“A dark secret that lurks behind closed doors. An astonishing revelation of a traditional practice and a custom that sanctions to pierce a girl’s private parts.”
Female Genital Cutting, a brutal practice in some cultures, is largely followed in Africa, parts of Asia and the Middle East as ritual cutting. It is a traditional practice that involves slicing a woman’s clitoris. The underlying concept is that it cleanses the girl, making her pure prior to entering into a matrimonial alliance. Words that came to associate with the girls undergoing this cutting procedure were, “Pure”, “Marriageable”, “Honourable”, “Worthy” further to convince them that this customary practice is for their own good and should be followed without any question. This misbelief grew over time. Thus, taking it forward and bringing it down to the next generation of girls producing more victims in the process.
UNICEF data suggests though the exact number of those who have undergone ‘Female Genital Mutilation’ remains unknown, at least 200 million girls and women in 30 countries have been subjected to this practice.
Procedure of female genital cutting
Female genital cutting is carried out by untrained midwives with the use of knife or blade. It is performed in four different ways. Type 1 is referred to as Clitoridectomy, partial or total removal of clitoris. Type 2 is Excision, which is the partial or total removal of clitoris along with labia. Type 3 is Infibulations, that is narrowing vaginal opening by making cuts and stitching. Type 4 includes all other harmful procedures to female genitalia. Cutting, as the name suggests does not bring any health benefits to women. Instead it can invite a range of immediate and long term implications ranging from genital tissue swelling, fever, urinary infection to even more complicated vaginal problems.
World Health Organization (WHO) reveals that women who have undergone female genital cutting have the tendency to develop urination problem, lower abdominal pain during periods, also leading to death at the time of childbirth because of excessive bleeding. Further adding that the harmful and unhygienic conditions in which the operation is done can lead to serious health ailments in the new born baby she delivers in future. Not to mention, the myth that goes around saying that the married life goes smoothly after undergoing this cutting procedure can be discredited because it makes sex more painful and deprives the woman of taking any pleasure. The resultant impact is not only confined to bodily harm but also extends itself to leaving psychological scars that pierce deep into the subconscious mind of the victim. In fact, some girls even block it out of their memory after growing up which is more likely a kind of innate defence mechanism activated in the brain. Despite of all the health issues and psychological trauma that a woman is subjected to, what possibly could be the reasons for this cruel practice to continue, even today?
Reasons behind the continuation of female genital cutting
Although multiple factors operate, it is precisely to curb the sexual desire of the woman that female genital cutting is promoted by some communities. They don’t want their women to go astray after marriage. Another reason is the belief that a cut girl brings more economic prosperity as she ensures a hefty dowry in return. So, a cut girl brings lots of cows as brideprice as compared to an uncut girl. Due to poverty, parents tend to cut their girls at a very young age, as happened in Pokot tribe residing in North West of Kenya. DomtilaChesang, a Kenyan ANTI-FGM activist, has worked among her tribe people from West Pokot, to spread awareness among them regarding health implications of this practice and the need to abandon it outright. Nice NailanteiLengete is another example of ANTI-FGM activist from Kenya who has worked passionately for the cause of eliminating female genital cutting. Despite of the practice being outlawed in Kenya in 2001 itself, the violation still continued. Efforts put in by these local women, now globally recognized, have shown improvements in the situation that was even more appalling a decade ago.
Another most cited reason for the justification of this cutting custom is that it has religious sanction but the fact is no religious scripture has its mention. It can be highlighted here that the actual push is not due to any logic, health, and moral or on religious grounds but a custom, fostered by a patriarchal mindset that women have to be subjugated. A practice that is replete with any rationale and consistently refuels its belief in people’s blind allegiance towards old customs. It is the community members whose conscience line is being determined by customary practice fostered by a mythical belief that this is the best for their women and keeps their values intact. What is often ignored is that even values need to evolve with time so that it recognizes the importance of a human life before any custom, tradition, culture and religion.
Female genital mutilation in India
In India, Dawoodi Bohra community still practices female genital cutting or commonly referred to as “Khatna”. This Bohra sect within Shia Islam resides in Mumbai. A community which has been involved in this cutting practice for long is yet again taken forward by the older women of the household which can be the girl’s mother or even her grandma. Lured by candies or sometimes with an excuse of taking her out for a walk. The girl is taken to a room, laid down, her pants removed and the next moment is a loud, shrieking voice of that young girl, crying in pain. These victims of genital mutilation have shared their traumatic experiences from the past when they underwent the knife. Aarefa Johari, a Bohra Muslim and a journalist, mutilated at the age of seven, Zehra, a US based Technology Project Manager and Masooma, a Delhi based publisher, are the victims of this cutting culture that has left deep psychological scars in their minds. These people are now advocating against the practice of female genital cutting. Their interview with Hindustan Times grips us with shock, thinking about what these women had to undergo. It was not something they chose for themselves but what their culture decided for them.
