Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and International Law

Talking about women’s sexuality has always been taboo in this world as if women are not normal as other humans are, but some grave expectations adhere to their existence. Talking about women’s health crisis or anything related to know about women’s body has always been encountered with shut up calls, all justified in the notion of modesty. Though such stagnant rhetoric’s existed, no one seems to have any idea about the consequences stemming from such deep-rooted and entrenched rotten customs. Terms such as modesty and honour have always been there to impede women’s self-growth and keep them stuck into some private spheres. Rapes and other forms of sexual violence are the direct outcomes of the preconceived notions such as women having their honours’ strings attached to men. And hence, targeting women becomes an easy way to target the family’s honour. Such tactics serve well to the predators who are thirsty for revenge; their targets are ultimately killed in the name of honour by those who should have been their saviours.

Sexual violence still hasn’t received the attention it should have, but what about other heinous practices into which women are forced due to the socio-cultural norms and traditions that are considered sacred and symbols of purity, passed on from generation to generation? Breast-ironing constitutes such retrogressive practices and is done to save women’s virginity by ironing their breasts with hot metals to make them look more modest, less grown-up, and less attractive to men. The reason for mentioning breast ironing is directly related to the crime my topic revolves around. Both concern one thing: women are not humans but some sexual objects to be saved until they get another saviour to be passed on to. Apart from this, the crime that has been done with more impunity and on a wider scale and is prevalent in almost every part of the globe is Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

FGM can be defined as mutilating in which there is complete or partial removal of female external genitalia. Though while performing FGM, there are no criteria of an age limit, the practice has often been performed on infant and young girls. 

Most of the girls who have undergone this violence are aged five to twelve years. But this isn’t the only case. Women prior to marriage (to show the world that the women’s so-called purity has been safeguarded vigorously) and women just after their first pregnancy have to go through this barbarism. According to survey data, around 100 to 140 million women alive today have been through FGM and such data is based on the reported incidents only, the darker side of what really goes inside the four walls of the house (that are ironically considered the safest place on earth for women) is still under a thick veil.

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Despite the fact that millions of women have their genitals cut or mutilated- just for the sake of prolonging the myth of purity – and want to give this vicious cycle a halt but are reluctant to make their daughters suffer from this same nightmare and are unable to break such shackles and reason simply lies in the patriarchy existing as well as a women’s subordinating and subservient position in a household, and society at large.

Women have been exposed to such harsh practices since humankind’s very existence, and FGM has gotten historical roots, particularly in Egypt. The examination of excavated female mummies has suggested that the slaves had several metal rings in their labia minora to thwart them from reproduction.

FGM has primarily been performed by traditional practitioners, usually the mid-wives and, in some cases, health-care providers with cruel impunity in private clinics. But it doesn’t matter who is behind such ridiculousness; FGM constitutes a direct violation of human rights and has gruesome health consequences, and can be life-threatening.

As expected, the pace of criminalising FGM in international law has been slow, and the conventions related to women’s rights have even failed to explicitly mention and define the term. Some shrouded language has been used, which renders various interpretations.

For instance, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights safeguards the right to equality in terms of dignity. It emphasises a person’s security, but the term FGM is not used in the entire document. The same goes for the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Both the declarations and those responsible for carving out or incorporating the provisions have failed to mention the term FGM as the direct violation of such rights. Instead, in a quick way, the right to highest mental and physical health must be assured.

One may argue that all such umbrella terms can be ample and interpreted into a vast picture that encompasses all the violations of women’s rights, which constitute human rights. But when it comes to this faction of society that has been ostracised and shunned systematically, the negligence can cause serious harm. Such insensitivity, failure to see beyond the picture and this lagging behind in gender sensitivity have grave consequences for women who are reluctant to endure this callousness in acquiescence. Such umbrella terms or these mild declarations won’t ever work unless the harsh penalties have been codified and this can only be possible when crimes such as FGM are vehemently recognised and condemned first, then mentioned clearly in the provisions of International Law. No such treaties banning the practice of FGM have been carved out yet which may be ratified on a domestic level. Though some countries mostly from the African Region have recognized the horrendous outcomes of FGM they are still unable to enforce such laws or to codify them on a domestic level because it all stems from the centuries-old cultures, traditions and religious teachings’ misinterpretation and above all such practices are the direct outcomes and perpetrators of the inferiority of women.

