 2013; Mgbako, et al., 2010).

Bradshaw (2013) stated that 42 countries agreed to support the United Nations efforts to ban female genital mutilation, but the ban fell through due to a backlash from creating a universal law making female circumcision illegal on a local, national, and international scale. Also, based on another perspective of international policies to end female genital mutilation, Bradshaw (2013) believes that the increased discussion around female circumcision could possibly create an increase in the number of occurrences around the world. It will be important to have a measure of accountability to determine what programs are working and if awareness programs have the possibility to increase the number of circumcisions being performed each year (Bradshaw, 2013).

International Polices – Outlook on the Future
While human rights laws are in place on an international scale, it continues to be difficult to enforce behaviors across the globe. International law is not clear and not universally understood by all states within the international system. Also, with no international level police system in place, difficulties enforcing a universal norm is even more prevalent. The International Court of Justice is able to make recommendations on universal codes of conduct expected in the international system; however, accountability measures to ensure compliance is non-existent (Rahman and Toubia, 2001).

According to Allotey, et al. (2001), a solution to solve the problem of female genital mutilation, that will balance the differences between this practice being viewed as feminine or barbaric actions, is not easily found. The creativity of solving future issues relating to female circumcision will have to address cultural concerns, historical traditions, and social beliefs that encompass numerous countries around the world (Edim, et al., 2012). Allotey, et al. (2001) state that, as we attempt to find the simple solution to a complex problem, we should continue to create education and awareness programs that are universally suited to address women from very different cultures and backgrounds.

Policy Weaknesses Relating to Female Genital Mutilation
U.S. Foreign Policy Weaknesses
There are weaknesses relating to United States Foreign Policy around the world. Without an appropriate, almost universal, worldview beyond the current culture in which a person lives, it is impossible to understand how to make significant progress in changing the worldview of another culture. With the Western culture’s acceptance of particular procedures dealing with female cutting, while making others illegal, confusion is created cross-culturally (Johnsdotter, 2010). Clear definitions of universal norms relating to female genital mutilation need to be created that can be easily interpreted across the world. Policies relating to female circumcision cannot contain double standards and misunderstandings of what appropriate behavior looks like (Johnsdotter, 2010).

Domestic Policy Weaknesses
There are obvious issues that arise when prosecuting those who perform female genital mutilation on others. First of all, when a parent performs the cutting, the parent could go to jail, traumatizing the child even further and creating a lack of support for that child after the parent is taken from the home. When this occurs in families, it is difficult to get family members to testify against other family members. When tied to a family, it becomes very difficult to find a resolution to end this practice (Shell-Duncan, et al., 2013).

In some regions of the world, domestic policies, calling for an elimination of female genital mutilation, have shown to have a reverse effect on the number of procedures being performed (McGargill, 2009). Some awareness programs have shown to increase the number of female circumcisions that have taken place in certain areas. No reasons have been stated as to why the rise in procedures occur with awareness programs in some regions and does not occur in others (McGargill, 2009). It is important to craft domestic policies in such a way that the policy is not offensive to cultural or religious historical belief systems, while reaching the broadest audience.

The victim’s inability to discuss female genital mutilation is another hindrance that policymakers face when creating legislation that best fits the needs of the victims and their families (Terry and Harris, 2013). Without this dialogue, Terry and Harris (2013) suggest that medical professionals get involved and bridge the communication barriers between those creating the policies and those in the greatest need of it. Medical professionals can also spread the word to the far-reaching, underserved communities about the dangers of female genital mutilation and showing concern for their well-being, which may not typically be expressed to these people through any other means of service (Terry and Harris, 2013).

While domestic influences can help build the foundation for other countries, there still exists a double standard in the world that inhibits significant progress being made. McGargill (2009) states that in some parts of the world, as in America, most men are circumcised at birth. In some Western areas, it is not uncommon for women to undergo female cutting of the genitalia for cosmetic purposes. In fact, in the United Kingdom, the Department of Health supports female genitalia reconstruction on their website while, at the same time, creates policies to make female genital cutting illegal (McGargill, 2009). This double standard creates unclear lines of appropriateness and inappropriateness that need to be addressed before communication is developed around how to end female cutting and circumcision on a global scale.

International Policy Weaknesses
The views of female genital circumcision vary around the world (Shell-Duncan, et al., 2013). Some regions around the word protect children below a certain age from experiencing cutting; some regions protect all women. Determining what constitutes appropriateness and inappropriateness on a universal scale can be difficult.

Gbadebo (2011) found that half the females in high risk areas did not know the various health concerns related to female circumcision. During his study, Gbadebo (2011) also found that over 80% of the people, who supported female circumcision, belonged to either the Christian or Muslim faith, stressing that religion was not the biggest factor to consider when developing policies to end FGM. These misunderstandings of what female genital mutilation is and where it originates makes it near impossible for policymakers to successfully target specific areas and create universal, international norms and policies that are easily understood around the world (Gbadebo, 2011).

Another weakness, according to White (2001), is that women in other countries do not have the same constitutional rights as women in America. Throughout Africa, many of these women are compared to livestock and not treated with the same dignity as their male counterpart. They often are victims of arranged marriages, secluded to certain rooms so they are not seen when visitors arrive at their house, and must strictly obey the wishes of the men in their family (White, 2001).

