Female genital mutilation is a global menace. “Recognised internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women” and “[reflecting] deep-rooted inequality between the sexes” in the words of the World Health Organization (WHO), it is a practice that demands zero tolerance and maximum accountability – including in India, where it often takes place under a veil of silence. Today marks International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, an opportunity for this veil to be lifted.
Roundly recognised as a severe violation of human rights, female genital mutilation carries the potential to inflict great suffering and damage to health. “The practice has no known health benefits for girls and women,” explains Amnesty International. “It involves damaging or removing healthy and normal female genital tissue, and interferes with the natural functions of the body. The practice can cause immediate complications, including severe pain, excessive bleeding and problems urinating. It can also have long-term effects, including leading to cysts and infections, as well as complications in childbirth. The event itself can be traumatic for survivors and can cause lasting psychological consequences.”
At least 200 million girls and women have undergone the procedure across the world, including in India. The toll of the practice is also felt by the international economy. At the global level, it is estimated that female genital mutilation costs US$1.4 billion.
The silence in India surrounding female genital mutilation can be attributed – at least in part – to the Government. In 2017, the existence of the practice in the country was denied altogether. The Ministry of Women and Child Development asserted at the time that there was “no official data or study which supports [its] existence.” This was despite then-Minister of Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi declaring “we will write to respective state governments and Syedna, the Bohra high priest shortly to issue an edict to community members to give up female genital mutilation voluntarily as it is a crime under Indian Penal Code (IPC) and Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses (POCSO) Act, 2012. If the Syedna does not respond then we will bring in a law to ban the practice in India.”
In India’s Bohra Muslim community, one which numbers at more than one million according to the Joshua Project, an incidence of female genital mutilation (practiced as khatna or khafz) was reported to have taken place in around 75 percent of women in a first-of-its-kind study published in 2018. One survivor cited in the report recalled her experience of “sitting on the toilet, crying of unbearable pain, too scared to even pee” after undergoing the procedure at the age of seven. By way of comfort, her mother told her “everyone in the building has undergone this procedure”, lending insight into the scope and scale of the abuse.
As such, the notion that female genital mutilation is a non-occurrence in India has been thoroughly debunked. This is in large part thanks to the voices of survivors who have spoken up about it in recent years and captured public attention and support.
Sex discrimination is an issue which plagues multiple facets of Indian society, particularly in terms of health and development. Female genital mutilation is a manifestation of this discrimination. As the WHO describes, “it constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women. It is nearly always carried out on minors and is a violation of the rights of children. The practice also violates a person’s rights to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death.”
To avert the needless suffering of girls and women subjected to female genital mutilation, survivors have rallied to foster public support for banning the practice. A petition pertaining to the same acquired more than one lakh signatories and a public interest litigation has been filed before the Supreme Court, where it will be heard this year.
Ending female genital mutilation is a moral imperative for governments everywhere, including in India. The global momentum is firmly against female genital mutilation, as the United Nations has conveyed in the announcement today of efforts to rid the world of the practice in a decade. The key, it suggests, is “unleashing the power of youth.”
According to a joint statement of UNFPA Executive Director Dr Natalia Kanem; UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore; UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka; and WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, “adolescent girls aged fifteen to nineteen in countries where female genital mutilation is prevalent are less supportive of continuing the practice than are women aged 45 to 49…today’s young people can play a critical role in ending the practice. Unleashing the power of youth means investing in youth-led movements to champion gender equality, an end to violence against women and girls and the elimination of harmful practices.
“This requires including young people as partners when designing and implementing national action plans, building relationships with youth-led organizations and networks that work to end female genital mutilation and recognise it as a form of violence against women and girls, empowering young people to lead community campaigns that challenge social norms and myths, and engaging men and boys as allies.”
Yet the onus, the authors acknowledge, cannot solely be upon the shoulders of young people. “It also requires strong political leadership and commitment.” For the sake of its girls and women vulnerable to the practice of female genital mutilation, authorities in India – at the district level, the state level, the central level, and at all levels, must answer to that moral imperative and display that same leadership and commitment.