Amnesty International and its partners have just launched END FGM European campaign which demands that the European Union develop a strategic plan to end Female Genital Mutilation in Europe as well as other discriminatory and violent practices against women. According to Amnesty’s website almost 8000 girls around the world undergo this violent procedure daily.
FGM is certainly not limited to Europe as it is also practiced in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) as are other discriminatory practices against women. As last Monday was Zero Tolerance to FGM day, it is appropriate that this topic is the first in a series of posts discussing issues specific to women in the Arab World.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines FGM as “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.”
WHO estimates that 140 million girls and women worldwide are currently living with the consequences of FGM. The practice is widespread in no less than 28 African countries. In the MENA region, it is carried out widely in Egypt and to a lesser extent in Yemen, Oman, Jordan and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. From newborns to early adulthood girls can be subjected to the procedure, with most cases occurring between the ages of 5-10. While it is sometimes performed by doctors, often it is performed by people who are not medically trained.
The instruments used range from a scalpel to a piece of broken glass, and even the lid from a tin can. Usually, the girl does not receive any anesthetic, and is often held down by other women. It is, by all accounts, an extremely painful procedure. The brutality of the procedure and the lack of hygiene severely damages the health of millions of women. The procedure has both immediate and lifetime consequences on the physical, sexual and emotional health of women. Short term complications include death from hemorrhaging, trauma, sepsis and urinary retention. Acute complications on reproductive health are one of the many severe and long term physical consequences. Other long term consequences are anemia, cysts, painful sexual intercourse, sexual dysfunction, complications during childbirth and postpartum hemorrhaging. All types of FGM also carry a risk on the fetus’ health ranging from lower birth weight, early neonatal death and still birth.
Cultural relativists argue that what may be considered morally wrong in one culture may be perfectly acceptable in another. Origins of this practice are embedded in the social fabric of societies and culture, so does this imply that international organisations are wrong for putting forward campaigns advocating the eradication of FGM? FGM is a cultural practice, and as such – cultural relativists would hold – is not morally wrong. However, what cultural relativists fail to mention is that this is a matter of human rights first and foremost. At the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights, in Vienna, women’s rights were recognised as an integral part of human rights, and also that gender based violence, including those stemming from culture must be eliminated. Since then numerous statements condemning FGM and Resolutions articulating the necessity of its eradication have emerged from international conferences, the UN and other international human rights institutions. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) identified FGM as against human rights. UN Article 7 from the Human Rights Committee states that “no-one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.” Moreover, the UN Committee Against Torture has not only articulated its concern over customs such as FGM, but has also urged governments to enact legislation and increase awareness campaigns. In 1993 Article 2 of the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (DEVAW) overtly labelled FGM as a form of violence against women. What articulates the link between this declaration and the practice of FGM is Article 4c which urges states to abstain from using traditional or religious explanations to avoid their obligations under international human rights law.
Thus the argument of cultural relativism weakens, if not fails, in the face of violating the numerous human right principles highlighted. In cultures, where FGM is practiced, women and girls do not have a voice – so it remains the humane responsibility of non-FGM practicing societies to lobby, advocate and intervene to end this brutal practice. However, different justifications are still given by clerics, midwifes, mothers and fathers as to why FGM is practiced: cultural, religious, controlling women’s sexuality and social pressure. From an outsider’s perspective, the most striking point is that this discriminatory procedure is performed by women on women. Girls are tricked by their own mothers and female relatives into thinking they were going to a relative’s party or out for a walk, then they are forcibly held down by them. To better understand why women not only do not object but enforce these torturous practices one must dive into the socio-economic make up of these societies. Most of the societies where the practice is still embedded are patriarchal, where women remain subordinate to men in many spheres. To successfully eradicate FGM international law and advocacy are not enough. We must tackle the root of the problem which is the socio economic status of women. Girls are less educated than boys since they are taken out of school at an earlier age and so are financially dependent on men, which allows them to put FGM as a marital condition. The role of women is in some cases, if not most, restricted to that of accomplishing household chores and rearing children. Access to women’s health information is rare if not absent. Knowledge is power, and in this case both are absent. Advocacy campaigns recommending governments to pass laws forbidding FGM is an important step. However, the longer term solution is taking a wholesome look at the bigger picture and tackling its cause such as enforcing not only primary education but secondary and higher education too .What these women and girls need is EMPOWERMENT through education and information.