|End harmful traditional or customary practices, such as early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation, which violate the rights of children and women|
"Even though cultural practices may appear senseless or destructive from the standpoint of others, they have meaning and fulfil a function for those who practise them. However, culture is not static; it is in constant flux, adapting and reforming. People will change their behaviour when they understand the hazards and indignity of harmful practices and when they realize that it is possible to give up harmful practices without giving up meaningful aspects of their culture."
- Female Genital Mutilation: A joint WHO/UNICEF/UNFPA statement, World Health Organization, Geneva, 1997, reiterated in 2008.
Female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) violates girls’ and women’s human rights, denying them their physical and mental integrity, their right to freedom from violence and discrimination and, in the most extreme cases, their lives.
Defined as "the partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for cultural or other non-therapeutic reasons"1 FGM/C is grouped into four types2 according to the World Health Organization:
The procedure is generally carried out on girls between the ages of 4 and 14; it is also done to infants, women who are about to be married and, sometimes, to women who are pregnant with their first child or who have just given birth. It is often performed by traditional practitioners, including midwives and barbers, without anaesthesia and using scissors, razor blades or broken glass.
FGM/C is always traumatic. Immediate complications include excruciating pain, shock, urine retention, ulceration of the genitals and injury to adjacent tissue. Other complications include septicaemia (blood poisoning), infertility and obstructed labour. Haemorrhaging and infection have caused death.
A violation of rights
FGM/C is a fundamental violation of human rights. In the absence of any perceived medical necessity, it subjects girls and women to health risks and has life-threatening consequences. It violates rights to the highest attainable standard of health and to bodily integrity, among others. Furthermore, it could be argued that girls (under the age of 18) cannot be said to give informed consent to such a potentially damaging practice as FGM/C.
FGM/C is also an extreme example of discrimination based on sex. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women defines discrimination as “any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field” (article 1). Used as a way to control women's sexuality, FGM/C is a main manifestation of gender inequality and discrimination “related to the historical suppression and subjugation of women"3 denying girls and women the full enjoyment of their rights and liberties.
As stated in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, all actions concerning children should be undertaken in the best interests of the child (article 3.1). The Convention further asserts that children should have the opportunity to develop physically in a healthy way, receive adequate medical attention and be protected from all forms of violence, injury or abuse. While ‘the best interests of the child’ may be subject to cultural interpretation, FGM/C is an irreparable, irreversible abuse and therefore violates girls’ right to protection.
Commitments to end the practice
Some governments have been reluctant to address FGM/C. Considered a sensitive issue, it has been widely viewed as a private act by individuals and family members rather than state actors. But the health and psychological consequences of the practice, as well as its underlying causes, make it imperative for societies, governments and the entire international community to take action towards ending FGM/C.
The international community has broadly recognized the human rights implications of FGM/C. In Vienna in 1993, the UN World Conference on Human Rights called the elimination of all forms of violence against women a human rights obligation: “In particular, the World Conference stresses the importance of working towards the elimination of violence against women in public and private life… and the eradication of any conflicts which may arise between the rights of women and the harmful effects of certain traditional or customary practices".4
There are many international treaties and conventions that call for an end to harmful traditional practices, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. A specific focus on FGM/C is found in UN General Assembly Resolution 56/128 on Traditional or Customary Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Girls, and in the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol), adopted by the African Union in 2003.
Many of the countries where FGM/C occurs have passed legislation prohibiting the practice, and some countries with large immigrant populations – Canada, France, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America – have also outlawed it. Some countries have legal clauses granting asylum to women who fear being mutilated if they return to their country of origin. For example, Section 273.3 of the Canadian Criminal Code protects children who are ordinarily resident in Canada (as citizens or landed migrants) from being removed from the country and subjected to FGM/C. The effects of domestic laws on FGM/C prevalence levels are largely understudied; as an indicator, they need to be more closely monitored.
At the UN General Assembly Special Session on Children in 2002, governments forged a commitment to end FGM/C by 2010. In February 2003, 30 African countries vowed to end FGM/C and called for the establishment of an International Day of Zero Tolerance. The pledge was reinforced in June of that year at the Afro-Arab Expert Consultation, whose Cairo Declaration highlighted the provision of existing legal tools for the prevention of FGM/C.
UNICEF and female genital mutilation/cutting
UNICEF first outlined its position on FGM/C in 1979 as a follow-up to the WHO Seminar on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (Khartoum Seminar): “The health hazards and psychological risks, long term as well as immediate, to young girls as a result of the practice of female excision in its varied forms are a serious source of concern to UNICEF".5
In 1980, at the Mid-Decade Conference for Women, UNICEF announced that its support to anti-FGM/C activities was “based on the belief that the best way to handle the problem is to trigger awareness through education of the public, members of the medical profession and practitioners of traditional health care with the help of local collectives and their leaders".6
UNICEF, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and WHO in 1997 released a joint statement to bring about a substantial decline in FGM/C in 10 years and to end the practice within three generations. The statement calls for a multidisciplinary approach and emphasizes the importance of teamwork at the national, regional and global levels. It further identifies the need to educate the public and lawmakers on the importance of ending FGM/C, to tackle FGM/C as a violation of human rights, in addition to being a danger to women's health, and to encourage every country where it is practised to develop a national, culturally specific plan to end FGM/C.
In its medium-term strategic plan (MTSP) for 2006–2013, UNICEF sees protecting children from violence, exploitation and abuse (including FGM/C) as an integral component for the protection of the rights to survival, growth and development, and consequently to the achievement of several of the Millennium Development Goals.
1. Female Genital Mutilation: A joint WHO/UNICEF/UNFPA statement, WHO, Geneva, 1997, reiterated in 2008.
2. WHO, ‘Female Genital Mutilation’, Fact Sheet No. 241, 2000, www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs241/en/, accessed 21 October 2005.
3. Ontario Human Rights Commission, Policy on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), Ontario Human Rights Commission, Toronto, Canada, 1996, revised 22 November 2000, p. 7.
4. United Nations, Report of the World Conference on Human Rights, Report of the Secretary-General, Section II: Adoption of the Vienna Declaration and Report of the Conference, para. 38, General Assembly document A.CONF.157.24 (Part I), 13 October 1993.
5. Hosken, Fran P., The Hosken Report: Genital and sexual mutilation of females, 4th edition, Women’s International Network News, Lexington, Mass., USA, 1994, p. 334.
6. UNICEF Press Release (#IN/80/8, 7 July 1980), cited in Ferguson, Ian, and Pamela Ellis, ‘Female Genital Mutilation: A review of current literature’, unedited working document WD1995-15e, Research, Statistics and Evaluation Directorate, Policy Sector, Department of Justice, Canada.