Even a few years ago, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything being said in India about Female Genital Mutilation or Cutting (FGM). But this form of gender-based violence has been happening in the country secret for at least 1,400 years.
FGM involves removing all or part of the external genitalia of a young girl, usually by force, to control their sexuality. While there is still a tendency to think of it as something that happens in distant “Africa”, FGM is very much practised in India too. Most cases – called “khatna” and occurring among the Bohras, a sect of Shia Muslims – have gone unreported, but today more and more survivors are raising awareness about it.
Speak Out On FGM, a survivor-led organisation has just released “A Guide to Eliminating Practice of FGM”, in collaboration with Lawyers Collective. The report reveals how “It infringes on the right to life and physical integrity, the right to health and the right to freedom from torture, cruel and unusual treatment, and violence.” And these are five things everyone should know about this cruel, ancient practice:
From Norway to Nigeria to New Zealand, over 40 countries worldwide have explicitly banned some or all forms of FGM. This means there is a specific legal recourse for survivors or those under threat of FGM. In India however, there is no specific provision criminalising the practice. In the absence of that, Sections 319 to 326, Section 324 and Section 326 of the Indian Penal code can be used against those who cause varying degrees of hurt. Then there are specific provisions in The Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses Act (2012), the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (2009) and the National Policy for Children which specifies that “that no custom, tradition, cultural or religious practice is allowed to violate or restrict or prevent children from enjoying their rights.” International laws like those in the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979) can also be invoked in cases involving FGM.
In an earlier interview with Youth Ki Awaaz, Speak Out On FGM convener Masooma Ranalvi shared how Bohra women were taking their young daughters for FGM ‘surgeries’. The report similarly describes how FGM has become a medicalised procedure now – meaning that medical professionals carry it out in more sanitary and ‘respectable’ settings. This is a cause for concern because the practice has no medically proven benefits. On the contrary, many survivors have reported excessive bleeding, urinary problems, tissue swelling, and (in later life) pain during sexual intercourse, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
There’s a lot of cultural weight placed on FGM. This can be difficult to confront, when it is so closely linked to not just the practices of a particular community, but its very identity. And the sword of excommunication is dangled over the heads of dissenting members. This has disempowered so many Bohra women from talking about what they went through. But today, many Bohras want FGM to come to a grinding halt.
In fact, it was a group of Dawoodi Bohras themselves that worked towards instituting the Bombay Prevention of Excommunication Act back in 1949, that protects the rights of those excommunicated by their own communities.. The report cites this, and the Maharashtra Prohibition of People From Social Boycott (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2016, in the hopes that it will help individual members take a stand against crimes in the name of tradition.
The report included the experiences of FGM survivors too, who mentioned that as a result of the practice, “they get nightmares [and] they get fear and anxiety when they get married.”
Another Bohra woman explained how deeply it affected her during her pregnancy, saying “I felt anxious whenever anyone touched me and had panic attacks whenever I was checked by medical staff. Not one doctor or midwife questioned this or understood why.”
Because of the effects FGM has on those who have been subjected to it, many now view it as a disability, insofar as it is a condition that restricts personal development and functioning.
In France, “FGM/C is seen as a form of disability under the French legal regime,” and we have Article 229 to thank for that. The report suggests that India could definitely take a leaf out of France’s book with regards to this.
Sections of the IPC and a few acts applicable in some Indian states may be of help, but they are stopgap measures at best. What is desperately needed is for India to adopt an anti-FGM law as soon as possible.
Compiled with the help of senior Supreme Court Advocate Indira Jaising, the fourth sections of the report lays out the basics of a law or policy to eradicate FGM from India. This includes, as in law, the definitions of FGM, parties who may be penalised, the time period for reporting, the duty to report, prevention and rehabilitation measures among other things.
Encouragingly, Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi has said the government will act to end FGM in India. And now, with this document in place, there really should be no further delay in eradicating FGM from India.