FEMALE GENITAL CUTTING; AN OPEN SECRET THAT NO ONE TALKS ABOUT
Exhibit C is the young girl, dragged into the bush by the midwives and made to sing while they scrape the flesh from between her legs, then tie her thighs till she scabs over, and it is called healed…
- Margaret Atwood, "A Women's Issue," Canada, 1981[i]
Let me start by telling a short story. X is an eight-year-old who is walking along excitedly with her mother to buy some sweets; at least that is what her mother told her. They arrive at an old house whose insides are dark enough to give young X the chills.
She notices her grandmother. Before she could react, her mother, grandmother, and all the neighboring elderly women grab her and take her to the table. A severe pain shoots up her body, and when she wakes up, her thighs are tied up. Unable to move, she writhers in pain for days till she can get back to 'normal,' although she is scared forever.
A DEADLY PRACTICE
Female Genital Cutting (FGC) or mutilation (FGM) is a practice that plagues thousands of young girls, mostly in Africa. However, you may be surprised to know that the practice is very much prevalent in India as well among a small sub-caste of the Muslims, the Bohra community.
The term most widely accepted and used in FGC as using the word 'mutilation' can be disrespectful to the women who were forced to undergo the process but do not see themselves as mutilated. The process involved removing partially or totally the clitoris and the young girl's genitals' outer lips, mostly without administering any sort of anesthetics and without her will. It is a gross violation of a female's body and her Human Rights, let alone the long-term implications to her health.
The process is of four types, ranging from partial removal of the clitoris to the scrapping up of the entire outer layer and stitching up of the genitals to make the body of the girl 'pure' and feminine.' Also, in many parts of the world, the practice prevails in order to curb the sexuality of the girls due to the constant patriarchal mindset of how 'girls need to be controlled.'
HEALTH COMPLICATIONS DUE TO FGM
Other than the fact, the girls undergo excruciating pain during the process due to a lack of anesthetics in the first place; there are severe long-term health complications attached to this practice. Menstrual problems, unable to control their urine or excrement, excessive bleeding, urinary tract infection, painful labor, and often death; in the worst-case scenarios are some of the terrible effects that these girls have to go through. Physical suffering aside, the girls often end up suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression, which takes a serious toll on the girls' well-being.
Although FGC is an offence in most of the countries, it is still largely prevalent in many places due to it being a part of the culture and tradition for a very long time. However, the act still violates a number of rights of the girls, which includes the right to health[ii], right to life[iii], and integrity and freedom from torture[iv] under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and Universal Declaration of Human Rights respectively.
Additionally, since most of the girls are minors when the process takes place, it ends up violating the rights of the children as guaranteed under the UNCRC (United Nations Convention on Rights of Children). UNCRC requires governments to protect all children's rights and take up the various measures required to do away with prejudiced traditions and practices.[v]
Other laws like the Convention for Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Declaration of Elimination of Violence against Women (DEVAW) talks about the specific act of the female genital cutting in a much more specific way. The latter recognizes FGC as sexual, physical as well as psychological violence against women[vi] While the former talks about abolishing such practices and rules[vii] that are the result of strong patriarchal domination for years.
FGC IN INDIA
When it comes to the prevalence of this heinous practice in India, the percentage is probably very less. It is only practiced among the small sub-sect of the Muslim population, i.e., the Bohra community. However, that does not mean we should overlook this issue. A socio-legal issue that has been under wraps for years is now finally taking the form of a strong challenge to the tradition.
Although the Quran does not mention anything about the practice, the Bohra community has the tradition of performing the cutting when the girl reaches her seventh or eighth year. In the year 2017, this practice came out in public for the first time when Advocate Sunita Tiwari filed a Public Interest Litigation to end such a practice.
Unfortunately, in India, we do not have any specific laws, rules, or regulations forbid the practice or criminalize it. But there is a silver lining here. Any of the provisions under any acts that describe voluntarily causing injury to women or children can be applied for the case of FGC, and the punishment will be awarded thereof. This means that under the Indian Penal Code (IPC), the perpetrators can be punished for causing grievous injury voluntarily.[viii]
Additionally, the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (POCSO), can also be taken into consideration as the girls are mostly minors. Under POCSO, this process can be treated as a penetrative sexual assault on the minor with a sharp object.[ix] All these provisions in Indian laws ensure that if a complaint is filed, the perpetrators do not go unpunished. However, what we need is a law that explicitly deals with the problem of FGC, and with that, we also need more awareness on the issue so that we are better able to fight against this tradition and are in apposition to take care of the girls'; both physically and mentally.
Although action against Female Genital Cutting began slowly, it has progressed significantly over the years thanks to the various NGOs worldwide and the United Nations' efforts to do away with the practice. Numerous women groups all across the world in general and in Africa, in particular, are working hard at abolishing the traditions and bringing awareness about its health effects and complications. Also, with respect to India, we need laws to fight against this practice. However, having laws is one thing, and implementing it is another. Working together, one can hope to bring about the changes and the awareness that are much needed in regard to this issue in India and abroad.
K.L.E. SOCIETY’S LAW COLLEGE, BENGALURU
[i] Anne Firth Murray, From Outrage to Courage
[ii] Article 12, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1966
[iii] Article 3, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948
[iv] Article 5, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948
[v] Article 24, United Nations Convention on Rights of Children, 1989
[vi] Article 2, Declaration of Elimination of Violence against Women, 1993
[vii] Article 2, Convention for Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, 1979
[viii] Section 324, Indian Penal Code, 1870
[ix] Section 3, Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012