Increasing awareness and cooperation among religious leaders and communities would be key to uprooting this social evil.
Imagine being a woman, and being told that in certain parts of the world, to prove your ‘purity’ you would need to cut off your clitoris, labia, and other genital organs? Your tradition and religion demand it too, and you would probably have to do it when you were an infant. Sounds barbaric, abhorrent, and revolting? It is. But unfortunately for over 200 million women across 30-odd countries, this is the reality, a daily nightmare. These are the women who have been victims of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
World Health Organisation (WHO) describes FGM as a surgical procedure involving alteration, damage, or removal of the female genitalia either partially or fully for non-medical purposes. There are few, if any, benefits arising out of FGM. Rather, it poses a plethora of risks including urinary and sexual problems, formation of cysts, excessive bleeding, and infections. And that is not including the psychological problems that come along with removal of genitalia. All of which underscore the extremely harmful nature of FGM. However, instances of FGM are of pandemic proportions across Africa, Middle East, and partly in Asia, with victims sometimes being girls as young as 3 years old. Estimates suggest that FGM annually poses a threat to three million girls.
Why did FGM Become Popular?
It is noteworthy that majority of instances of FGM are concentrated in the ‘contiguous’ zone stretching from East to West Africa. The countries within this zone have widespread prevalence of FGM amongst children between the ages of 0 to 15, 80% of whom are below the age of five.
FGM is considered as a rite of passage into womanhood in such countries, which has contributed to its popularity. Ethnicity also plays a key role in determining the prevalence of FGM. Ethnic groups as Kurds, Kirkuk, Sulaymaniyah, have a much higher rate of FGM vis-à-vis rest of the country that they are based in. FGM is seen as a concept of ‘purity’ and is regarded as part of one’s cultural identity, and has moreover been going on since generations, thus, it has become a part of life of the people, in-fact women do not get married in these countries if they have not undergone the procedure. A lot of people including the women who have gone under the knife themselves, are unaware of the ill-effects of FGM, and rather associate it with the concepts of purity and womanhood, hence, there is much less resistance against the practice as would be expected.
But, perhaps, the most defining factor which influences FGM today is religion. Worldwide, Indonesia, Egypt, and Ethiopia have the highest number of women affected by FGM. Highest rates of FGM per capita are witnessed in Somalia, Guinea, Djibouti, Egypt, and Sierra Leone, where 90 percent of all women have undergone this procedure. Most of these countries referred above have a Muslim majority population. Amongst Muslims, the practice is observed amongst sub-sects of Shia Muslims such as the Zaydis of Yemen, Ibhadis of Oman, and Daudi Bohras of India. Aside from Islam, FGM is also seen among adherents of other Abrahamic religions too such as the Jewish sect, Beta Israel, of Ethiopia. In Niger, 55% of Christian women have undergone this procedure. In Egypt, the Coptic Christians are involved in this practice.
FGM has never been prescribed by these religions, in fact, the practice pre-dates these religions. However, with passage of time, it has become assimilated into the culture of the people in certain geographical areas who adhere to these religions, due to which it is now seen as a religious mandate as well as a tradition in these countries. Worse still, migration from these areas has led to FGM spreading across Europe and North America too. Thus, countries which had in the past, never witnessed FGM, are now reporting instances of it amongst immigrants. In India, FGM is practised even in metropolitan cities as Mumbai, and is termed as Khatna. Due to the unwillingness of the Syneda, the high priest of Bohras, from engaging on this issue this has gained impetus within the community.
Is There No Protection?
FGM has already been labelled a form of torture and a violation of basic human rights of an individual by numerous inter-governmental declarations, as well as international forums. However, inspite of being criminalised, FGM still prevails.
The Beijing Declaration (1995) was the first instrument which specifically called for the protection of women against FGM. Thereafter, the WHO, UNICEF, and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) issued a joint statement calling for total and comprehensive ban on FGM.
