FEMALE GENITAL MUTILATION: OVERVIEW OF A PRACTICE SHROUDED IN SECRECY
Updated: Sep 2
Women’s rights movements have always had tumultuous histories punctuated by occasional breakthroughs and at times, failure. After years of struggle, women in most parts of the world have secured their rights and are catapulting themselves into powerful and respectable positions in their societies. But even after the significant progress, lurks superstitions and customs which continue to chain women to patriarchal values and archaic ideals of womanhood and purity. One such shocking remnant is the custom of genital mutilation of women practised by several communities across the world. It is an issue rarely discussed in the public sphere and remains unknown to many. This article aims to throw light on this practice and discusses the violation of basic human rights associated with it.
What is Female Genital Mutilation?
Female genital mutilation (FGM) or cutting (FGM/C) as defined by the World Health Organisation is "the partial or total removal of external female genitalia or other injuries to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons."
The most dismaying fact is that FGM is mostly performed on girls between infancy to 15 years of age. The WHO has identified 30 countries in Africa, as well as countries in the Middle East, Asia and ethnic groups in South America that practice FGM. It is estimated that more than 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone the procedure and every year, 3 million girls are at risk of undergoing it.
The severity of the practice varies in degrees across regions. While some involve partial or total removal of external genitalia, the most extreme type of FGM narrows the vaginal opening of a girl by cutting and stitching external genitalia-an extremely painful and inhumane process known as infibulation.
Beliefs and Practices Around the World
Contrary to the beliefs of most people who practice FGM, it has no health benefits and studies show that girls who have undergone FGM suffer from short term problems like bleeding, infections, painful urination, swelling and long-term problems like a partial or complete loss of sensitivity, miscarriages and menstrual problems. In rare cases, it may also lead to death. It also psychologically impacts the person, creating trust issues, PTSD, depression and anxiety often leading them to blame themselves for what had happened to them. Some, even show effects like temporary amnesia. These are not negligible effects and we must never disregard the pain that the child suffers from it.
While most international studies focus on African countries, we cannot deny the existence of the FGM in first world countries such as the US, Australia, Canada and the UK which occurs due to migration. The procedure is done in secrecy, at times by sending the girls back to their home countries during vacations to perform FGM; termed ironically as “vacation-cutting”.
In Georgia, the practice has come to light only in 2013 while the Maldives has managed to eradicate FGM a reminder that only a community-oriented approach can tackle this problem. The data presented is proof that this practice is far from being eradicated rather, it is trivialised and set aside as a personal affair of the parties involved. But we must not ignore the adverse physical and mental effect it has on the girl-child and how it is alienating her from the most basic human right of a safe and sound body.
India’s Stance on FGM
Many are unaware that certain sects in India also practice forms of FGM. It is reportedly practised by the Dawoodi, Suleimani and Alvi Bohras in parts of Gujarat, MP, Rajasthan and Sunni subsects in Kerala. In 2017, a Delhi based lawyer Sunita Tiwari[i] filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court seeking a ban on FGM and the PIL only included the practice among Dawoodi Bohras. India does not have any officially reported case of FGM and the Ministry of Women and Child development informed the Court that there is no evidence that FGM is being practised in India.
Presently, the case is to be considered by a seven-judge Constitution bench after the five-judge bench headed by former CJ Ranjan Gogoi referred it to the bigger bench in 2019. The issue is multifaceted, the Dawoodi community supporting the claim that kafz (as referred to by the community) is not FGM as it is just a nick on the clitoral hood and has sought for the protection of the practice, which they claim is an ancient and “integral part of the religion” under Article 25 and Article 26 of the Indian Constitution which provides freedom of religion.
Ranjan Gogoi, in the five-member bench consideration of Sunita Tiwari’s case had commented that FGM must be considered a cultural issue than a religious one. To understand the reason that might have spurred such a statement we must look at countries where FGM is common. In most of the African countries where ethnic groups are known for its prevalent practice of female (and male) circumcision, it is seen as a customary ritual to welcome a child into adulthood.
Most do not consider its human rights aspect and would rather see it as a way to "make themselves more feminine". Women who underwent the procedure are respected in their ethnic groups while a person who hasn't gone through the process is considered uncivilized and looked down upon. While for the outsiders this practice is abhorring, for many women this experience is embedded deeply in their lives and cultures and believe it is an improvement of their natural states. [ii] While for some, FGM can mean growth of their identity, for others, it will remain a crude reminder of their suppression in the patriarchal society they are living in. We must thus understand that the women of the Bohra communities are struggling against their communities for their rights and they should be supported by society.
FGM as a Violation of Human Rights
The classification of FGM as a human rights violation under international law was a hotly contested debate and the term was first used officially only in the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD). The most significant milestone against FGM came in 2012 when the United Nations General Assembly unanimously passed a resolution banning FGM. The resolution set out rightfully that cultural and attitudinal changes have to be brought about through legislation and awareness and that countries should condemn all harmful practices that affect girls and women.
The practice also contravenes the principles of human rights as enshrined in many international conventions. Section 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) puts forth that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being” and this has been used to argue that FGM/C violates the right to health and bodily integrity of girls and ultimately their very lives. Similarly, Article 3 and Article 5 of UDHR also states that everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person and that no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment. The same provisions are also encompassed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
Many other conventions also prohibit FGM and classify it as a human rights violation. The UN Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) recognises the practice as a form of violence specifically against women and their bodily autonomy. It also can be included under the scope of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and as it is performed on children, under Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
India is a signatory to all the above conventions except the Convention against torture but unfortunately, we have not taken any steps to criminalise the act and contribute to the relief and rehabilitation of the victims. Rather, we have only denied its existence, letting down Indian women who have been proactive in the fight against FGM. The government must lead the way in official data collection and create a stringent legislative shield.
FGM is a multidimensional issue that requires a change from the grassroots level and creation of laws which effectively ban the practice. The world has a long way to go in reducing the practice and international cooperation must be at the forefront of the struggle. India, especially must not turn a blind eye to FGM, citing lack of evidence and governmental studies as a reason. We can hope that the Supreme Court will take a favourable stance against FGM and help strengthen India’s international commitments that ban FGM. Most importantly, we must increase awareness among women about their rights and empower them to have autonomy over every aspect of their lives.
[i] Sunita Tiwari v Union of India, WP (C) 286/2017. [ii] Richard A.Shweder, What about "Female Genital Mutilation"? And Why Understanding Culture Matters in the First Place, Daedalus, Fall, 2000, Vol. 129, No. 4.
Title Image Source: UNICEF USA
The content of this article deals with a sensitive issue and may appear to be disturbing for some individuals. Any member of HRLPR or the author does not seek to condemn the members of any community, caste, religion or sect. Kindly read the article from an educational perspective only.
The article has been written by Pravarnitha Meejuri and Soumya S. Both are students at Gujarat National Law University (GNLU(, Gandhinagar.