Policy Strengths Relating to Female Genital Mutilation
U.S. Foreign Policy Strengths
According to Johansson (2008), United States Foreign Policy has to be carefully designed to maintain sensitivity to the needs and unfamiliar cultural beliefs of people who live differently than Americans. In order for a U.S. foreign policy to be effective worldwide, U.S. government and non-government agencies must work together with their foreign counterparts to address female genital mutilation on a global scale. U.S. foreign policy is strengthened by having the collaborative efforts of these agencies support programs on a local and international level (Johansson, 2003).

Strength is in numbers. The more organizations and support systems that are on board to end female genital mutilation, the more coverage available to educate far-reaching areas and to drive awareness among the locals. These policies are strengthened by the support of the local people who enforce the policies, ensure compliance, and support an end to female genital mutilation in their region (Shell-Duncan, et al., 2013).

Domestic Policy Strengths
According to Mgbako, et al. (2010), domestic strengths include local programs that target hard hit international areas. In Sierra Leone, a program was developed and put into place by Fordham Law School, to educate and teach women how to properly care for and raise their female children. These women were taught to raise their daughters to cook, clean, and other skills that would help them in life (Mgbako, et al., 2010). At the same time, they were educated on the dangers of female genital mutilation and how to spread awareness across the region, educating others on the dangers as well. According to Mgbako, et al. (2010), these training programs were able to discuss women’s health and other issues with the locals to encourage them to take control of their health, including the elimination of female genital mutilation where appropriate.

International Policy Strengths
According to Gbadebo (2011), many organizations have come together to create international policies that could be universally utilized worldwide. In 1994, the World Health Assembly came together to develop universal language and policies to put an end to female genital mutilation (Gbadebo, 2011).
Despite the rise of female circumcision, organizations such as the United Kingdom’s Children’s Fund, Multicultural Working Groups on Harmful Traditional Practices, the Nigeria National Assembly, and the Nigerian Medical Association continue to develop programs for Africa and other region of the world where occurences are the highest (Gbadebo, 2011).

The Public Policy Advisory Network (2012) stated that female genital mutilation is more prevalent today than it has ever been before. When surveying residents of Africa, the Public Policy Advisory Network found that homes with girls from the age of 15 to 49 had over an 80% rate (some over 90%) of circumcision in their home. The statistical data shows that efforts throughout the international system have not been effective in eliminating these procedures, and the new awareness programs and laws being created against female genital mutilation are not effective in lowering the number of occurrences in Africa.

However, Africa does show promise of lessening the number of procedures of non-medical individuals performing the circumcision. According to the Public Policy Advisory Network (2012), medical professionals in Africa are willing to perform the circumcision to avoid the medical issues that often occur from this procedure being done at home. They also suggest that women become more educated in the future on how to take care of their bodies and the dangers associated with female circumcision (Public Policy Advisory Network, 2012).

As people become more aware of the dangers associated with female genital mutilation, perhaps some improvement on the language could be made so that the people who have experienced this or had experience with this do not immediately shut down and feel demoralized. By having universal norms and language in place, people become more comfortable and are open to better understanding proven research that explains the harmful effects to a person’s physical, mental, and emotional health (The Public Policy Advisory Network, 2012).

Future Outlook
Perhaps, Johnsdotter (2012) was on to something, suggesting that licensed doctors should perform female circumcision to avoid any non-medical personnel finding unhealthy ways to perform this procedure, resulting in what often turns out to be mutilation of the female genitalia. Creating a universal norm for doctors to perform the circumcision, on a very small scale with minimal invasiveness, would meet the needs of the historical, cultural, and religious context on which this act is performed (Johnsdotter, 2012).

As the world becomes more globalized and internet availability increases, more people have the ability to better understand the perceived universal norms of humankind. More and more people are standing up for their human rights than ever before, creating the opportunity to significantly decrease the number of female genital mutilation procedures being performed (White, 2001). As governments from all over the world join together, collaborating with NGO’s, the future outlook is promising for creating legislation and programs, which allows people to hold others accountable for mistreatment of women and children and create universal norms that are reasonably and holistically applicable throughout the world (White, 2001).

The future outlook is promising as long as those wishing to create international policies around criminalizing the acts associated and pertaining to female genital mutilation are able to expand their worldview to better understand how to help others expand their worldview as well. Without this global understanding, we are fighting against thousands of years of cultural belief systems that will not be easily altered without serious dedication to the cause. The right approach will make all the difference in the world….literally. bluestar

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American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.


Author Cyndi Wood is a graduate student in International Affairs at the University of North Georgia, one of only six federally designated senior military colleges in the nation, which also carries the distinction of The Military College of Georgia. She holds a Master of Science degree in Conflict Management from Kennesaw State University. She also holds a Bachelor Degree in Psychology and a Bachelor Degree in Organizational Management. Throughout both graduate degrees, Cyndi’s main interest has been International Conflict Management with a focus on Religious-Based Conflict. Her research invokes an unbiased view of World Religions in search of peaceful resolutions to religious-based conflict around the world.


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