Every year, February 6 is observed as the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). As per the World Health Organization (WHO), globally, over 200 million girls alive today have suffered FGM in over 30 countries.
The economic costs of treating health complications arising out of FGM amount to roughly $1.4 billion for 2018 for 27 countries where FGM is performed. If the prevalence remains the same, the amount is expected to rise up to $2.3 billion by 2047.
In 2018, a study on FGM in India said that the practice was up to 75 per cent across the Bohra Muslim community. The study was conducted by three independent researchers.
FGM is the name given to procedures that involve altering or injuring the female genitalia for non-medical or cultural reasons, and is recognised internationally as a violation of human rights and the health and integrity of girls and women.
WHO classifies four types of FGM: type 1 (partial or total removal of the clitoral glans); type 2 (partial or total removal of the external and visible parts of the clitoris and the inner folds of the vulva); type 3 (infibulation, or narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal), type 4 (picking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterising the genital area).
Most girls and women who have undergone FGM live in sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab States, but it is also practiced in some countries in Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America.
Countries where FGM is performed include Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Egypt, Oman, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Iraq, Iran, Georgia, Russian Federation, Columbia and Peru, among others.
According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), while the exact origins of the practice remain unclear, it seems to have predated Christianity and Islam. It says that some Egyptian mummies display characteristics of FGM.
Significantly, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus has claimed that in the fifth century BC, the Phoenicians, the Hittites and the Ethiopians practised circumcision. Furthermore, circumcision rites were also performed in the tropical zones of Africa, in the Philippines and by certain tribes in the Upper Amazon area.
“As recent as the 1950s, clitoridectomy was practised in Western Europe and the United States to treat perceived ailments including hysteria, epilepsy, mental disorders, masturbation, nymphomania and melancholia. In other words, the practice of FGM has been followed by many different peoples and societies across the ages and continents,” it says.
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Depending on the region, there can be various reasons why FGM is performed. The UNFPA has categorised the reasons into five categories — psycho-sexual reasons (when FGM is carried out as a way to control women’s sexuality, “which is sometimes said to be insatiable if parts of the genitalia, especially the clitoris, are not removed); sociological or cultural reasons (when FGM is seen as part of a girl’s initiation into womanhood and an intrinsic part of a community’s cultural heritage); hygiene and aesthetic reasons (this may be the reason for those communities that consider the external female genitalia as ugly and dirty); religious reasons (the UNFPA maintains that while FGM is not endorsed by Christianity or Islam, “supposed” religious doctrines may be used to justify the practice); socio-economic factors (in some communities FGM is a pre-requisite for marriage, especially in those communities where women are dependent on men economically).
Other reasons cited by the WHO include an attempt to ensure women’s premarital virginity since FGM is believed to reduce libido, “and therefore believed to help her resist extramarital sexual acts.” FGM may also be associated with cultural ideals of feminity and modesty.
According to the aforementioned study, the reasons for FGM referred to as “Khafd” in India include continuing an old traditional practice, adhering to religious edicts, controlling women’s sexuality and abiding by the rules stated by the religious clergy.
It also states that the issue first rose to prominence in India because of two international legal cases on FGM against practising Bohras in Australia and the US.
In 2018, a bench of then Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, and Justices AM Khanwilkar and DY Chandrachud referred a petition seeking a ban on FGM among Dawoodi Bohra girls to a five-judge Constitution Bench. This PIL was filed byDelhi-based lawyer Sunita Tiwari, who sought a declaration that the practice amounts to a violation of a woman’s right to life and dignity.
The Dawoodi Bohra community, on the other hand, maintained that the practice should be allowed since the Constitution grants religious freedom under Article 25.