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The reason that the international community has never paid much heed to the crisis related to women is all because gender has never constituted a part of international affairs. The states have never prioritized the needs and or ever attempted to redress women’s worsening living conditions. Various IGOs and INGOs have given several workshops and statements, but strict actions from states are yet to be taken. If states had paid any heed then: 90% of girls aged between five and fourteen years in Egypt would never have gone under a knife and had their genitals cut; 50% of girls under age five in Ethiopia, Mali, and Mauritania would never have had their vaginal openings sewn up; and 76% of infants in Yemen (age two weeks) would never have bled excessively after going through infibulation (statistics by WHO); and in Malaysia, the 90% of women would be never have been circumcised as the result of a fatwa given by Islamic Council because of which it had become mandatory for Malaysian women to be circumcised.

The failure of the international law to adequately address the blatant violation of human rights, particularly women’s rights, can be seen in how countries where FGM is rampant, are members of the regional human rights organisations- such as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (The Banjul Charter) and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (The European Convention)- which are the supplements of international organisations concerning human rights law. And despite being the member states of such regional organisations, there are no vibrant mechanisms to enforce and implement the safeguarding of basic human rights. The perpetrators enjoy impunity because of the absence of effective measures, procedures of accountability and the reporting of human rights abuses.

Under international human rights law, governments are supposed to be held accountable and bound by international human rights standards to criminalise such practices and uproot them. It is the responsibility of governments to punish criminals by codifying laws that could tighten the net around such criminals, and they must be punished under the jurisdiction of the states.

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FGM is a crime that stems from mindsets that downplay women’s existence and reduces their presence to mere chattels. This is why, despite having innumerable charters, conventions, declarations, and statements by diversified international groups, gender-based discrimination is gushing upwards over time. Gender-based violence is a culture, and cultures are the outcomes of mindsets, and such rotten cultures are the outcomes of contaminated mindsets. Until some rigorous actions are taken by those in power to address and resolve the thinking crisis, such practices will go on, if not openly, then surreptitiously.

Legal measures are of utmost importance, and their indispensability can never be undermined and what is missing is the regulating measures that should particularly be targeting such health care providers or practitioners to obstruct the continued practice of FGM and to discourage this on domestic levels, particularly those areas where covertly this crime is being committed. Public policy measures are equally crucial. Only drafting out the treaties and using “International Law jargons” can never be a possible solution, especially when your target audience is illiterate and is enveloped in some grave and mind-sickening traditions. Public awareness, mainly targeting women to make them aware of their fundamental liberties and freedom, which constitute their inalienable human rights, can be fruitful. Stigmatisation and shame related to knowing one’s own body must be abolished by providing women with the primary health care knowledge pertaining to their bodies, particularly sexuality. States have signed the treaties but are unable to ratify them back in their countries, and even if they ratify, how will it be implemented over the masses who are still living in a cultural stone-age? Such farsighted analysis is required to eradicate these human rights abuses and to break the glass ceilings that have long handicapped women from living their lives with dignity and respect.

This article has been written by Sadaf Shabbir. To write for The Students Herald contact: writetostudentsherald@gmail.com

Writer Profile: Sadaf is a student of International Relations from the University of Karachi and a proud bibliophile analyzing world politics and contemporary happenings with a comparative analysis based on the gendered lenses; unveiling sexism and gender biases engraved in each field, including the last bastion of social sciences. Discovered writing as a way to disseminate her thoughts to the world and have published articles on topics as “Feminism and International Relations” and “Domestic Violence is Domestic Terrorism.” And even this piece is just a small contribution to revamp the way people interpret certain events in society.

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