Female Genital Mutilation poses a significant health risk to women. It can lead to infection, death, permanent psychological damage, among other complications. Women subject to this practice are being oppressed by men seeking to reinforce their dominance over females. As Boyle points out, this perspective is ethnocentric in that it implicitly assumes no woman would voluntarily choose to undergo this practice. For example, in many countries, Islam is interpreted to restrict the rights of women. Is it disrespectful of their cultures and religion to find these Islamic countries in violation of international human rights standards because of their treatment of women? We must examine then, the intersection between human rights and cultural relativism.
The UN, is the global task force that has been delegated the responsibility of ensuring human rights are protected. The U.N. Charter identifies one of the organization’s primary objectives as “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.” The U.N. Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women condemns FGM as an act of violence against women and states that countries “should condemn violence against women and should not invoke any custom, tradition, or religious consideration to avoid their obligations with respect to its elimination.” When it comes to FGM the strongest push against the act has come from the West, where female circumcisions are publicly practiced. The Western world defines what is morally acceptable. Thus, societies that practice actions that are ‘immoral’ lose sovereignty over their cultural practices. The cultural relativist will argue that such action is reprehensible because it is ethnocentric and fails to acknowledge the reason behind the practice. For many women, this practice is the only way for them to obtain acceptance as women in their cultures. The universalist; however, will argue that the UN and other global organizations are justified in their condemnation of the practice moral authority because they constitute the world community’s consensus regarding ethical behavior between governments and their citizens. How does one determine what social issues should be treated under the rules of universalism as opposed to cultural relativism?