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FEMALE GENITAL MUTILATION IN THE INDIAN SOCIO-LEGAL CONTEXT

INTRODUCTION

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), also called female genital circumcision, refers to the cutting of the female external genitalia, completely or partially, or other similar harms to it, for non-medical purposes. It is mostly carried out in female infants, up to the age of 15 years, and is scientifically proven to have no health benefits whatsoever. Instead, FGM is linked to short-term and long-term complications in the women who go through it and can also at times lead to life-threatening conditions.

Over 200 million women and girls in the world in present times are victims of this practice, mostly in the regions of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.[1] Along with several other countries of the world, FGM is prevalent in India too, but there is no law as such at present to curb this practice within the country. It is pertinent to understand that FGM is a gross violation of rights and the dignity of women, mostly perpetuated by illiteracy and lack of awareness in society and that it needs to be addressed effectively by the administration and society as a whole to do away with this practice.

HISTORY AND DEVELOPMENT

The origins of the practice are obscure. There is no clear evidence to show where exactly the practice started. However, scholars have come up with different theories and findings to address this. One group of scholars suggests that FGM might have originated in Ancient Egypt, based on the findings of circumcised mummies from the 5th century BC.[2] Some others suggest that the practice might have been implemented on female slaves in Ancient Rome to prevent pregnancies, and might have travelled to different places and regions through the routes of the slave trade.[3] Though there is no concrete evidence of its origin, what is apparent is that this age-old practice continues even today in the modern world, and is a serious concern for human rights and dignity.

In India, the practice is most common among the members of the Dawoodi Bohra community, who are Shia Muslims, mostly in the states of Maharashtra, Kerala, Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Madhya Pradesh. Known by the names of “Khatna” or “Khafd”, it is generally performed on young girls around the age of 7 years as a means of attaining “purity” by cutting off the clitoral hood.[4]

REASONS FOR THE CONTINUITY OF FGM

It is extremely intriguing that such a practice, which was originally introduced to reduce the chances of female slaves being pregnant, has continued for thousands of years. The reasons for this continuity are numerous. One such belief leading to this continuity is the “marriageability” of a woman, where circumcision is a way to curb the sexuality and bodily autonomy of a woman, to preserve her virginity and purity, and thus maintain her “marriageability”.[5] It is a way to enforce the patriarchal norms of society on the woman, giving her a sense of restriction on her autonomy, and instilling a belief that being curtailed and controlled is normal and desirable. For some other communities, FGM is a means of strengthening “cultural identity” and marking the transition of a woman from a child to an adult.[6] Another belief is that the cutting of the external clitoris is important to maintain hygiene and to maintain the attractiveness of the vagina, as otherwise it might grow to be too long and might “touch the ground”.[7] It is also believed that cutting off the clitoris would mean greater sexual pleasure and more chances of conception. Such beliefs, over the years, become socially instilled and perpetrate the minds of the people of the society. They become norms such that women who oppose circumcision are ostracized from society.

In European societies in the late 19th century, FGM was believed to be a way to curtail certain sexual practices in women, like masturbation and lesbianism, which were disapproved of by society. Removing the clitoral hood meant less irritation for the women and in turn prevented masturbation, since masturbation was seen as a result of irritation in the vagina. Removal of the clitoral head also was believed to ensure better sexual pleasure during sexual intercourse.[8]

VARIOUS FORMS OF FGM

FGM or the cutting of the external genitalia is practised in different forms around the globe, which differ from community to community, as per their beliefs and traditions. In 1997, the World Health Organisation (WHO) categorised FGM broadly into 4 categories. [9]

Type I involves the removal of the external genitalia, partially or in its entirety, for controlling the sexual pleasure of a woman. This is the most widely followed form of FGM in India.[10]

Type II involves the partial or total removal of the clitoral glans and inner folds of the vulva, without necessarily removing the outer folds of the vulva.[11]

