On Female Genital Mutilation and Circumcision (FGM)

February 6, 2019 gen-mute

by Naz Chowdhury


It is estimated that there are currently 200 million women and girls living with Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in 30 countries around the world. The rate of prevalence is higher in Africa, especially in areas around the north but in Asia it is present in Malaysia, Indonesia, Maldives, the southern parts of Thailand and the Philippines, and in the Bohra communities of Pakistan and India.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defined FGM in 1994 and categorised it into four types according to the severity of its nature. The less severe form, Type IV FGM, is mostly evident in Malaysia and Indonesia under the name of female cutting or circumcision (also known as FGC) and involves the pricking, piercing, incising, scraping or cauterization of the genitalia carried out for non-medical purposes. Globally, the age at which FGM is carried out varies from the first few weeks of life until after a woman has delivered her first child.

From a health perspective, for Types I-III, the severity and risks are closely related to the anatomical extent of the cutting, including both the type of FGM performed and the amount of tissue that is cut. Risks documented so far in association with Type I-III include long lasting psychological harm and physical harm such as obstetric fistula, painful urination, urinary tract infection, heightened risk of prolonged obstructed labour and chronic incontinence, sepsis, and even death. For Type IV, the probability of risk and harm has been reported to be lower as it does not involve the removal of tissue from the genitals. The WHO notes that to date, very limited research has been carried out on Type IV FGM but none of the studies completely rule out the possibility of some harm/risk from Type IV FGM. However, for all types of FGM, every research study carried out so far concludes that this practice carries no health benefits to women or girls.

From a rights perspective, FGM, irrespective of its type, constitutes a violation of human rights particularly on women and girls’ sexual and reproductive rights. FGM is an invasive procedure which asserts control over a female’s body, her sexuality, bodily autonomy (the right to control one’s own body) and bodily integrity (the right to autonomy and self-determination over one’s own body). When performed on a minor, it violates various provisions embodied in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. An interagency statement on FGM urged States to take all effective and appropriate measures with a view to abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children. The practice also violates the rights to health, security and physical integrity of the person, the right to be free from discrimination, torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death.

UNICEF estimates that there has been an overall worldwide decline in FGM in the last three decades. This is possibly due to the widespread awareness that is being continuously raised on the issue and because of international commitments that States are bound to with their targets to realise Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). In 2003, the UN declared February 6th to be annually observed as the International Day of Zero Tolerance on FGM. In 2010, the CSW adopted a resolution on ending FGM. In 2012, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), unanimously passed a resolution calling FGM a human rights violation and urged nations to ban the practice, which was reaffirmed in 2014. The resolution was adopted by all UN member states, including many Muslim majority countries where FGM is practiced as ‘female circumcision’. The elimination of FGM has been called for by numerous inter-governmental organisations, including the Cairo Declaration for the Elimination of FGM, African Union and The African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, the European Union and the OIC. The Sustainable Development Goals in 2015 call for an end to FGM by 2030 under Goal 5 on Gender Equality (Target 5.3) obligating all States to eliminate all harmful practices including FGM.

The practice of FGM which intersects with cultural and ethnic demands, has long been attributed to religion, particularly to Islam and Islamic traditions. However, major studies done on the link between FGM and Islam or Islamic tradition, strongly conclude that FGM has no basis in religion and is not connected to Islamic tradition. Though the Quran does not make any explicit mentions of circumcision, there are a few hadith on circumcision. Given that Islamic law is based on a well-defined tradition of jurisprudence, with every instruction having a rationale/reason behind it, the majority of Muslim scholars have concluded that those hadith are applicable to males only (for reasons associated with cleanliness and STDs) and even in those cases, male circumcision has been established to be a Sunnah Muakkadah (recommended but not obligatory). The few hadith that mention female circumcision are weak as they have a broken chain of transmission and therefore a debatable source. Sheikh Al Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of the prestigious Al-Azhar University in Egypt, concluded that it has become a religious obligation to say that the practice of FGM is forbidden in Islam. When speaking on FGM and religion, the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), through its Concluding Observations, highlighted that the practice has no basis in religion or is not sanctioned by religion. This view was echoed during the latest 69th CEDAW review in 2018 where the practice of FGM in Malaysia came under heavy scrutiny from Muslim majority States. All six OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation) member states (Bangladesh, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, Algeria and Mauritania) expressed the view that the practice had no basis in Islam.

Each of the countries facing FGM issues have adopted various measures to tackle the problem. Some countries have imposed a legal ban on the practice such as Egypt, where the practice was criminalised in 2008. In Ethiopia, FGM falls under the Criminal Code as a violence against women offence. FGM is also banned by law in Algeria, where committing the offence is punishable by up to 25 years in prison. However, despite these laws, FGM continues to be a problem due to implementation issues. Burkina Faso is a success story in that regard, where despite the rate of FGM practices being high with weak implementation of laws, the resistance against FGM is very strong and the activism is mostly led by religious leaders which is having a positive impact in raising awareness on the issue. Interesting examples also include other Muslim majority countries such as Bangladesh, Angola and Saudi Arabia where there is no legal ban or fatwa on FGM and yet there are no reported incidents of FGM. In Serengeti, introducing sexuality education in schools proved to be an effective method to educate children on their bodies and choice which has had an impact in reducing FGM in the country through raising awareness from the grassroots level.

When addressing FGM, it is crucial that States adopt a rights-based and gender-sensitive perspective when implementing laws, policies and programmes. This calls for greater consultation with women’s rights organisations, civil society members, health experts and youth led organisations when drafting such laws, policies or programmes as FGM has direct implications on the health, wellbeing, and rights of women and girls. For States and non-State actors of a given country, following regional and international developments surrounding the issue will be beneficial as FGM is widely discussed during regional events such as the Beijing Platform of Action (BPoA), Programme of Action for International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), Asia Pacific Forum on Population and Development (APFSD) and during human rights treaty body and human rights council review sessions (CEDAW, ICCPR, UPR, etc.) all of which contain significant indications on the possible way forward on the methods adopted to tackle FGM and end this harmful practice.

ARROW’S Naz Chowdhury recently appeared on Astro Awani’s ‘Let’s Talk with Sharaad Kuttan’ to discuss why our governments must have Zero Tolerance for FGM. Watch it here: http://english.astroawani.com/malaysia-videos/lets-talk-sharaad-kuttan-episode-115-358840#.XFJcsfqwZr4.twitter 


February 6th is the International Day to End Female Genital Cutting (FGC).  ARROW will join activists from around the world including Sahiyo and COVAW for a LIVE Facebook event to discuss how grassroots action can support change to end FGM. Join us LIVE on Facebook at 2pm GMT (10pm Malaysia) : http://bit.ly/2Fxoopf

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