FGM and protecting the rights of the girl child

By Sabin Muzaffar

International Women's Initiative News Writer

Today, the world celebrates the International Day of the Girl Child. While there are numerous stories of progress in improving girls’ lives, many roadblocks still remain. One of the most harrowing obstacles is the flagrant persistence of harmfultraditional practices, particularly Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C).

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) over 200 million women and girls alive today in 30 countries worldwide have suffered Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). It is an age-old custom exercised in many parts of the world, especially in African and Middle Eastern communities to ‘cleanse’ the girl before she is married off.

A horrific tradition that first came into limelight in the ’70s, the act of FGM was recognized by the United Nations as an extreme violation of the human rights of women and children, a danger to female sexual reproductive health and a severe form of gender-based violence. The Convention on the Rights of the Child was consequently adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1989.

Moreover, the United Nations General Assembly issued two resolutions against FGM: 67 and 146. These were reaffirmed by resolution 69 and 150 in 2014. In the same year the elimination of harmful practices, including FGM, was identified as one of the key targets of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved within the 2016 to 2030 period.

Although it has been outlawed in a number of countries where it is performed, the laws enforced are either weak or possess too many loopholes consistently perpetuating this practice.

Female cutting is a ritual that predates even Christianity and Islam, finding its roots in the eras of the Phoenicians, Hittites and Ethiopians; it is usually performed on girls aged between zero to 15 years. FGM has been classified by the World Health Organization (WHO) into four main types according to the level of gravity. Type I includes the partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or the prepuce (clitoridectomy); Type II refers to the partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora (excision); Type III involves the narrowing of the vaginal orifice through a covering seal created by cutting and appositioning the labia minora and/or the labia majora (infibulation); Type IV, refers to all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, such as labia elongation, pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterization.

Type I is thought to be similar to male circumcision. In reality, however, this notion could not be any further from truth – as the FGM is done with no medical reason and can have hazardous long and short term health implications from excessive bleeding caused by severing nerve ends and sensitive genital tissue, increased risk of HIV/AIDs especially through its transmission accelerated by vaginal epithelium trauma enabling direct contact with the virus and with the use of unsterilized instruments, fistula, stillbirth, septicaemia to complicated childbirth due to prolonged labor, post-partum hemorrhage, recourse to episiotomy – a surgical cut given before birth etc. Other risks include painful urination, impaired wound healing, keloids or excessive scar tissue formation, perinatal issues, chronic genital and reproductive tract infections, and even death.

Statistics show that in Somalia, 98% of women aged 15 to 49 have suffered from some form of FGM, followed by 97% in Guinea, 91% Djibouti, 90% in Sierra Leone, 89% in Mali, 87% in Egypt and 83% in Eriteria. In some parts of Ethiopia, nearly two in three girls are cut before turning five years of age. Beliefs based on misinformation, customs and superstition play pivotal role in perpetuating this act. Sometimes the fear of  stigmatization drives girls to undertake the procedure. They see it as a kind of right of passage, necessary not only to increase their chances of finding a husband but also not to feel like an outsider in their community.

From a financial perspective, FGM is a lucrative source of income. Traditional practitioners in Uganda, for instance, can earn anywhere between $20 to $30 for each cutting. In countries where FGM is outlawed, practitioners often move across villages, and even borders, to get clients. Similarly, families travel to get girls cut if the practice is banned in their area.

Speaking about her childhood ordeal, Anonymous Zimbawe narrates how her grandmother urged her to adopt this family ritual. “Being an 11 year, I was a bit scared for I had never seen my grandmother so serious before. She asked me to remove my under garments and told me to find two things that hang close to my vagina and start pulling them until they were long. She reasoned that all girls including my female cousins had done it and that I was the only one left not doing it. I was cautioned that my husband would leave me if he discovered that I hadn’t performed this custom.” Brainwashed and unaware, the girl obediently complied. Little did she know that this was FGM Type IV Labia Elongation.

In Egypt, female cutting is still widely practiced even though new laws have been introduced to counter the custom. The practice was criminalized in 2008 though is still being performed even by medical representative on the lookout for a lucrative business.

More recently, Egyptian government imposed new penalties for FGM. According to the Human Rights Watch, the Egyptian parliament approved new and more stringent penalties that also include jail time for accomplices and perpetrators; also holding medical facilities accountable. With combined efforts by Egyptian policy makers as well as international organizations such as UNICEF and UNDP change is set in motion. UNDP reports positive figures as per the Egypt Demographics and Health Survey stating: “The percentage of circumcised girls aged 15-17 has dropped from 74% in 2008 to 61% in 2014. And mothers’ attitudes are changing, too: 92% of mothers were circumcised, but only 35% of them intend to circumcise their daughters.” The organization is also making headway with campaigns like FGM-free villages that celebrate stories of women who have abandoned the custom, holding such stories as examples to be emulated.

