Finally in the spotlight: Female Genital Cutting is getting national attention in Sri Lanka

Until a few months ago, Female Genital Cutting (FGC) in Sri Lanka was spoken about only in whispers within practicing communities and in a few news articles. Since last month, however, the issue has suddenly attracted the attention of the mainstream national media and has been the highlight of some crucial discussions among government ministers and activists.

In Sri Lanka, FGC is practiced among the Dawoodi Bohras (who call the practice Khatna or Khafz) and among the Sunni Moor and Malay communities (who call it Sunnath). While the Bohras cut the clitoral hoods of girls at the age of seven, the Moors and Malays cut baby girls when they are 40 days old. (Read more about it here.)

FGC is internationally recognised as a violation of the rights of women and children, and is illegal in several countries around the world. However, Sri Lanka — like its neighbour India — does not have a specific law against FGC/Khatna/Khafz/Sunnath.

In order to push for a law banning FGC, a group of human rights activists and lawyers have been gathering testimonies of Sri Lankan FGC survivors. These testimonies have drawn recent media attention, and were also formally submitted to the Sri Lankan Parliament Sectoral Oversight Committee in a meeting earlier this month.  

This long overdue exposure of the practice of FGC in Sri Lanka is strongly linked to the controversies around the country’s personal laws for minority communities like Muslims.

The background

The public debate about FGC has been brought about in the midst of the discussion in Parliament on reforms to the MMDA (Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act), which was enacted by the Sri Lankan Parliament in 1951. According to this website, “The origin of Sri Lankan MMDA stems from a code of law on marriage and divorce exported from Batavia (present day Indonesia) in 1770 during the Dutch rule. This law has gone through a process of codification over a period of time and is based on Sharia law and Islamic legal practices. However, the Act also includes provisions pertaining to local customs unknown to Islamic law…”

In addition, Article 16 in the Fundamental Rights chapter of the 1978 constitution of Sri Lanka enshrined MMDA and Muslim Personal Laws in Sri Lankan law through the following statement: “All written and unwritten law that existed prior to the 1978 Constitution is ‘valid and operative’.” This has been interpreted as legal validation of MMDA and Muslim Personal Laws and local customs even if they contradict, or are inconsistent with, the fundamental rights of Sri Lankan citizens. As the Sunday Observer stated in this article, “personal Laws exist to provide the minority communities the extra protection they need, but instead, they violate the fundamental rights of people in those communities.”

The MMDA reform debates have been ongoing for decades, but they recently came back into serious discussion, with the Sri Lankan government’s application to regain the GSP+ (Generalised Scheme of Preference) from the EU. This preference was taken away from Sri Lanka sometime in 2010 citing non-compliance with international Human Rights standards. One of the criteria cited by the EU to grant this preference back to SL, was to bring about reform to the MMDA; claiming it as a rights violation against women and children.

Citing these rights, many Muslim Women’s activists and lawyers urged for a ban on the practice of FGC, and gathered many testimonies from victims, which were presented to the Parliamentary Oversight Committee on Women and Gender (POCWG) set up to address the MMDA reforms.

Hope for the future

In the past two weeks, with increasing media attention on FGC in Sri Lanka, some spokespersons from the country’s Dawoodi Bohra community have responded by defending the practice. Their argument is that FGC is “just a nick” and not harmful, should not be called “mutilation”, and that it is done for personal hygiene and for religious reasons.

However, in a positive sign, a group of senior ministers in the Sri Lankan government reviewed the practice of FGC and came to an agreement that the ritual needs to be treated as a public health issue. The meeting, held last week, included the Minister of Justice, the Minister of Women and Child Affairs and the Chairperson of the National Committee on Women. The ministers indicated that they would work with the local Muslim communities and help raise awareness about the issue of Female Genital Cutting.

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