The United Nations (UN) has attempted to fight off all the factors which contribute to FGM. The UN, in its 23rd Special Session had issued a report, ‘Women 2000: gender equality, development, and peace for the 21st century’ which prescribed roadmaps to combat all forms of gender discrimination including those on grounds of health of women. Considering the fact that FGM is deemed to be a part of custom, the UNGA in a 2002 resolution highlighted the dangers posed to women by customary practices, specifically, FGM and later on via a 2012 resolution, called for elimination of FGM. Since religion is often used to justify FGM, we find that the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief prohibits usage of religious customs which are harmful to children. In the latest developments, the UN sponsored Sustainable Development Goal, which came into effect in 2015, aimed to eradicate the practice of FGM, along with the other controversial customs as child marriage by the year 2030.
Regional instruments, especially in Africa (where FGM is rampant) such as Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women of Africa (Maputo Protocol) have called for eliminating FGM. The Second Pan African Forum on the Africa Common Position for Children and Call for Accelerated Action on the Implementation of the Plan of Action towards Africa Fit for Children have also advocated for abolishing FGM. Numerous countries have also recognised the perils of FGM, and have come up with domestic legislations to curb it. Almost 20 African countries including Benin, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, and Tanzania have passed legislations criminalising FGM, with penalties ranging from monetary fines to lifelong imprisonment. Twelve countries including Australia, Canada, Italy, New Zealand, Spain, United Kingdom, and United States, which receive immigrants FGM prone nations, have criminalised the practice.
But, had FGM not already been criminalised, it would have still been an offence, considering that it causes bodily harm to women and children, specifically to their reproductive organs and is often done non-consensually.
Observations and Suggestions
As we have seen, there is no dearth of laws on FGM. The problem lies in their implementation. The UN and other agencies, since the new millennia have vigorously worked on it. Since then, such efforts have borne fruit in some countries. There been encouraging signs with numerous victims of FGM starting to speak out openly against it in India, U.K., U.S.A., and in various other countries. The sheer brutality and goriness of their experiences leaves one at a loss of words. Open discussion has also led to FGM rates spiralling down amongst certain groups, such as the Bedouins in Israel, where FGM was almost eliminated by 2009.
In Africa, though FGM is slowly dwindling, yet owing to the sheer enormity of the practice, and the deeply rooted beliefs favouring it, several years will be required for wiping it out. South America and Asia have witnessed instances of FGM, albeit sporadic, but since these instances never come to light, and also because the victims are too young to protest, no appropriate legal structure exists in these continents to tackle it. The absence of laws shall prove to be a deterrent in combating the practice.
The biggest hurdle in eliminating FGM is the absence of an international watchdog tasked with permanently monitoring the situation. Also, since most of the affected countries are poor economies, there is a dearth of funds to carry out the work on the ground. Medical infrastructure has not properly developed in these countries, hence proper care and treatment of women who have been made to undergo the procedure, is absent. Since FGM pertains to a person’s private life, hence most victims have been socially conditioned to accept it in silence, hence data obtained is not always accurate.
The first step in cleansing the society of this evil, involves increasing awareness in the countries which are hit by the practice. Penal codes of all countries should carry punishments against it. Thus, in states where FGM is not already criminalised, it should become an offence by itself. In countries where FGM has not yet reached mammoth proportions, such as countries which receive migrants, the areas of risk should be identified and efforts undertaken to weed out the practice during its nascent stage. Women who have been forced to undergo this procedure should be duly compensated.
To completely curb this practice, a steadfast approach on the lines of the UN Sustainable Development Goals should be followed. The religious clerics who hold a great sway over the people should be more proactive in speaking out against the practice. Regional cooperation amongst nations should be advanced to share data and monitor the rates of FGM across countries. These measures carried out in a concentrated manner, and in cohesion, by all the nations involved, can help bring an end to this malady.
Ashirbad Nayak is a fourth year student of National Law University, Odisha. He has a keen interest in international law and policy.
Image Source: Hindustan Times