Sahiyo partners with FAWCO to lead an educational webinar on Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting in the United States

By Beth Fotheringham

On the 16th of September, the FAWCO Target Team collaborated with Sahiyo for an educational webinar about FGM/C in the United States. The webinar sought to highlight the essential work Sahiyo does in their work to end FGC and support survivors.

At the start of the webinar, Sahiyo co-founder and U.S. Executive Director Mariya Taher  provided context with her own expertise on both ‘khatna’ and the Dawoodi Bohras, a community that partakes in the  harmful practice of FGM/C. Through her own journey of speaking out as a survivor, she recognised the need for an organised forum within practicing communities, as well as the individual and collective benefits of creating positive social change through empowerment. It was evident that this had informed Sahiyo’s own unique approach to supporting survivors and raising awareness, which centres on storytelling. 

Mariya proceeded to clarify the various terminologies used in talking about female genital cutting (FGC), as well as the different types of the practice; she deftly outlined why Sahiyo uses ‘cutting’ instead of ‘mutilation,’ while respecting the right of survivors to choose how to define and describe their own experiences. 

She unflinchingly laid out the fact that 500,000+ women and girls are estimated to be living with, or at risk of, FGM/C in the US. This was especially shocking for me to learn, due to so much of the discourse surrounding FGC focusing on cases in Africa or “developing” countries, and evidence of such practices being greatly underreported in the Western world. This figure was made even more impactful when Mariya further deconstructed the statistic. She posited that this is most likely an under-representation, as it does not include any diasporic communities from countries not included within the 32 countries studied by UNICEF. 

For example, the Bohra community, who do practice FGC, are not counted in this statistic, nor are most other Asian countries where evidence of FGC exists. The most recent study into FGC prevalence found evidence of FGC in 92 countries worldwide, strongly suggesting that the statistic from the United States is a considerable underestimate. Through the webinar, we learned that there are current efforts within the US by the Center for Disease Control and Prevent (CDC) to capture more accurate data, which sounded promising, but that data collection is in its early stages. 

In another part of the webinar, various survivor stories from the Voices to End FGC project were introduced. Renee Bergstrom’s story was particularly powerful in addressing and disrupting common misconceptions about where FGC takes place and to whom. Jenny’s story portrayed the devastating silence that upholds the practice happening generation after generation; Maryah Haidery’s story explored the various psychological consequences of FGC. All were both informative and inspiring.

Mariya also spoke on the legal context of FGC in the United States, explaining and analysing the current federal legislation, while applying it to real legal cases. This was especially helpful to understand — as someone who lives outside of the US I find the state/federal separation particularly confusing — and it became much clearer how abuses of human rights, such as FGC, are able to slip through the gaps of the law.

After watching the webinar, I found it indisputably apparent that there are neither sufficient federal nor state laws to effectively uphold the work against FGC in the United States, and absolutely appalling that not even every state has legislation against the practice (with only 6/7 states having comprehensive laws against FGC). Though I understand that criminalisation of FGC is by no means the only, or most effective, way of ending the practice, I think it is important in taking a clear (and sometimes symbolic) stance against FGC with coherent legislation that automatically supports the work of activists and survivors to stop FGC in different countries. Alongside this, it also helps families who are doubtful of the benefits of FGC for their daughters have a legitimate reason not to carry out the procedure while not having to outright stand against the rules of their cultures and communities. 

I found it especially inspiring to hear from Mariya how Sahiyo’s work has been instrumental in passing state laws; most recently, and successfully, in Massachusetts. Sahiyo is now engaged in similar work to pass a state law in Connecticut, one of the ten remaining states without any legal protections against FGC whatsoever. I think focusing on the progress that has been made definitely provides effective encouragement to keep working for change.

It was similarly uplifting to learn that the Voices Projects have resulted in survivors feeling a sense of empowerment and a surge of desire for collective action, as well as experiencing a strong sense of comradery with other storytellers. This embodies what inspires and impresses me most about Sahiyo: not only are they doing crucial work to end FGC and stop future generations of girls, women and others from having to undergo the practice, but they also have an important focus on supporting those that have already been through it. Listening to the stories of these survivors conveys clearly how successful this parallelled approach is.

Interestingly, in Sahiyo’s study of 400 Dawoodi Bohra women, which found that 80% of the  women had been cut, 81% also said that they didn’t want the practice to continue into the next generation. FGC is a social norm that has been justified, with silence being a key part of why it has continued. I now understand how telling these stories breaks the silence and takes the conversation out of hidden, private spheres and into the public one. Mariya spoke of particularly relevant research that found when it comes to social norms and culture change, if 25% of a community changes or adopts a new norm, then it becomes wide scale enough for permanent change to occur.
Mariya concluded her talk by discussing Sahiyo’s various other programs, such as Thaal Pe Charcha, Bhaiyo, Sahiyo Activist Retreat, and Community Education and Outreach, all of which have had substantial success in supporting FGC survivors and raising awareness. It was clear by the end of the webinar how essential the services Sahiyo provide are to survivors alongside the wider communities, and what an integral role they play in worldwide efforts to stop FGC.

