Female Genital Mutilation: “a practice like this has no place”

Navika Mehta 

While world leaders may have pledged to eliminate FGM by 2030, the current commitment and actions are not enough

On April 22, as the world grappled with the COVID outbreak, the Sudanese government approved an amendment that criminalized Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Anyone who performs FGM now faces 3 years in prison and a fine. This ruling is momentous because with one of the highest rates in the world, in Sudan, nine out of ten girls and women have undergone some form of FGM. The practice is, however, not limited to Sudan. It is prevalent in around 30 countries across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia and also in migrant communities from these areas living in Europe and North America. FGM is thus a global issue and has affected an estimated 200 million women.

“It has no health benefits and leads to severe physical complications and mental health issues”

The World Health Organisation defines FGM as a procedure that “involves the partial or complete removal of female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.”  It has no health benefits and leads to severe physical complications and mental health issues. It is categorised into 4 types depending on the variability of removal. Type 1, clitoridectomy, which is the partial or total removal of the clitoral glans, and/or the prepuce. Type 2, excision, removal of the clitoral glans, and the labia minora, with or without labia majora. Type 3, infibulation, cutting, or removal of part or all of the external genitalia and stitching or narrowing of the vaginal opening. Type 4 is any other type of harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes like burning, scraping, or piercing.  

In India, Type 1 and Type 4 forms of FGM,  known as “Khatna” or “khafd”,  is practiced in the Bohra Community. The Bohras are a sect of Shia Ismaili Muslims based in Gujarat, India.

In 2015, Masooma Ranalvi, co-founder of We Speak Out, a survivor-led movement, along with other survivors launched an online petition that calls for “the end of FGM in India”. The petition has gained over 200,000 signatures to date. We Speak Out has since launched several community-focused campaigns, tried to engage with the clergy, and also petitioned the Indian Government, in particular, the Ministry of Women and Child Development, and the National Commission for Women among other bodies. They also work with the Bohra community internationally to create awareness about FGM and fight for the rights of Bohra women.

Speaking to Bol Magazine, Ranalvi explains: “It’s a practice of a form of control over a woman’s body, it’s a form of subjugation, it’s a reinforcement of a patriarchal notion that women should not be allowed to experience sexual pleasure and should be controlled.” She expresses that “For a modern society where we are talking of women in power, women opposing the discrimination against women, where we have constitutions across the world which talk of equality, free from discrimination, a practice like this has no place.”

In 2017, a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was raised to the Supreme Court (SC) by Sunita Tiwari under Article 32  (for enforcement of a fundamental right) of the constitution. The SC questioned the basis of FGM as an “essential religious practice”. While Tiwari condemned it under Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act 2012, the respondents argued it should be protected under the right to practice and propagate religion under, Article 25 (Freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion) and Article 26 (Freedom to manage religious affairs). The case has since been referred to a larger bench with no further developments.

In 2018, a quantitative study surveying 94 participants across five states in India was conducted by Anantnarayan, Diler & Menon. It found that FGM was prevalent amongst 74% of girls aged seven and above, of all respondents in the Bohra community. This study also found a case of FGM in the Sunni Muslim community in Kerala. 

“FGM has no religious basis”

Although it is majorly identified with Islam, FGM has no religious basis. In Africa, there is evidence that shows Jews, Christians, Muslims, and indigenous groups practice FGM. It is known to have existed since before Christianity and Islam arrived in Africa.  Nonetheless, it is a “harmful cultural practice” that is in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) along with 1966 ICCPR, 1979 CEDAW. In 2012, the UN General Assembly Resolution (A/RES/67/146) banned FGM worldwide. 

“Moreover, survivors also suffer psychological trauma that includes anger, PTSD, depression, anxiety, memory loss, nightmares, and feelings of betrayal”

FGM may also be referred to as “Female Circumcision”, however, it must not be compared to “male circumcision” because it has far greater physiological and social implications. Physical complications arising from it include fever, severe pain, infections like tetanus, urinary problems, excessive bleeding or hemorrhage, genital tissue swelling, shock syndrome, and death. Moreover, survivors also suffer psychological trauma that can include anger, P.T.S.D., depression, anxiety, memory loss, nightmares, and feelings of betrayal. The social implication of FGM that leads to its persistence is that it continues as a social norm and tradition to ensure girls are socially accepted and restore or maintain the family’s honor and status.

