According to the World Health Organisation, it is estimated that more than 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), with three million at risk every year. FGM is defined as the removal of the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons (whether complete or incomplete) and today is carried out in many countries across the world: most instances occur in Africa, Asia and the Middle East but it is also carried out in Australia, Europe, Latin America, New Zealand and North America.
Often characterised as a rite of passage within the context of cultural, social and religious tradition, FGM is an act of discrimination and violence to control the sexuality of girls and women: it removes agency, stigmatises the female body and constitutes a violation of their rights and dignity. It has no health benefits and causes numerous and serious issues, including constant pain (and pain in the course of sex), infertility as a result of infection, bleeding, cysts and abscesses, incontinence, increased risks during labour and childbirth and depression, and can even result in death. Yet it continues and in many societies young women are conditioned to believe that they will be unclean, unhealthy and unmarriageable unless they undergo cutting.
In January 2019, the Guardian covered the arrests of 16 men and 3 women for aiding and abetting FGM in eastern Uganda after reports of gangs attacking as many as 400 women in the region. Despite the fact that FGM was banned in Uganda in 2010, it is still carried out (in this instance by a gang of 100, consisting of elderly women and men with machetes) and campaigners say there is much more to be done to eradicate the practice, especially amongst rural communities. According to Livingstone Sewanyana, executive director of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiatives, what is needed alongside enforcement of the criminal law is education within communities to encourage sustainable cultural change: “A collective public education campaign by state institutions and civil society organisations, alongside local leaders, would offer a more effective and deterrent solution”.
On 1 February 2019, a woman was convicted of the offence of FGM for the first time in the UK. A sentence of eleven years was imposed on the mother who mutilated her child on 8 March 2019: the same date as International Women’s Day. FGM has been illegal in the UK since 1985 and the relevant legislation was strengthened in 2003 to criminalise the act of taking a girl abroad to undergo cutting in another jurisdiction. The case makes clear the need for continued and concerted action and enforcement of the ban on FGM. Analysis of Department for Education data by the National FGM Centre shows a major increase in FGM cases: it was a feature in 1,960 social work assessments by councils in 2017-18, compared with 970 cases in the year before. Anita Lower, the Local Government Association lead on FGM, said that the figures demonstrated the “worrying prevalence” of FGM, “which is child abuse and cannot be justified for any reason.”
FGM is an extreme form of violence that robs women of the control they should have over their own bodies and an infringement of their rights and dignity. As it receives more attention in the international media, educating communities and dismantling the systems that allow the practice to continue will be a necessary step for advocates and human rights defenders working to eradicate it.
This blog was researched and written by Avinash Virdee.