Type III is also referred to as infibulation. This is done by narrowing the vaginal opening by cutting and repositioning the inner and outer folds of the vulva.[12]

Type IV involves all the other forms of non-medical harm to the female genitalia, like pricking, piercing, scraping, etc.[13]

FGM AND LAW IN INDIA

A PIL was filed in the Supreme Court of India by some Bohra women, demanding that there be a law to curb the practice of FGM in India. They argued that the lack of legal backing makes the opposition against the practice of FGM weak, and fails to protect the sexual autonomy, privacy, and dignity of women. It is not just a women’s issue; it is also a child rights issue. The plea sought to curb the practice of FGM as going against Articles 15, 19, and 21 of the Constitution of India.[14]

In response to this, the Ministry of Women and Child Development submitted that there was no official data that supported the existence of FGM in India.[15] The issue at present is still pending before the Supreme Court of India. Victims of the practice have themselves come up to address this issue and to protest against this practice that victimizes young girls. At the age at which such cutting of the genitalia takes place, young girls hardly have a voice for themselves, nor can they oppose any such action. Snatching away their bodily autonomy and following a practice that may cause complications for the rest of their life is prima facie a heinous act, and the Centre’s denial to acknowledge its presence is a huge drawback for the women and victims of the Bohra community.

CONCLUSION

Being a practice that is deeply embedded in social norms and traditions, the need of the hour is suitable legislation that would help the victims of FGM secure the human dignity that they deserve and to do away with any such practice that snatches away their bodily autonomy and restricts their sexuality. Complications arise because cutting off the clitoris is usually done by inexperienced hands using unclean tools. No fixed amount is to be cut, and no proper measure for what is safe and what is not. Infections and bleedings are common results, and in many cases, such complications last for a lifetime.[16]

Being socially rooted, individuals are not encouraged to speak up about this issue. The few who do, face social ostracization. Without legal backing, such cases can never be brought to the forefront and such practices can never be eroded. Proper legislation dealing exclusively with FGM and laying down appropriate punishments for the perpetrators of this practice is required. Along with that, there must be proper counselling and rehabilitation measures for the victims as FGM causes not just physical damage, but also psychological trauma. Drafting proper legislation will go a long way in securing justice for millions of women who have to undergo the pains of having their genitalia circumcised without being able to protest against it, and letting India secure a place among those countries of the world that acknowledge the practice of FGM and make it a punishable offence. The need of the hour is for the administration, stakeholders, and the community to work together toward achieving this aim.

Author(s) Name: Kahuwa Sarma (Chanakya National Law University, Patna)

References:

[1] United Nations Children’s Fund, and Geeta Rao Gupta, “Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: a statistical overview and exploration of the dynamics of change” (2013) 21 RHM 184.

[2] Jewel Llamas, “Female Circumcision: The History, the Current Prevalence and the Approach to a Patient” [2017] UV 8.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Avanti Deshpande, “Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting in India: An Urgent Need for Intervention” (Human Rights 6 May 2022) <https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/humanrights/2022/05/06/female-genital-mutilation-cutting-in-india-an-urgent-need-for-intervention/> accessed 9 June 2023.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] World Health Organisation, ”Types of Female Genital Mutilation” (Sexual and Reproductive Health and Research 1997) <https://www.who.int/teams/sexual-and-reproductive-health-and-research-(srh)/areas-of-work/female-genital-mutilation/types-of-female-genital-mutilation > accessed 9 June 2023.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] “Female Genital Mutilation Violates Fundamental Rights, says Supreme Court” Hindustan Times (New Delhi 2018) 3.

[15] Shalini Nair, “No official data on existence of Female Genital Mutilation in India, Centre tells SC” The Indian Express (28 December 2017) 1.

[16] UN WOMEN, “Survivors speak: Women leading the movement to end FGM” (4 February 2019) <https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2019/2/compilation-women-leading-the-movement-to-end-female-genital-mutilation> accessed on 9 June 2023.