The African country of Sudan is winning an old battle for its women: against female genital mutilation (FGM). On April 22, 2020, the country’s transitional government passed a law criminalising the practice with a prison term of up to three years and a fine.
Though the law is still to be approved by Sundan’s sovereign council, UNICEF has already welcomed the decision and vowed to support it. The law, considered a huge victory of female rights in the country, is another step for Sudan from a dictatorial to a democratic form of government.
According to the WHO, FGM “includes procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons”. The most recent of the many international initiatives to ban the practice is the third draft resolution of the UN General Assembly in 2012, which adopted a call to intensify efforts without a vote, keeping in mind the gravity of the act.
However, India itself has fared poorly in its efforts to curb FGM – so much so that in response to a public interest litigation in 2017, the government said it had no data on the practice’s prevalence in the country. Thankfully studies and research by NGOs indicate FGM is practiced in many parts of India, especially among members of the Dawoodi Bohra community.
The health implications of FGM – performed on young girls, generally without anaesthesia and by untrained community leaders – include copious bleeding and pain during and immediately after the procedure, infections, swelling, difficulty in micturition, restricted leg movement, issues with menstruation, painful intercourse, complications in parturition, chronic pain, decreased sexual satisfaction and considerable mental trauma. The girl or woman is also at higher risk of contracting tetanus or HIV if the procedure is performed in unhygienic conditions.
Inflicting such a grievous injury on a child with no proven medical benefits but only harm is a gross violation of human rights. In Indian context, FGM infringes on the fundamental rights to life, personal liberty and privacy in Article 21 of the constitution.
Many Islamic religious leaders have also contested the claimed virtues of FGM, and have argued it does not find sanction in the Qur’an. The authenticity of the few hadith that observers have said mention FGM has been disputed. The principles of Shari’ah as well as other Islamic beliefs are also opposed to the practice. All of this makes a religious case against the practice. Egypt – another Muslim-majority country like Sudan – set an example when it banned FGM in 2008 and criminalised it in 2016.
One of the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals is to eliminate FGM by 2030. India is far from being on target, as even the lack of data suggests. One way forward is to ‘discover’ the FGM’s prevalence by collecting more data through national surveys, obstetric doctors, ASHA workers and anganwadi workers and school teachers (who come in contact with young girls). The government could work with them to spread awareness about FGM’s ill-effects, and use the data and their learnings to inform new policies.
As the practice is linked to religious beliefs, another way is to rope in religious institutions and leaders who could influence their respective communities’ opinions.
At a time when human and gender rights are becoming more important than traditional customs and superstitions, it’s time we address an issue that doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it deserves in the country.
Dr Apurva Jain is a dentist in Mumbai and an MPH candidate at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.