The Politics of FGM – It is a Human Rights Abuse

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By Thomas Gregory

With school closures during the long COVID-19 isolation period, there have been more opportunities for FGM/C to continue undetected around the world, including in the UK. This has reinvigorated international efforts to end the practice. FGM cases regularly violate fundamental universal human rights under the UN Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) including ‘the right to health’ (Article 25), ‘the right to life liberty and the security of personhood’ (Article 3), ‘the right to an adequate education that includes proper knowledge of the cultural practice’ (Article 26) and freedom from cruel treatment (Article 5).

However, there are some challenges to the campaigns against FGM in academia that challenge this understanding of rights. Some argue that the campaigns to end FGM are neo-colonial and racist because they are forcing communities to change against their will. They say that it is patronising and uninformed to make decisions on behalf of women and girls in practicing communities.

Stop FGM

However, FGM/C is significantly motivated by the sexual control of women, rarely involves any kind of informed choice and obviously negatively impacts the health of women alone. FGM/C is not only detrimental to physical health but is a manifestation of gender inequality.

Most often, young girls or babies are forced, duped, or strongly encouraged by parents and the wider community (who do not always have accurate knowledge about the health implications) to have their clitoris removed. Indeed, without falling down the rabbit hole of what “rights” actually are, causing unnecessary pain and long-term health complications (without their full knowledge and consent) is inherently undesirable across all cultures.

Indeed, there are plenty of examples of women actively campaigning against the practice. It is important to treat different cultures equitably, however, this should not mean criticisms cannot be made about any cultural practices that cause objective harm to someone’s healthy body. Another challenge is that it is hypocritical for the West to condemn FGM because it is similar to labiaplasty operations in the West.

Of course, this parallel is feeble because the clitoris is often removed, with all its health negatives and cultural issues, and cosmetic surgery patients choose to go through the procedure with free and informed consent. Of course, there is still a critique to be made about how our culture may encourage young people to desire labiaplasty anyway, but it remains that cosmetic surgery is quite different to FGM.

I think it would be a shame if we lost sight of the real harms of FGM due to this minority academic opinion, which ironically is rarely argued by FGM victims themselves. Genital cutting regularly causes a plethora of immediate issues including pain, bleeding, and keloid scarring. Mistakes can also happen during the procedure, like removing excess flesh, tearing the urethra and transmitting HIV/AIDS from dirty blades. Infibulation, accounting for 10% of FGM/C rates, introduces further issues like the ineffective passage of menstrual fluid or urine.

Moreover, FGM/C is nearly always done to children and regularly causes emotional trauma, partly because most cases include removing the clitoris, where the pain of cutting is most severe and is intended to reduce sexual pleasure. Moreover, while FGM/C is argued as identity-giving, marking adulthood, it can also negatively impact a victim’s sense of bodily identity. Many feel that a part of them is missing emotionally and physically.

Additionally, it is indisputable that both women and their babies are negatively impacted by a multitude of childbirth complications. Infant mortality rates increase ‘by 15% for type 1, 32% for type 2, and 55% for type 3’ because scar tissue cannot stretch, and pregnant women may still be infibulated, which risks breaching both the rights to life and health of children and mothers. Regarding infibulation specifically, girls have to lay with their legs tied together for weeks to heal, which is an example of cruel treatment.

Therefore, FGM/C also breaches Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child which orders states to abolish traditional practices that are ‘prejudicial to the health of children’. Consequently, FGM/C cases are often a multi-levelled human rights abuse, and most of the international community agree, including the governments of some practicing communities.

Overall then, despite some weak arguments from a sometimes over-cautious academic community, FGM is a human rights abuse and we should not shy away from that. As a global community, we should care about this, regardless of our sex or race – it negatively affects human beings.

FGM cases regularly violate fundamental universal human rights under the UN Declaration of Human Rightsincluding ‘the right to health’ (Article 25)