Female genital mutilation, allegedly practiced by the Dawoodi Bohra community in India, is considered one of the worst forms of gender-based violence against women and girls. It leads to severe health complications, including death. It also causes psychological trauma for life in many cases. Presently, there is an intensified global effort to eradicate this practice worldwide.
What is female genital mutilation?
IN 2012, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) designated February 6 as the ‘International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation’. The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines female genital mutilation (FGM) as comprising all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injuries to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.
It is a non-consensual practice mostly performed on young girls between infancy and age fifteen years, and occasionally on adult women, to control their sexuality and promote marital fidelity.
It is predominantly practiced in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, and is claimed to be based on customary and religious practices.
According to WHO estimates, more than 200 million girls and women women living today have already been subjected to FGM in 30 countries in these regions. Somalia has the highest prevalence rate of the practice, with almost 90 per cent of the girls and women in the country having been subjected to it. This is despite the fact that under Article 15(4) of the 2012 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Somalia states that, “Female circumcision is a cruel and degrading customary practice, and is tantamount to torture. The circumcision of girls is prohibited.”
The former Vice Minister of Health of Somalia, sociologist and politician Raqiya H.D. Abdalla, in a poem ‘My Grandmother Called it the Three Feminine Sorrows’ writes: “It is what my grandmother called the three feminine sorrows: the day of circumcision, the wedding night, and the birth of a baby.”
This year marks the 12th anniversary of the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, being observed under the theme of “Partnership with Men and Boys to Transform Social and Gender Norms to End FGM”. This day is celebrated in line with the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 to achieve gender equality and empower all girls and women and eradicate FGM by 2030.
Also read: Fight against Female Genital Mutilation
What are the types of FGM?
According to the WHO, FGM is classified into four major types:
- Type 1, called clitoridectomy: This is the partial or total removal of the clitoral glans (the external and visible part of the clitoris, which is a sensitive part of the female genitals), and the prepuce or clitoral hood (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoral glans).
- Type 2, called excision: This is the partial or total removal of the clitoral glans and the labia minora (the inner folds of the vulva), with or without removal of the labia majora (the outer folds of skin of the vulva).
- Type 3, called infibulation: This is the narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the labia minora or labia majora, sometimes through stitching, with or without removal of the clitoral prepuce or clitoral hood and glans.
- Type 4: This includes all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes. Example: pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterising the genital area.
What is the prevalence and status of FGM in India?
FGM, also known as khatna or khafz (circumcision) is allegedly practised by the Dawoodi Bohra community in India. Last year, in an unprecedented move, the diplomatic mission to Costa Rica urged India to criminalise the practice of FGM and devise a national plan to eradicate it. This happened when the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review Working Group met in Geneva last year. This is the first time such a recommendation was made since India’s human rights records had been evaluated by the council.
Also read: Female Genital Mutilation or the practice of Khatna/khafd : If triple talaq can be addressed by the Government, why the blind eye to FGM?
In 2017, human rights advocate Sunita Tiwari, through a writ petition, challenged the constitutionality of khatna and prayed for a complete ban on this practice before the Supreme Court. She urged that the practice is inhumane and directly violates Article 21 (right to life and personal liberty) of the Constitution. Tiwari also contended in her petition that the practice should be regarded as an offence under the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
FGM, also known as khatna or khafz (circumcision) is allegedly practiced by the Dawoodi Bohra community in India.
Although there is no express provision to ban FGM in the IPC, provisions like Sections 319 (hurt) and 320 (grievous hurt), depending upon the type of FGM performed, can be invoked. In fact, relevant provisions of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 are equally applicable.
Members of the Dawoodi Bohra community, represented by senior advocate Dr. Abhishek Manu Singhvi, had informed the court that the practice is wrongly referred to as FGM. According to Dr. Singhvi, the practice is almost 1,400 years old and constitutes an integral part of the religion of the Dawoodi Bohra community. Thus, it is guaranteed protection under Article 26 (freedom to manage religious affairs) of the Constitution, it was contended.
Also read: Female genital mutilation must be abolished because it’s criminally liable abuse of the girl child, and hardly an ‘essential religious practice’
Dr. Singhvi also submitted that the matter should be referred to a larger bench of the court because it would involve the determination of the essentiality of the practice.
Eventually, in 2018, a Supreme Court three-judge bench comprising then Chief Justice of India (CJI) Dipak Misra, Justice A.M. Khanwilkar and then Justice Dr. D.Y. Chandrachud took up the petition. During the hearing, then CJI Misra had made an oral observation that the practice has “numerous health hazards associated with it and amounts to a violation of the right to life and dignity of a woman,” as reported by The Hindu. Whereas, the present CJI Dr. Chandrachud had remarked that a woman’s complete control over her genitalia is central to her identity, dignity and autonomy.
However, the court observed that the issue deserved to be placed before and examined by a Constitution bench of five judges. The petition remains pending before the Supreme Court.
Also read: Cannot defend the indefensible: The unconstitutional case of female genital mutilation
Is there a global consensus to ban FGM?
The practice of FGM is universally recognised as a violation of human rights, including the right to sexual and reproductive health, bodily integrity and human dignity. It is considered a widespread and systematic violation of gender-based rights and an extreme form of discrimination against women.
FGM violates Articles 1, 2, 3, 5 and 7 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, Article 2 of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degarding Treatment or Punishment, Articles 2, 3, 6, 7 and 24 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Articles 1, 2, 3, 5, 10, 12 and 14 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and Articles 19, 24.3, 24.4, 27.1, 37 and 39 of the Convention on Rights of the Child.
The practice has no health benefits for girls and women, and causes severe bleeding and problems in urinating, and later cysts, infections and other complications in childbirth, as well as increased risk of newborn deaths. In many cases, it leads to permanent disfiguration of the body of the girl child, according to the WHO.
The practice of FGM is universally recognised as a violation of human rights, including the right to sexual and reproductive health, bodily integrity and human dignity. It is considered a widespread and systematic violation of gender-based rights and an extreme form of discrimination against women. It has no health benefits for girls and women, and causes severe bleeding and problems in urinating, and later cysts, infections and other complications in childbirth, as well as increased risk of newborn deaths. In many cases, it leads to permanent disfiguration of the body of the girl child.
In 2008, the WHO’s decision-making body, the World Health Assembly passed a resolution to urge all its member States to accelerate action towards the eradication of FGM, including through education and information necessary for a full understanding of the health, gender and human rights dimensions of FGM. A similar resolution was passed by the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women on ending FGM in 2008, and by the UNGA in 2018.
Also read: Speak out on Female Genital Mutilation
The World Bank’s Compendium of International and National Legal Frameworks on FGM, published in February 2021, exhaustively lists penal provisions of more than 80 countries in which FGM can be considered an offence, including India.
What is the medicalisation of FGM?
There are alternative yet debatable arguments for the medicalisation of the practice of FGM. Medicalisation of FGM, according to a brief published by the United Nations Population Fund (UNPFA), refers to a situation in which FGM is performed by any category of healthcare providers. But it also includes a procedure of re-infibulation at any point in time in a woman’s life. However, the UNPFA maintains that FGM can never be “safe” as there cannot be a medical justification for this practice.
As per the proponents of this argument, this would lead to lesser health complications and could be considered the first step towards its complete abandonment.
Also read: Female Genital Mutilation : Changing Scenario
The treatment of the health complications of FGM is estimated to cost health systems across the world 1.4 billion U.S. dollars per year if no urgent action is taken to eradicate it.
If FGM is continued to be practiced at current levels, 68 million women and girls will be subjected to FGM by 2030.