When it comes to actively engage in ending the practice by speaking out, it is not easy for survivors of FGM. It is particularly difficult to speak out because of the social and psychological consequences. Ranalvi explains: “There’s a lot of trauma which is associated with it, it’s not easy to talk about it, there’s pain that’s associated.” Ranalvi herself, at the age of 7, was taken to a dirty apartment in Bhindi Bazaar in Mumbai. While she recalls the horror of that day, it was only later in life that she understood that she was subjected to FGM. She then connected with other survivors across the world to start a movement to end the practice. 

The secretive nature of FGM further prevents it from coming into the public eye. According to Ranalvi, people within the community are often unaware of this practice that has existed over generations moving from “mother to daughter”.  She compares it to instances of child sexual abuse that are often hidden within the family. But while child sexual abuse is widely acknowledged to be wrong, FGM is still seen positively by those who continue to subject girls to it.  Pluralistic ignorance is another factor that may lead to the continuation of this social norm. There may be people who have chosen not to practice FGM but may have not openly or publicly expressed their choice. This situation may lead to members assuming that others continue to practice it and thus may accept it as the norm. Thus, the conversation started by We Speak Out within the community and outside it, is essential to removing the secrecy associated with the practice. 

“Those who speak out against FGM face backlash and social boycott from the community”

Those who speak out against FGM face backlash and social boycott from the community. Masooma Ranalvi explains that this is a huge deterrent for those want to speak out because of broader social implications: “in our society and not just in my community, even in other communities, women are always bottom of the rung, women have never been given the power to speak, women have never been given the right to make decisions about their bodies and there is a complete control which is there and a women speaking out against something is never accepted…the kind of social pressures under which a woman works and lives are tremendous.” The threat of social isolation as a consequence of speaking out against the practice makes it even more difficult.

However, it is not simply the broader societal pressures that lead to the continuation of FGM, women have also perpetuated it through generations. “The biggest challenge is understanding how patriarchy controls the minds of women.” Highlighting the fact that it is women who continue this practice, Ranalvi states that the biggest opponents of the movement are also women. “It’s the women who take their daughters, and it is precisely these women, a section of these women who today have become supporters of this practice, who are supporting this practice and not willing to question it.” 

To end FGM, Ranalvi emphasises that there is no one solution: “It’s very deep-seated, it’s traditional, it’s cultural, it’s religious, it’s associated with women, it’s very patriarchal, so it is difficult to dislocate and dislodge it but laws are important and have their place in the scheme of things but laws alone are not going to be able to eradicate this practice, we do need to work with awareness, work with education and work within communities.”

“The fight to end FGM is thus a fight in which everyone should take an active part, regardless if it affects you or not”

The fight to end FGM is thus a fight in which everyone should take an active part, regardless if it affects you or not. Ranalvi states that: “we have to all as human beings fight against anything which may be against the human rights of anybody. It may not be my human right which is affected but it may be someone else’s human right which is affected and I’m equally bound to raise my voice against it”. The practice of FGM is a violation of girl’s and women’s human rights and has been condemned by international treaties, conventions and several national legislations.

The urgency of actively addressing FGM is reflected in a recent report published in March 2020 by Equality Now, End FGM U.S. Network, and End FGM European Network.  It provides evidence that FGM is practiced in 92 countries. The purpose of the report is to highlight that FGM is practiced globally and expresses the need to advocate for a global response. The researchers have cautioned that the report is still an underestimation of figures and the real numbers may be much higher.  They have concluded that while world leaders may have pledged to eliminate FGM by 2030, the current commitment and actions are not nearly adequate to meet this deadline. 

Key recommendations of the report include strengthening the global political commitment to end FGM, increase resources and investment to end FGM and support survivors, strengthen the evidence base through critical research, enact and enforce laws and national policies, and improve the wellbeing of survivors by providing critical support and services. 

In Ranalvi’s words: “It has to go beyond the narrow boundaries of a community or country and has to be a bigger broader platform.” 

Note: While this article refers to survivors of FGM as girls and women, it is important to note that not all survivors of FGM identify as girls and women.

Navika is the Editor of Bol Magazine and created this platform to inspire conversations and action.

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