Climate change increases female genital mutilation. True or false?

Female genital cutting is a barbarous practice that should have been consigned to the ash-heap of history long before this world experienced the pleasure of beholding my angelic baby face. Unfortunately, however, for the first time after a steady decline over two decades, it is now on the rise worldwide.

Sadly, the biggest contributors to this increase are a few African countries where the custom has never been sufficiently stigmatised. And the main factor behind it is rapid population growth. In other words, more women are now living in countries where the practice persists, which means more women, in absolute terms, are getting cut.

This is according an analysis by UNICEF, which was published this past International Women’s Day (March 8), The New York Times reporter who covered it clearly knew this, given that she’s covered the subject for two decades, and even referenced the report. And yet, somehow, she still managed to drag in climate change as a major factor behind the resurgence of the practice.

Weather disasters linked to climate change, so her argument goes, make “people increasingly vulnerable and more reliant on traditional community structures.” The implication is that, in places where those traditional structures include female cutting, climate change drives up the practice.

Upon sober examination, this reasoning makes very little sense. For one, erratic weather has been a constant feature in Africa forever. Additionally, multiple extreme weather events occurred during the two decades in which female cutting declined precipitously. Furthermore, even those countries and regions where female cutting has been effectively eradicated often experience extreme weather events.

In short, there is no evidence that climate change has anything to do with the recent resurgence of female cutting. The spurious attempt to link them is just the latest instalment in an absurd trend by pundits and commentators to pin the blame for age-old African maladies to climate change.

It’s not limited to Africa, of course, but it is particularly notable in contemporary foreign media coverage of the continent.

Consider the movement – about which we wrote recently – to eradicate food insecurity on the continent by promoting the cultivation of neglected traditional crops. This scheme is motivated, in part, by the conviction that the effects of climate change will make it increasingly difficult to grow introduced crops – like rice, maize and wheat – on the continent.

But there are two major problems with this position.

The first is that it is self-defeating. Traditional crops grow better, not because they are immune to climate change, but rather because they’ve been cultivated on the continent for longer, and so are better adapted. There is no reason to believe that drastic weather events, caused by climate change, wouldn’t affect them as much as introduced crops.

The second problem, which is more important, is that climate change is in fact a minor factor behind food insecurity in Africa (if at all); food insecurity has been a problem for decades but has improved tremendously in the last few decades. Where it persists, it’s often because of conflict or other forms of instability. Even the snobs at the World Economic Forum know enough to acknowledge this.

But doesn’t climate change at least drive conflict as well, so that it drives up food insecurity, at least indirectly?

Well, not really. Most of the armed conflicts in Africa have complex roots, few of which can be convincingly traced back to the changing climate. One would need to be decidedly quixotic to assert that, hadn’t the climate changed, Somalia wouldn’t have spiralled into its eternal civil war.

Likewise, any sensible betting man (if that isn’t an oxymoron), would be wise to put their odds squarely on the likelihood that the two military thugs currently tearing up Sudan would still be doing so even if the temperatures in Khartoum had remained at their pre-industrial levels. Ditto Mr Kagame’s marauding mercenaries in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.



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Now, that the climate has been changing lately isn’t in question. And though the degree to which human activity is driving that change is debatable, it is obvious that it has played a meaningful role. It therefore makes sense that, in so far as climate change is bad for us and the planet, and to the extent that we can do something about it, we should do something about it.

Moreover, those who care deeply about this issue are perfectly within their rights to campaign for such action. But that doesn’t mean they get to shoehorn it into every conversation about human suffering and social ills. It isn’t that climate change is irrelevant; the climate is, after all, all-encompassing. But so is oxygen, and yet we never blame oxygen as for murders, though all murderers live on it.

Seeing all tragedies as functions of climate change smacks of desperation and elite snobbery. And, what’s worse, it is likely to do more harm than good, especially in Africa. For it is with regard to this continent that we most need to be serious when diagnosing the root causes of developmental and social ills, given that so few of them have been solved here.

Blaming genuinely horrific occurrences, such as the resurgence of female genital cutting, on climate change effectively obviates the efficacy of any potential attempts to tackle them in the near term, since the climate is unlikely to stop changing any time soon, even if humans stopped contributing to it immediately.

It may very well be that the motivations of those who do so are humanitarian, but I despair of the righteousness of anyone who would so casually condemn millions more women and girls to this barbarity until China stops burning coal.

Is climate change being blamed for too many planetary problems? Leave your comments below.  

Mathew Otieno is a Kenyan writer, blogger and dilettante farmer. Until 2022, he was a research communications coordinator at a university in Nairobi, Kenya. He now lives in rural western Kenya, near the shores of Lake Victoria, from where he's pursuing a career as a full-time writer while concluding his dissertation for a master's degree. His first novel is due out this year.

Image: Unicef   


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  • David Page
    commented 2024-04-09 10:11:48 +1000
    “Peoples” have no right, but individual people do.
  • mrscracker
    What part do they think climate change plays in the mutilations the West performs on its own children? I never fail to be amazed at how un self aware people can be. If we just took a closer look at the troubles in our own backyards…
    Thank you so much for sharing your articles Mr. Otieno. I always look forward to reading them. May God bless you & your family.
  • Mathew Otieno
    published this page in The Latest 2024-04-02 15:10:48 +1100