Another important aspect that comes forth is that the victims from the Bohra community were not all operated in the home country. As per the statement given by victims, it was found that while some were taken outside to countries like Pakistan, United States, Tanzania, etc. whereas a majority of them got circumcised in India itself.
“Haram ki boti” as it is referred by the Bohra Community means the sinful piece of flesh that serves as a source for depraved or immoral urge in women. As a solution to which is given out by slicing the clitoris. So, a need to understand their intricate social norms and cultural value system is significant for dealing with the situation in an appropriate manner. (p. 62, An exploratory survey report by Mariya Taher, Sahiyo). In India, this practice can fall under the Indian penal code (1860), section 320 and section 322 causing grievous hurt and also under the POCSO ACT(2012) for voluntarily hurting girls in the name of culture and tradition. But, at present, there is no other special provision or law dealing with Female Genital Cutting separately.
The response of International Organization to female genital cutting
Female Genital Cutting also referred to as female circumcision or sometimes as ‘Female Genital Mutilation' is being recognized globally as a deterrent to the development goals set by the United Nations. Sustainable Development Goal 5 that aims for gender equality faces a direct impediment in the form of female genital mutilation, a practice that undermines the life of a girl based on sex. Impinging upon gender equality, it also creates hostile and unsafe conditions for women which again bring it in violation of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (1979). In fact, its committee through General recommendation 14 asked the state parties to include in their report all the measures and actions taken by the state to eliminate the practice of female genital mutilation.
Besides the Human Rights treaties, Joint program UNFPA-UNICEF is one such initiative to eliminate Female Genital Mutilation. Developed in 2007, it was basically a strategic, phase wise elimination of female genital mutilation. World Heath Organization has played a vital role in publishing reports on the health implications of female genital mutilation and highlighted reasons for which it should be considered as a global issue of concern. United Nations has declared the 6th of February as International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation.
Since the procedure of female genital cutting is done on young girls, it automatically brings the issue within the ambit of child rights. As per the Convention on Rights Of the Child(1989), two important principles: ‘Best interest of the child and ‘Evolving capacities of the child' have to be taken into account so as to maximize the fulfilment of child rights. It was observed that few girls willingly went ahead with the procedure of female genital cutting despite knowing the nature of this practice. Social pressure, the risk of being alienated from the community are viewed as possible reasons.
Since1997 lots of changes in terms of international programs centric to FGM, research work, community engagement, public policy have taken place in order to abandon the practice of female genital mutilation. But more has to be done in order to reach every household, where many cases still remain unreported.
Reinstating human rights
Empowering education, enhancing the role of media in this area, health care providers and traditional circumcisers to persuade people to discourage female circumcision are some ways of dealing with the issue. Amending the laws countering female genital cutting to retain the essence of valuing human life. At an administrative level, identification of grey areas with government machinery working in cooperation with NGOs and locals can expedite the process, preventing more girls from becoming victims.
In modern analogy, the practice of female genital cutting is no less than torture. It not only compromises a girl’s freedom, dignity, health, and other social and cultural rights but also prevents her from making any decision of what happens to her own body. It is a practice that cannot be justified under any logical head or belief. Though the right to participate in cultural life and freedom of religion is a protection offered by international law but any such practice if contravenes the essence of fundamental rights enshrined therein, cannot be justified in any circumstance. (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, article 18(3)).
Baweja, Harinder.(2016). India’s Dark Secret: Female Genital Mutilation[video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/MKXXVilKCwc
Naib, Fatma.(2017, October 5).The Cut: Exploring FGM[video file]. Retrieved fromhttps://youtu.be/TWIzaD4-_y4
Taher, Mariya. (2017).Understanding female genital cutting in Dawoodi Bohra community: An exploratory survey (p.12,37,42,61used). Retrieved from https://sahiyo.com
World Health Organization. (2008). Eliminating Female Genital mutilation: An interagency statement UNAIDS, UNDP, UNECA, UNESCO, UNFPA, UNHCHR, UNHCR, UNICEF, UNIFEM, WHO. Retrieved from World Health Organization,http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/publications/fgm/9789241596442/en/
Image source- TIME
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