An appeal to Maneka Gandhi: Stop the flip-flops on Female Genital Cutting in India

Sahiyo is deeply concerned about the Indian government’s repeated contradictory positions on the problem of Female Genital Cutting (FGC) in the country. In the span of just 13 months, India’s Ministry for Women and Child Development has flip-flopped on its stand on FGC at least twice.

Its latest u-turn came on Wednesday, June 27, when the Ministry mentioned, in the middle of a larger press release, that “Female Genital Mutilation” is “not practiced in India”. This is clearly at odds with the stand that the central government took in the Supreme Court just two months ago, when it stated that FGC is “already an offence” under Indian law and asked the Court for guidelines on how to tackle the challenge of FGC.

This is not the first time that the government has made contradictory statements about FGC, which is called Khatna or Khafz by the Bohra community and female Sunnath by FGC-practicing communities in Kerala.

Such flip-flops leave FGC survivors in the lurch, unsure of whether their government is likely to support the end of a practice that continues to harm so many women and girls in India.

The first time

Female Genital Cutting (also called Female Genital Mutilation) involves cutting parts of the female genitalia for non-medical, often religious or cultural reasons. In India, the kind of FGC practiced by the Bohras and some communities in Kerala typically involves cutting a part or all of a young girl’s clitoral hood. The practice can have a variety of physical, psychological and sexual consequences on the health of women and girls.

Maneka Gandhi, the Minister for Women and Child Development, first publicly acknowledged the practice of FGC in India in May 2017, a month after an independent lawyer petitioned the Supreme Court asking for a ban on FGC. The Court sought a response from the government and Gandhi stated that the practice of FGC would be considered a criminal offence under provisions of the Indian Penal Code as well as the law against child sexual abuse. She also stated that her Ministry would write to the Syedna (the leader of the Dawoodi Bohra community) and ask him to “issue an edict to community members” to give up FGC voluntarily. If the community does not give up the practice, Gandhi said, the government would introduce a specific law against FGC.  

This was a welcome stand by the government, but it was contradicted seven months later. In December 2017, during a hearing of the petition against FGC, Gandhi’s ministry told the Supreme Court that “there is no official data or study” that supports the existence of FGC in India. While this is technically correct, it is dismissive of the many survivor testimonies that have been presented to the Ministry through petitions and personal meetings with survivors and activists. The statement is also ironic, because “official” data can only exist if the government actually commissions such research studies on FGC, which it has not yet done.

After this frustrating statement, the government gave FGC survivors hope again in April. At another Supreme Court hearing, the government’s attorney unequivocally acknowledged the practice of FGC in India, described it as an offence under provisions of existing Indian laws, and asked the Court itself to help issue guidelines on how to end FGC in communities.

Now, with it’s latest press release, the government is back to flip-flopping on the issue.  

The second time

The Ministry’s June 27 press release was a refutation of a new poll by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, which found India to be “the world’s most dangerous country for women”, based on a perception survey of 548 experts on women’s issues from around the world. The survey results identified a list of 10 countries that are currently perceived to be the most dangerous for women.

The poll evaluated each country on six key parameters: health, discrimination, cultural & religion, sexual violence, non-sexual violence and human trafficking. India was ranked number one (most dangerous) one three of these parameters: sexual violence, human trafficking and culture & religion. It also ranked as most dangerous overall, followed by Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Saudi Arabia and others.

It is the parameter of “culture and religion” that specifically concerns us here. This parameter includes practices such as child marriage, forced marriage, female foeticide, punishment through stoning or mutilation as well as Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting.

The Indian Ministry for Women and Child Development did not take kindly to the Thomson Reuters poll, and issued a defensive press release dismissing the poll as unscientific and not based on data. It is no secret that women’s rights and freedoms are regularly trampled upon in India, and the Ministry’s sour-grapes reaction to the perception poll has already been critiqued in the media.

What struck Sahiyo’s attention is this particular statement in the Ministry’s press release: “The six questions posed as part of the poll cannot fairly be applied to all countries. E.g. the age bar for defining child marriage is different in every country, mutilation as a means of punishment, female genital mutilation, stoning etc. are not practiced in India.” [Italics added]

To claim that Female Genital Cutting is not practiced in India is a blatant falsehood, and it comes from a government that has already publicly acknowledged the prevalence of FGC in India twice before.

It comes from a government whose ministry has personally met with survivors and activists in the past year and assured them that it is keen to end this practice.

It comes from a government whose minister has claimed she would appeal to the Bohra Syedna to end the practice of FGC in the Bohra community.

It comes from a government that has officially told the highest Court of this country that FGC is already a crime in India, under the Indian Penal Code and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act.

It comes from a government that must surely be aware that FGC is practiced not just by Bohras but also by other groups in Kerala, because in August 2017, the government of Kerala ordered a probe into reports about “Sunnath” being carried out on girls in the state.

It comes from a government that must surely have read the headlines when Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor released a study that found a 75% prevalence rate of FGC among Bohras.

Why, then, is the government now claiming that FGC is not practiced in India?

It appears that the Ministry for Women and Child Development is willing to deny the existence of practices that harm actual women in the country, simply for the sake of defending an abstract notion of national pride in the face of a survey that reveals the world’s negative perceptions of India. This is a distressing betrayal of all the women and children who have suffered the harmful consequences of FGC, as well as any woman who may have hoped for support from a Ministry meant for her welfare.

Sahiyo appeals to the central government and the Ministry of Women and Child Development to retract its claim that FGC is not practiced in India. We also appeal to the Ministry to commission research on the practice of FGC in India, so that it can design sensitive policies to help communities end FGC.

(Sahiyo has been petitioning global agencies to invest in research on FGC in Asia. Support Sahiyo’s petition by clicking here.)

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