Female genital mutilation

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Female Genital Mutilation

II.     CULTURAL PRACTICES IN THE FAMILY THAT
          VIOLATE WOMEN’S RIGHTS

11.     There are many cultural practices throughout the world that are violent toward women. In this section some of the more disturbing violations are described, in order to highlight the nature of the problem.

A. Female genital mutilation

12.     Female genital mutilation (FGM), a deeply rooted traditional practice, is believed to have started in Egypt some 2,000 years ago. It is estimated that more than 135 million girls and women in the world have undergone FGM and 2 million girls a year are at risk of mutilation. FGM is practised in many African countries including Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, the Sudan, Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania. In the Middle East, FGM is practised in Egypt, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. It has also been reported in Asian countries such as India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. Immigrants from these countries perform FGM in Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. It is suspected that FGM is performed among some indigenous groups in Central and South America.

13.     The methods and types of mutilation differ according to each country and ethnic group. But, FGM may be broadly classified into four groups:

(i)     Circumcision, or cutting of the prepuce or hood of the clitoris, known in Muslim countries as sunna (tradition). This is the mildest form, of FGM and affects only a small proportion of women. It is the only form of mutilation to be correctly termed circumcision, but there has been a tendency to group all kinds of mutilations under the misleading term "female circumcision".

(ii)     Excision, meaning the cutting of the clitoris and all or part of the labia minora.

(iii)     Infibulation, the cutting of the clitoris, labia minora and at least the anterior two thirds and often the whole of the labia majora. The two sides of the vulva are then pinned together by silk or catgut sutures, or with thorns, leaving a small opening for the passage of urine or menstrual blood. These "operations" are done with special knives, razor blades, scissors or pieces of glass and stone. The girl’s legs are then bound together from hip to ankle and she is kept immobile for up to 40 days to permit the formation of scar tissue.

(iv)     Intermediate, meaning the removal of the clitoris and some or all of the labia minora. Sometimes, slices of the labia majora are removed. The practice varies according to the demands of the girl’s relatives.

14.     The main reasons given for the continuation of this practice are custom and tradition. In societies where FGM is practised, a girl is not considered an adult or a complete woman until she goes through the "operation". Some societies believe that all persons are hermaphroditic and the removal of the clitoris makes the female a "pure woman". It is said also to test a woman’s ability to bear pain and defines her future roles in life and marriage while preparing her for the pain of childbirth. FGM is also a result of the patriarchal power structures which legitimize the need to control women’s lives. It arises from the stereotypical perception of women as the principal guardians of sexual morality, but with uncontrolled sexual urges. FGM reduces a woman’s desire for sex, reduces the chances of sex outside marriage and thus promotes virginity. It is also deemed necessary by society to enhance her husband’s sexual pleasure. A husband may reject a woman who has not gone through the "operation". Health reasons are also put forward as justifications for FGM. Unmutilated women are considered unclean. It is believed that FGM enhances fertility. It is considered that the clitoris is poisonous and that it could prick the man or kill a baby at childbirth. In some FGM-practising societies, there is a belief that the clitoris could grow and become like a man’s penis. Even though FGM pre?dates Islam, religious reasons are given for the continuation of FGM in some societies.

15.     Despite such justifications, the reality is that FGM is a practice that has many negative consequences. Owing to the unhygienic circumstances in which it is carried out, there are many short?term and long-term health hazards connected with it. Short?term complications include local and systematic infections, abscesses, ulcers, delayed healing, septicaemia, tetanus, gangrene, severe pain and haemorrhage that can lead to shock, damage to the bladder or rectum and other organs, or even death. Long?term complications include urine retention, resulting in repeated urinary infections; obstruction of menstrual flow, leading to frequent reproductive tract infections and infertility; prolonged and obstructed labour leading to fistula formation which results in dribbling urine; severe pain during intercourse; extremely painful menstruation; and psychological problems such as chronic anxiety and depression. The cycle of pain continues when cutting and restitching is carried out to accommodate sexual intimacy and childbirth.

16.     During the colonial period, attempts were made to eradicate FGM. Christian missionaries in the Sudan tried to uproot the practice by including a message against FGM in their medical education programmes. When this was not successful, the British Colonial Government resorted to legislation in 1946. Under the law, infibulation was made unlawful. But this did not stop the practice; rather it forced the families to have the procedure done in secret.

17.     FGM was widely publicized in Western countries again in the 1970s by European and North American feminists. As a result, individual countries began to pass legislation that either regulated or banned FGM. Kenya condemned FGM in 1982 and passed formal legislation banning it in1990. Côte d’Ivoire promised the United Nations in 1991 to use its existing criminal code to prohibit the practice and passed a law prohibiting it in 1998. Sweden was one of the first countries specifically to condemn FGM. It banned health professionals from performing the operation in 1982. The United Kingdom passed the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985. The United States and Canada consider FGM as a type of harm that could qualify someone for protection under the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. In 1997, the United States criminalized the practice of FGM under the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, France and the Netherlands are other Western countries that have made FGM a punishable offence. Recently, Burkina Faso, Gambia and Egypt took a stand against FGM. The Central African Republic, Djibouti, Ghana, Guinea, Senegal, Tanzania and Togo have also passed legislation banning FGM in recent years.

18.     Within the United Nations system, it was during the United Nations Decade for Women 1975?1985, that FGM again became an issue for discussion. As a result, the then Centre for Human Rights in Geneva, the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna and the 1993 World Health Assembly condemned FGM as a violation of human rights. The Special Rapporteur on violence against women, in her preliminary report, recognized FGM as a form of violence against women that requires concerted international and national action for its eradication.

19.     In many countries in Africa, there now exist strong indigenous movements aimed at stopping the practice of female genital mutilation. In Kenya there now exists a ceremony called "circumcision with words", celebrating a young girl’s entry into womanhood but with words rather than through genital cutting. In Senegal, religious leaders have gone on village-to-village pilgrimages to stop the practice. It is only with enthusiastic support from the local community that this practice can eventually be eliminated.

20.     Other forms of genital mutilation also exist that require mention. Tutsi women in Rwanda and Burundi undergo the practice of elongation of the labia, the aim being to allow the women to experience greater sexual pleasure. In other societies the circumcision of men results in violation of women’s rights. In West Timor, during the male circumcision ceremony, the young man being circumcised must then have sex with virgin girls chosen for the occasion.

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