Friday, February 6, 2015

#EndFGM to Protect Women’s and Girls’ Human Rights | Tanya Sukhija

Female genital mutilation is a human rights violation affecting over 125 million women and girls around the world. States must pass and enforce laws against the practice, including its performance by medical personnel, as well as protect women and girls from undergoing the practice in order to adhere to international human rights obligations.

Tasaru Ntomonok’s Initiative alternative rite of passage ceremony held December 2013 in Narok County, Kenya.
Photo Credit: Ruth Njeng'ere, Equality Now Nairobi

Today marks the thirteenth International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). FGM is an extreme form of violence and discrimination against women and girls that involves the partial or total removal of the female genitalia. FGM ranges from the partial or total removal of the clitoris (clitoridectomy), to the removal of the entire clitoris and the cutting of the labia minora (excision), to its most extreme form, the removal of all external genitalia and the stitching together of the two sides of the vulva (infibulation). It is typically seen as a rite of passage into womanhood and is often an immediate precursor to child marriage.

Countries with the highest prevalence rates of FGM are on the African continent and in the Middle East region, but women and girls are also affected by the practice in some parts of Asia (e.g. Indonesia) and in countries with diaspora communities from countries with high-prevalence. In countries such as the UK or US, girls may be at risk of “vacation cutting” – being brought to their families’ home country during school vacation to undergo FGM.

FGM can have detrimental lifelong health consequences including chronic infections; severe pain during urination, menstruation, sexual intercourse and childbirth; psychological trauma; and in some cases even death. UNICEF estimates that over 125 million girls and women globally have undergone FGM, and 30 million are at risk over the next decade.

This year’s theme of Zero Tolerance Day focuses on mobilizing health personnel against FGM. It is vital that health personnel provide care rather than cause harm. The World Health Organization reports that more than 18% of all cases of FGM were performed by health personnel. UNICEF reports that in Egypt and Sudan, more than 50% of FGM procedures are performed by health personnel. Many believe when a health practitioner does the procedure it will be safer, but that is simply not true. Medicalization risks legitimizing and further entrenching the practice, and is a violation of medical ethical obligations to “do no harm.”

FGM violates various human rights under international and many countries’ national laws, including rights to equality, life, security of the person, dignity, as well as freedom from discrimination and torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa explicitly condemns FGM as a human rights violation. Treaty monitoring bodies overseeing the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Convention against Torture have all interpreted FGM as a human rights violation in contravention of those treaties, with some including medicalization as well. The UN General Assembly has also condemned the practice, while today, a consortium of health bodies and other organizations joined forces to call for health personnel to be at the forefront of efforts to end FGM.

Several countries such as Kenya are setting a model example on how to address FGM. Kenya’s Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) and the Anti-FGM Board have been ramping up efforts to enforce the Children’s Act and the Prohibition of FGM Act, which criminalize FGM including by medical professionals. The DPP for instance, established a 20-member Anti-FGM Unit and launched a reporting hotline to prosecute cases of FGM. Effective enforcement of the law and the establishment of institutions to implement the law send a clear message that the practice will no longer be tolerated, and cases of FGM will be taken seriously and prosecuted.

In Egypt in 2014, the Attorney General filed the first case of FGM since a law was passed banning FGM in 2008 - the case of 13-year-old Soheir al-Batea, who died after a doctor performed FGM on her at the behest of her father. Equality Now and the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance advocated for Egypt to enforce its anti-FGM law. The Attorney General stated it was due to the concern and attention of governmental and international ogranizations that his office decided to prosecute Soheir’s case. On January 26, the doctor was sentenced to two years in jail for manslaughter and three months for FGM. Soheir's father received a three month suspended sentence. The doctor's clinic was also closed for one year. This is hugely important in a country which has one of the highest number of affected women and girls in the world and where more than 75% of FGM cases are performed by medical personnel.

The UK has also brought its first ever case of FGM – also charging a doctor with performing FGM – since the passage of its FGM Act in 2003. Although the doctor was acquitted, the fact that the trial took place is an important step toward deterring the practice where girls from diaspora communities continue to be at risk. It also highlights the importance of training front-line professionals how to effectively care for FGM survivors.

However, many challenges remain in addressing FGM globally. Many countries with high FGM prevalence rates still do not have laws against FGM, such as Sierra Leone, Sudan, Mali, Nigeria, Liberia, Cameroon and The Gambia. Other countries need to more effectively implement laws already on the books. For instance, while the US has established an inter-agency working group on FGM and will be releasing a new study on the number of women and girls affected by or at risk of FGM in the US, it still needs a comprehensive national action plan to implement laws and policies to end FGM. Changing attitudes toward the practice is also no easy task and is complicated further by the rise in medicalization.

Passing and enforcing laws that criminalize FGM, including by health professionals, are crucial first steps toward eradicating the practice. Without such laws, women and girls have no form of recourse and states send the message they condone the practice. States must live up to their international obligations and protect women and girls from FGM, as well as provide support services for girls running away from FGM or who have already undergone FGM. States must also work with practicing communities to conduct awareness raising and education campaigns to change cultural perceptions on FGM. Furthermore, health professionals should take a leading role in eliminating the practice by refusing to perform it, educating communities about its harmful consequences and providing services for women who have undergone FGM.

Members of the ABA can also contribute to deterring the practice by calling on their governments to address FGM, and supporting cases of FGM on a pro-bono basis to seek justice for women and girls affected by the practice.

Tanya Sukhija is a lawyer, Program Officer at Equality Now in New York City, and a member of the ABA Section of International Law International Human Rights Committee. Equality Now uses legal advocacy and strategic litigation to promote and protect the human rights of women and girls globally including to prevent and address FGM.

1 comment:

  1. Its great to see how you have brought this issue again so succinctly to the public eye. Well done! As much as this issue gets highlighted, not enough is being done to eliminate it. Keep on going Tanya!