Female Genital Mutilation: An Abhorrent Human Rights Violation or an Essential Cultural Practice?

Introduction

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) as “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons“. FGM is practiced in over 30 countries and is carried out on girls between infancy to early puberty and in most cases, without their consent- affecting nearly 200 million girls and women alive today.

Practicing communities believe that female circumcision is necessary for a girl to become a woman and thus is essential for childbearing and marriage. The practice also aims at repressing and controlling sexual feelings of pleasure in women which would be ‘insatiable’ if the clitoris is not removed. FGM thus enforces the cultural value of sexual purity in females. From the standpoint of religion, FGM becomes necessary for Islamic women in certain communities. However, no religion clearly promotes or condones it. 

The Deadly Aftermath

FGM has absolutely no health benefits and on the contrary has severe implications for the sexual, psychological and reproductive health of girls and women, including death. Hazardously, it is often carried out with unhygienic knives and tools such as pieces of glass, razor blades and thorns- while anesthetics and antiseptics are usually not used for the procedure. More brutally, in some communities, girls’ legs are often tied together to immobilize them for 10-14 days. In Infibulation (Type III) the genitals are unstitched (the outer labia and clitoris are removed) and then sewn back after inserting a tiny piece of wood or reed as a small opening for urination and menstruation. unstitched to allow childbirth and then, sewn back again. 

Women who have been subjected to the practice are now sharing their horrific experiences with the world and advocating for change. Millions of survivors are breaking centuries of silence and challenging gender-based violence to achieve FGM-free childhoods. A popular Somali poem, Feminine Pain by Dahabo Ali Muse, describes FGM as one of the three feminine sorrows: “…It is what my grandmother called the three feminine sorrows: the day of circumcision, the wedding night and the birth of a baby.”

FGM, Human Rights and International Law

The practice of FGM is considered a grave violation of basic human rights and dignity globally, with the United Nations (UN) calling for the end of this tradition by 2030 and describing it as an “abhorrent human rights violation affecting women and girls around the world, limiting their opportunities to realize their rights and full potential”. Further, several UN resolutions have also advocated for the eradication of FGM, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), UN Convention on Child Rights (CRC) and The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

To the same effect, in the past two decades, various historic judgments or legislations against FGM have been passed across countries. In the continent of Africa, 24 countries have legislations or decrees against FGM. Further, combined action against FGM has been taken through various conventions and treaties, especially in the last two decades, like the Maputo Protocol of 2013. In accordance with the same ideology, The Girl Generation, an Africa-led campaign to oppose FGM worldwide, was launched in 2014. In 2007, Egypt, the country with the highest number of cases of FGM in the world (97% of the population), put a ban on all forms of the practice. The Islamic authorities of Egypt also vehemently insisted that Islam opposes female genital mutilation. Other countries of the region have also implemented strict legislations against FGM: Kenya, in 2001, enforced the Children’s Act, which criminalizes performing the practice on girls younger than 18; Somalia legally banned FGM in 2012 and also issued a fatwa (religious edict) banning FGM, insisting that there is no religious or cultural basis for the practice. In countries like Uganda, the laws regarding FGM are stricter still: performing FGM attracts up to 10 years in jail and if the patient loses her life during the process, a life sentence is ordered. Recently, in a historic move, Sudan has also criminalized the practice with three years in jail and fine.

Globally, a study by UN Population Fund (UNFPA) indicates that nearly 59 countries have enacted laws against FGM, including the United Kingdom, Denmark, Canada, Norway, Spain, New Zealand and Sweden.

Defending FGM: An Essential Cultural Right?

Advocates of this brutal practice argue that in groups where FGM is practiced, it is backed by religious, social and cultural dictates that are core to such societies and hence, legal prohibitions on the practice would be a violation of the Cultural Rights guaranteed to all individuals and communities. However, Culture cannot be used as a tool to condone violence on young girls and violate their basic human rights. It is important to understand that culture is dynamic and hence, must constantly adapt itself to the changing needs and aspirations of its people and evolve with their understanding. The protection of such horrific practices in the name of culture and religion is a dangerous trend that directly attacks the core idea of Human Rights and therefore, must be challenged consistently.

The way forward: Suggestions and Solutions

Every 10 seconds, somewhere in the world, a young girl becomes victim to the practice of FGM. Eliminating this torturous practice requires a multi-sectorial, sustained and community-led approach: Firstly, while anti-FGM legislations and policies must be strongly supported and protected by the international community, they have not proven to be enough to eliminate the practice and greater emphasis must be put on achieving a synthesis between government agencies, NGOs, women and child rights activists, healthcare professionals, religious leaders, lawyers and survivors.

Secondly, efforts to end the practice must shatter the wall of silence and indifference that envelops cultural and religious practices. This needs education, awareness and public dialogue to de-link the practice from culture- cutting off its roots.

Thirdly, it is imperative to understand that the true elimination of FGM lies beyond law and instead lies in understanding and respecting societies with cultures different from ours- working with and not against them. It is impossible to end such practices simply by citing reasons and causes alien to their understanding of human society, community and basic idea of what constitutes wrong and right; hence, local and international organizations working for the eradication of FGM must work at the grass root level. All programs must be non-judgmental and non-coercive and instead, must engage with affected communities to encourage a collective decision to abandon FGM.

Female Genital Mutilation is an inhumane practice and a critical human rights issue. Concentrated efforts and commitment on the part of national and international actors would lead to the practice being eliminated within a generation. The goal is simple: FGM free childhoods.

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