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CIVIS gender studies lectures: Female genital mutilation or modification? The socio-legal conundrums of the international zero-tolerance approach

17 mai 2023

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Open to
CIVIS community
17 mai 2023

This webinar is part of the CIVIS gender studies lectures, organised by the CIVIS Gender Studies Network (CGSN). It aims to bring together and make visible ongoing gender research carried out in the CIVIS member universities.

Female Genital Mutilation or Modification? The socio-legal conundrums of the international zero-tolerance approach

17 May 2023, 17:00 CET

The United Nations (UN) is committed to enforcing zero tolerance of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) on the basis of it violating women’s rights, yet increasing numbers of women and girls in high-income countries undergo labiaplasty and other forms of Female Genital Cosmetic Surgery, which is not considered a human rights violation. In many high prevalence FGM countries there is a trend towards its medicalization. At the same time surgical interventions, such as hymenoplasty, labiaplasty and clitoral reconstructive surgery are growing in availability and popularity in African countries and among migrants in diaspora. While nation states in the global north (+Australia) are estimating the numbers of girls at risk of Female Genital “Mutilation”, and developing strategies to prevent, identify and prosecute new cases of FGM, the economy of female genital cosmetic surgery is booming more than ever. The UN has acknowledged the controversial nature of this medicalized turn. Yet, cosmetic interventions are not subject to debate as the ultimate goal is the complete abandonment of ‘mutilation’ and not modification. With illustrative examples this presentation reveals the systemic inequalities of the current socio-legal framework. I show that current frameworks are not just inconsistent in their approaches to women’s bodies, notions of free choice and informed consent but also latently racist. I argue that there is an urgent need to re-think conceptions of the gendered body to address racial and class-based inconsistencies as well as notions of human rights in post-colonial contexts.


Sarah O’Neill obtained her PhD in Social Anthropology at Goldsmiths College, University of London in 2013. Her PhD research was concerned with local people’s opposition to the national ban on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Fouta Toro, northern Senegal. The thesis was awarded the Audrey Richards Prize of the African Studies Association of the UK in 2014. Between 2013 and 2017 she worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, Belgium. Between 2017 and 2021 she worked as a consultant on FGM/C for the World Health Organization (WHO) and for the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE).

In 2018 she started working as a lecturer at the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB). Between 2019 and 2022 she held a GenderNet funded postdoc position at the School of Public Health-ULB, to work on the health systems response to female genital cutting with partners in Canada, France, Sweden and Switzerland. In 2022 she was a Visiting Professor at the Anthropology Department of the University of Toronto, Canada. Since 2022 she holds an Associate Professor position in Medical Anthropology and a FEDtWIN position between LAMC-ULB and the Royal Museum of Central Africa (Tervuren) to work on the anthropology of food.


This webinar is open to all the CIVIS community (students, academics and staff).

The webinar will take place digitally on Zoom on 17 May 2023 at 17:00 CET, hosted by Minerva - Laboratory on diversity and Gender Inequality at Sapienza Università Di Roma.

To receive a Zoom link and passcode, please register before the seminar by writing to: