In December 2009, human rights groups welcomed Ugandan legislators’ decision to endorse a proposed law banning female genital mutilation and cutting (FGM/C) (2). While this move is an important step toward ensuring the protection of women’s and girls’ rights, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is not enough to simply pass laws prohibiting the practice. FGM/C is outlawed in a number of African countries, but these laws are rarely enforced (3). Rights groups in Uganda therefore have welcomed the new legislation, but urged awareness campaigns to ensure that the practice genuinely stopped (4).
This CAI brief argues that the practice of FGM/C must be banned without exception and that Governments, above all, must ensure that laws prohibiting this practice are enforced. In addition, it emphasises that civil society has a responsibility not to ignore the practice when it occurs. This is necessary, not only to protect the health and dignity of women and girls but also to uphold the sanctity of the inalienable human rights of all people. Governments and communities cannot stop FGM/C with isolated efforts, however. To stop the practice, all relevant parties need to take collective responsibility for the damage it does to women and girls and work together in this important endeavour.
What is Female Genital Mutilation?
The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines FGM/C, also euphemistically referred to as female circumcision, as including “all procedures that intentionally alter or injure female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” (5) The procedure holds no scientific health benefits for girls and women, but is a culturally valued tradition that serves the needs of males. It harms victims in numerous ways, however, as it involves the removal and damage of healthy and normal female genital tissue, and interferes with the natural functions of girls' and women's bodies.
FGM/C has immediate complications which can include shock, haemorrhaging (bleeding), tetanus or sepsis (bacterial infection), urine retention, open sores in the genital region, injury to nearby genital tissue and even death (6). After surviving the ordeal, the girl or woman faces further possible health problems including recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections, cysts, infertility, an increased risk of childbirth complications and newborn deaths, and the need for later surgeries (7).
Besides these physical risks, FGM/C also causes severe psychological damage to many girls and women. The practice is extremely painful and traumatising and has been related to a range of psychological and psychosomatic disorders (8). Since the procedures are mostly carried out on young girls between infancy and age 15 (9), and occasionally on adult women, survivors may face a lifetime of complications.
A violation of human rights
The trauma endured by survivors of the practice is unacceptable and a matter of social concern. FGM/C violates the human rights of women and children as espoused by several international and regional human rights treaties. For example, Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN in 1948, proclaims the right of all human beings to live in conditions that enable them to enjoy good health and health care (10). In addition, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “No one shall be subjected to torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment.” (11)
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women’s (CEDAW) 45th Convention took place from 18 January to 5 February 2010. The committee was adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly and is often described as an international bill of rights for women. Consisting of a preamble and 30 articles, it defines what constitutes discrimination against women and sets up an agenda for national action to end such discrimination. The Convention defines discrimination against women as “...Any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.” (12)The Convention is the only human rights treaty which affirms the reproductive rights of women and targets culture and tradition as influential forces shaping gender roles and family relations (13).
Article 19 of the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child protects against all forms of mental and physical violence and maltreatment of children and article 24 requires States to take all effective and appropriate measures to abolish traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children (14).
Children furthermore have the right to make decisions on matters that affect them. Even when girls are in apparent agreement with the procedure, or have a desire to undergo the procedure, the decision cannot be considered free, informed or free of coercion as they are put under undue pressure and societal expectations to adhere to the cultural practices (15). Elders who favour FGM/C often claim that girls want to undergo the procedure while they conveniently ignore the fact that they themselves have socialised the girls to have this desire. FGM/C is therefore not just a practice that needs to be stopped, but in essence is the product of social norms that need to change.
FGM/C is thus recognised internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. It reflects inherent inequality between the sexes, constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women (16), and violates a person’s right to be free of torturous, inhumane or degrading treatment. It is nearly always carried out on minors and is a violation of the rights of children. The practice also violates a person's rights to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death (17).
By allowing FGM/C to continue, those who turn a blind eye are allowing the human rights of women and children to be violated. If we allow those rights to be violated we set a dangerous precedent. If we are prepared to allow some of the fundamental human rights to be violated without consequence, we cannot expect that violations of other rights will not occur. The protection of human rights is every person’s responsibility, making the practice of FGM/C a matter of concern for the whole of society.
Despite the practice of FGM/C being in violation of women’s and girls’ fundamental human rights, it continues in many countries, particularly in Africa and the Middle East. Attitudes towards the centuries-old practice have started to change in countries like Egypt, Tanzania, Kenya and Senegal but it still persists in these countries and in at least 28 others on the African continent (18). An estimated 100 to 140 million girls and women worldwide are currently living with the consequences of FGM/C (19). In Africa an estimated 92 million girls from 10 years of age and above have undergone FGM/C (20) and about three million girls are at risk of FGM/C annually (21).
FGM/C persists because in many cultural traditions it is a social convention. It is often considered a necessary part of raising a girl properly; of preparing her for adulthood and marriage (22). It is considered in some cultures as a way to ensure virginity and to make a woman suitable for marriage (23). FGM/C is also associated with cultural ideals of femininity and modesty, which include the notion that girls are ‘clean’ and ‘beautiful’ after removal of body parts that are thought to be ‘male’ or ‘unclean’. (24) Low levels of education and poverty among women as well as inadequate Government support for eradicating the practice also contribute to the persistence of the practice in Africa (25).
It could be argued that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights protects a person’s right to “participate in the cultural life of their community,” thus allowing people the freedom to continue FGM/C as a cultural practice. However, the Declaration also states that in the practice of their rights and freedoms, everyone will be subject to limitations determined by law, for the purpose of “Securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.” (26) FGM/C clearly violates the recognition and respect of the rights of women and girls. Claims of cultural necessity should therefore not be evoked to justify the practice of FGM/C.
Most Governments in countries where FGM/C is practiced have ratified international conventions and declarations that make provisions for the promotion and protection of the health of women and girls. (27) Despite FGM/C being outlawed in a number of African countries, laws are rarely enforced (28). According to Faiza Mohamed, Africa Regional Director of the women’s rights group, Equality Now, “The struggle to have communities in Africa abandon FGM/C are taking too long because only civil society have taken it seriously. Governments are yet to take up the matter to the expected level (29).” This is the case despite several international conventions that not only prohibit FGM/C, but clearly and explicitly call for Governments to enforce the prohibition.
In 1999, CEDAW made a general recommendation that emphasises that certain cultural or traditional practices such as FGM/C carry a high risk of death and disability and recommends that State parties should ensure the enactment and effective enforcement of laws that prohibit FGM/C (30).The United Nations Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Committee (Third Committee of the General Assembly) has approved a resolution that requires States to implement national legislation and policies that prohibit traditional or customary practices affecting the health of women and girls, including FGM/C (31). It also calls for perpetrators of practices that negatively affect the health of women and girls to be prosecuted by the State.
The role of Governments and other leaders should not be limited to passing and enforcing laws that prohibit FGM/C. CEDAW made recommendations that State parties: collect and disseminate basic data on traditional practices; support relevant women's organisations at the national and local levels; encourage politicians, professionals, religious and community leaders to cooperate in influencing attitudes; introduce appropriate educational and training programmes; and include appropriate strategies aimed at eradication into national health policies (32).
FGM/C is a practice that not only leaves survivors with health problems and psychological scars but is also a gross violation of the human rights of women and children. Despite gains made toward eradicating the practice, including changing attitudes and the banning of FGM/C in several countries, the practice persists. While Governments who have ratified the various treaties outlawing FGM/C have a responsibility to enforce its prohibition, the eradication of the scourge of FGM/C is also the responsibility of society at large. Turning a blind eye to the practice allows the violations of human rights and threatens the sanctity of all these human rights. If society allows the violation of some, the violation of other rights is arguably much more likely to occur in those societies. The eradication of FGM/C is everyone’s responsibility. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs), Governments and local women’s groups cannot protect women’s and girls’ rights on their own, but together this goal may become more realistic and achievable. Awareness campaigns and funding for the purpose should therefore aim to bring together all interested and responsible parties, including those who continue to subscribe to the cultural ideals associated with FGM/C.
- Claire Furphy is an external consultant in Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Africa Watch Unit (firstname.lastname@example.org). The April edition of the CAI HIV/AIDS Issues Newsletter is republished here with permission from Consultancy Africa Intelligence (CAI), a South African-based research and strategy firm with a focus on social, health, political and economic trends and developments in Africa. For more information, see http://www.consultancyafrica.com or http://www.ngopulse.org/press-release/consultancy-africa-intelligence. Alternatively, click here to take advantage of CAI’s free, no obligation, 1-month trial to the company’s Standard Report Series.
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(1) Claire Furphy is an External Consultant in Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Africa Watch Unit
(18) Wakabi. W. (2007). Africa battles to make female genital mutilation history. The Lancet, 369, 1069-1070.
(25) Wakabi. W. (2007). Africa battles to make female genital mutilation history. The Lancet, 369, 1069-1070.
(29) Wakabi. W. (2007). Africa battles to make female genital mutilation history. The Lancet, 369, 1069-1070.