By Saif Rasul Khan, Government Law College, Mumbai.

Female genital cutting, female circumcision, and female genital mutilation are different terms used to describe the inhuman cultural practice of partially or totally removing the external female genetalia. The minor form of Female Genital Mutilation refers to the removal of the clitoris. The severe form of this practice is when all the external genetalia are removed and the vaginal opening is almost stitched completely with a small opening left for urine and menstrual blood.  The World Health Organization has classified this practice into four groups.[1] They are:

  • Type 1 or Clitoridectomy: Partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or the clitoral hood.
  • Type 2 or Excision: Partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora.
  • Type 3 or Infibulation: Narrowing of the vaginal orifice with creation of a covering seal by cutting and placing together the labia minora and/or the labia majora, with or without excision of the clitoris.
  • Type 4 or Unclassified: All other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for nonmedical purposes, for example, pricking, piercing, incising, scraping, and cauterization.

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F.G.M. is performed on women of all ages, even infants and young girls. In the countries where this is practiced, the age when the procedure is done on girls varies. Generally, the procedure is completed before the girl reaches puberty.  In some cases, it is done just before marriage or during a women’s first pregnancy. Female Genital Mutilation is highly prevalent across central Africa, in the southern Sahara desert, and in parts of the Middle East. The vast majority of women who face this come from one of the 28 countries in Africa. It is estimated that worldwide the number of girls who have received Female Genital Mutilation range between 100 million and 140 million.

Female Genital Mutilation is at times, believed to be a religious practice and is generally associated with Islam. However, F.G.M. is not related to any religion and this practice is condemned by all religions equally. No religious text or religious heads support such dreadful social custom. In fact, Islamic Shari’a Law protects children and protects their rights.

This practice has a variety of ill effects on the health of the girl/woman. Severe pain and a substantial risk of hemorrhage may lead to shock and even death of the girl. There is a high risk of infections, with documented reports of abscesses, ulcers, delayed healing, septicemia, tetanus, and gangrene. As these practices are carried out without regard to the health of the girl, such infections are very common. The long-term complications may include urine retention resulting in repeated urinary infections; obstruction of menstrual flow leading to frequent reproductive tract infections and infertility; and prolonged and obstructed labor. Apart from such physical complications, there are psychological and sexual effects. The girl suffers major trauma and discomfort.

The International organisations have declared F.G.M. to be a human rights issue rather than a social issue. The World Health Organisation and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, along with several African and Asian nations, have called for a complete end to the practice of F.G.M. These organisations view that such practices fall under acts of violence against a girl and causes serious lifetime problems. There is also growing international support for condemning F.G.M. and a call for stern penalties given to those who practice it.

Female Genital Mutilation is a practice that violates a number of human rights.  It violates the right to non-discrimination, health and bodily harm and integrity as it involves the removal of healthy sexual organs without medical necessity and is usually performed on adolescents and girls. It is true that F.G.M. is not undertaken with the intention of causing harm and violence against a girl but such practices are equally dismal as any other acts of violence. This practice also violates the right to life, liberty and security of the women and children as such practices, may at times, lead to death. It is in clear violation of various conventions, namely, The Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa.

The United Nations has been active in addressing the concerns of human rights violation of women and children who are the victims of this practice. In 2003, the UN declared February 6 to be the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation. In 2008, several United Nations bodies, including the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, published a joint statement recognizing F.G.M. as a human-rights violation. In December 2012 the General Assembly passed resolution 67/146, calling for intensified efforts to eliminate it. The United Nations called for a complete ban on this practice and the General Assembly passed five resolutions with the support of 194 Member Nations. UN Women, an organization of the UN that is involved in matters of concern for women supported the cause and the Executive Director, on February, 2015 in a keynote address on occasion of the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, said, “FGM violates the right to health and bodily integrity. It violates the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment. It reinforces gender discrimination against girls and women.  It is used as a means to ensure a girl’s marriageability and to control her sexuality and childbearing from a very young age, which in turn perpetuates this cycle of inequality. A vital part of breaking the cycle and eliminating FGM is the empowerment of girls and women, together with women – and men – speaking out to deny the practice, and changed societal attitudes as to how girls are valued.”[2]

Since the 1990s, a number of African countries have passed legislation banning F.G.M., which includes Egypt, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Côte D’Ivoire, Eritrea (2007), Djibouti, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania. Accordingly, violations in these countries are punishable by law.  Nigeria is the latest country that banned this heinous practice by passing the ‘Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act 2015’. According to the statistics of UNICEF, nearly 19.9 million girls and women have undergone mutilations in Nigeria. The women’s rights activists have hailed this move but are skeptical on whether merely passing of laws will curb this practice. Accordingly, it is believed that in addition to laws, there is a need for other sociological tools to achieve the elimination of F.G.M. One of the most important aspects is better access education. Further, there must be provisions for the empowerment and socio-economic development of women in these societies. The societal outlook and mindset to such backward practices needs a re-look. Education is key, and not only education on the harmful impact of F.G.M. on women and infants, but also edu­cation must be used as a source of empowerment for women, to bring information and helping women make informed decisions. The dependence of women on men must be reduced by providing education and employment. Thus, there should be a total eradication of F.G.M. from the society. Women and girls deserve an equal status in society and must not suffer in the name of customs and traditions. The international community, interest parties and NGO’s must continue their struggle against this social evil and protect the rights of these women and children.

[1]World Health Organization, “Eliminating Female Genital Mutilation: An Interagency Statement, OHCHR, UNAIDS, UNDP, UNECA, UNESCO, UNFPA, UNHCR, UNICEF, UNIFEM, WHO” (Geneva: WHO,2008): 23.

[2] UN Women, “Executive Director urges accelerated action to end Female Genital Mutilation” , dated February 06, 2015, http://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2015/02/executive-director-urges-accelerated-action-to-end-female-genital-mutilation#sthash.G887pGp9.dpuf

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