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Human Rights Quarterly 23.3 (2001) 836-840

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Book Review

Female Genital Mutilation: A Guide to Laws and Policies Worldwide

Female Genital Mutilation: A Guide to Laws and Policies Worldwide, by Anika Rahman & Nahid Toubia (Zed Books, 2000).

Female Genital Mutilation: A Guide to Laws and Policies Worldwide is a book that attempts to fulfill a dual purpose, to serve both as a an analytical review of efforts to stop female genital mutilation (FGM) and as a documentary resource on laws relating to FGM. The book accomplishes this latter purpose more successfully than the former.

Part II of the book, entitled "Reference," contains a country-by-country guide to the laws of forty-one countries, including twenty-eight African countries in which FGM is practiced and thirteen European, North American and Asian Pacific countries in which issues relating to FGM have arisen with regard to immigrant populations from Africa. The inclusion of relevant legal text is particularly helpful as often these texts are very difficult to obtain. There are also several useful charts in Part II of the book, including one summarizing the status of law in these countries, with a clearly organized breakdown of criminal laws, [End Page 836] child protection laws, constitutional laws, civil laws and ministerial decrees, as well as a breakdown of laws and regulations specifically relating to FGM and existing laws and regulations not specifically relating to FGM that have been used in relation to FGM. The "Reference" section of the book is a much-needed comprehensive legal resource for all those studying and working to end FGM.

Part I of the book, entitled "A Human Rights Approach," is the analytical component of the book, which following an overview of and introduction to FGM, discusses the international human rights law relevant to the practice of FGM and the role of law more generally in stopping the practice of FGM. This part of the book includes recommendations for governments with regard to legal, regulatory and policy measures they should take. It also comments briefly on the role of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) at the community, national, regional and international levels, in efforts to stop FGM. Ironically, although the book as a whole is primarily focused on the law, Part I evinces a strong ambivalence on the part of the authors towards the use and promotion of the law as playing an active role in efforts to stop FGM. This ambivalence colors the analysis set forth in the book, leading to various individual conclusions that do not represent well-reasoned analysis of the law in question or to recommendations and cautions that fail to take into account the human rights framework that the authors themselves endorse.

The authors acknowledge that law can play a positive role in efforts to change culture. More often, however, their comments on the role of law in social change are peppered with reservations and concerns, which at times clearly indicate the view that the law does not always have a positive role to play. Their fundamental premise, that legislation alone can never be effective in ending FGM, has great merit. Education and other community outreach initiatives are an integral component of any successful strategy. Yet the critical role that law can and should play in such a strategy is somewhat discounted by the authors. Repeatedly they stress the limited role that they believe laws play in changing human behavior and their view that while some governments may find law enforcement mechanisms appropriate, they may not always be an effective strategy. When the authors do acknowledge that law can be a useful tool for change, their rationale is that they give NGOs and individuals greater leverage in their advocacy efforts. There is little if any acknowledgment of the role of law in providing protection for girls at risk of FGM. As evidenced by recent cases in Kenya and Tanzania, increasingly girls are fleeing FGM and seeking refuge, not only abroad but through the legal systems in their own countries. In a human rights framework, these girls have an absolute right to legal...