In 2007, UNFPA and UNICEF launched what is now considered the largest global initiative to promote the abandonment of FGM. The program ‘Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting [FGM/C): Accelerating Change’ was implemented in 15 African countries including Egypt, Ethiopia, Somalia, Mali, Guinea and Kenya etc from 2008 to 2013. One of the foremost successes of the program was to initiate a "national ownership, capacity and leadership for the abandonment of FGM/C.”

Although strong laws have been passed in Burkina Faso, another target country of the UNFPA-UNICEF program, concerted efforts are still needed to change societal mindset. On the positives side though, the government has played a positive role in implementing initiatives to improve the lives of women and the girl-child. As per UNFPA report: “As early as 1990 the government established a national telephone hotline called the Green Phone: SOS Excision to encourage people to report cases of FGM/C, even though, at that time, they were not illegal. Today, such reports serve as the basis for legal interventions and prosecutions. Information about the hotline is disseminated on radio, TV, in newspapers, on posters, at public events, in street theatre and door-to-door by the police.” After a case is reported and investigation completed, perpetrators are brought to justice publicly through mobile courts and girls are brought to medical centers for treatment and FGM assessment.

Kenya is yet another example where FGM is still practiced. The tradition has been banned in the country by the Prohibition against FGM Act of 2011. Talking about the current state of affairs in Kenya, UN Women’s Empower Women Global Champion for Women Economic Empower, Liz Guantai remarks: “Any person who performs FGM commits an offence. If that person causes death by FGM that person shall be convicted for life imprisonment. I view it a consequence of patriarchy, since women belonging to these communities want to be circumcised as it is an unspoken prerequisite for marriage.” She also believes that ending the harmful culture entails empowering men within communities to change such morbid rules. “They (men) should learn that a good wife is not one who is circumcised. If men say No to FGM, it will be easier to get rid of this primitive ritual.”

Not many cases concerning FGM are reported in Pakistan, it is an act practiced with utmost secrecy. Pakistani communications consultant Farah K. Siddiqui narrates the story of a friend belonging to a minority community who had undergone the knife in early childhood. “For me the most horrific aspect was that my friend to this day defends the practice because it has a cultural prescription. Migration helped assimilate different belief systems, which consider such acts a part of woman’s purification, presumably preserving her modesty and ensuring that she maintains ‘discipline’. I had a screaming match with her upon finding out that her five-year old niece went through it days before we were talking about it,” she explains. These rituals have spread far and are now being carried out in different parts of the world under the pretense of religion that in reality bears no semblance to it.

In September 2016, the Indonesian government launched a much-needed campaign against Female Genital Mutilation. Led by the country’s minister for women’s empowerment and child protection Yohana Yembise, the initiative aimed at employing ‘scientific evidence’ to discourage religious and women’s groups who support FGM. The country vision to end FGM has especially been mired by challenges and controversy relating to female cutting. Although the government introduced laws banning the custom, it quickly went back on its words due to pressure from religious organizations. It earlier stated that the procedure could take place if conducted by medical professionals. Fortunately though, this regulation was repealed in 2014.

Female Genital Mutilation is an act not restricted to under-developed countries of the world. In June 2016, it was found that more than 1200 cases were reported during the first three months of the year in England; with at least two percent of new cases lodged were on UK born girls under 18 and 11 girls.

Whether designed to prevent presumed ‘promiscuity’ in women, cleansing her for her future husband, ground reality is that the centuries-old tradition has neither has any health benefit nor religious significance. The only purpose for this gross human rights violation and an organized crime against women, especially that of the girl child, is a control over a female’s bodily autonomy by endangering her well-being, health and bodily integrity that essentially influence how a human being is valued; putting her in abject physical and mental confinement.

Completely eliminating FGM is a huge challenge for it entails countering irrational sentiments under the guise of tradition and culture, dismantling deep-seated patriarchal mindset, designing women-friendly laws that bolster human rights and most importantly bringing men on board who are pivotal to alleviating the plight of women.

While it is critical to devise national laws against FGM, equally important is to improve their effectiveness and implementation through policies that actually confer key responsibilities to government actors. By doing so, the State could offer a much needed support to communities for ending FGM. Another game-changer is participatory action and engagement of government and civil society; a collaboration that also includes strong voices at community level to begin awareness raising campaigns as well as sexual and reproductive health services. Until such steps are taken, women’s safety will remain a distant notion.