Absence of female genital cutting laws in India: An issue that requires immediate action

By Richa Bhargava

Age: 20

Country: India

As a first year law student in Sonipat, India, I was exposed to the practice of female genital cutting (FGC) as a part of my sociology course. We discussed the practice briefly. The article that formed a majority of our discussion only spoke of the existence of FGC in African nations and made no mention of India or other countries around the world where women are subjected to the practice. I felt shocked and truly disturbed when I first learned about FGC, and as a result, my response was to read about it on my own accord. A little browsing led me to the discovery of the fact that FGC prevails in the Indian subcontinent as well. I read about the Bohra community, the absence of legislation and the organisations and people advocating to end this harmful and unnecessary practice.

Laws do not just force and punish. They deter, discourage and dissuade, too. Enacting and legislating laws raises awareness and empowers communities to change not only what people do, but what they think is right. It is vital for laws to continuously evolve with the changing norms and ideals of a society. 

FGC is a prevalent practice among the Bohra community in India. A study indicated that almost 75% of the women of this community who were interviewed have been cut. At present, many citizens are unaware of its presence in India. Lifting the veil off this practice is an essential step toward ensuring that a conversation regarding its harmful effects on young girls begins. Maneka Gandhi, a union minister, stated that there is a lack of proof regarding the existence of FGC in India, and there is no data to support its presence. The Ministry of Women and Child Development needs to conduct surveys and take appropriate measures to find all data that would make the legislators see the need for the enactment of a law against FGC. To avoid addressing the issue is to completely ignore its existence. A similar approach has been taken up by the Indian government over the years. Multiple accounts of women who have undergone FGC are out in the public domain and  provide substantial evidence to prove the presence of khatna, as it is known in the Bohra community. Yet, no legislation or statute has been formulated or enacted in India which would help survivors find an easy legal recourse. 

There is an imperative need to move beyond the pretext of not having enough data to prove FGC occurs in India. Hundreds of survivors have spoken up against this practice and have openly shared their painful accounts. Many survivors have shared that since khatna is secretive, making it unlawful could have a serious impact in curtailing it. According to Section 320 and Section 322 of the Indian Penal Code, causing grievous hurt to another person is a criminal offence, and FGC would automatically fall within its purview. Despite this, there has been no effort on the part of the legislators to specifically provide remedy to survivors. The Indian Constitution guarantees the fundamental right to life and liberty to all its citizens. Legal statutes like the Indian Penal Code and the Prevention of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act that penalise crimes should mention terms such as female genital mutilation/cutting, labia minora, etc., to provide appropriate legal recourse to women affected by this practice. 

India claims to be a welfare state that ensures the well-being of all its citizens. Refusing to ensure the safety of young girls who might be subjected to FGC is a contradictory act. 

Various jurists and legislators face the problem of deciding whether one fundamental right should be given more importance than the other. The proposed ban on khatna raises a similar 

obstacle. The Indian Constitution confers upon its citizens the right to equality, as well as the right to practice and profess any religion. There exists a constant clash between articles 14 and 15 defining right to equality and articles 25 and 26 defining religious rights. In particular, the rights guaranteed to people under article 26 pose a unique challenge before the courts. In recent years, courts have come to realise that the right to equality should be awarded more weight. Discrimination solely on the basis of one’s gender is highly dishonourable and unjust. In order to move forward, a distinction between social malpractices and actual religious practices needs to be made. Social norms disguised as religious practices infringing upon the rights of women need to be done away with. The right and autonomy over one’s body is crucial to live a respectful life.

People frequently wonder whether legislation can bring about change. Fear that criminalising FGC might result in a deeper continuation of it is felt by many and is a valid concern. However, often the notion that a new law can elevate conversation on FGC and create a discourse for all to engage in on the topic is overlooked. The existence and continuity of khatna cannot just be attributed to the fault of a community. With democratic ideals such as equality and freedom, the state cannot shy away from establishing and constituting laws that are in symmetry with these ideals.

Khatna and the law, Part 1: Legislative Framework on Female Genital Cutting in Egypt

By Bhavya Singh

Since the recognition of the presence of Female Genital Cutting (FGC) in parts of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, efforts have been made to eliminate it in these areas. At the international level, elimination of Female Genital Mutilation is a part of Sustainable Development Goal number five, which seeks to achieve gender equality. Organisations like WHO, UNICEF and UNFPA have worked for greater involvement of the international community to advocate against FGC. These efforts include creation or reformation of laws at the national level to counteract the issue. Legislation at the national level, however can be a complex issue as this practice is very deeply entrenched in the social fabric of the communities in which it occurs. Countries which have criminalised FGC continue to face problems, as punishment alone is not enough of a deterrent in a community where FGC is connected to tradition. In other countries, the implementation of the law has not been successful and has not seen prosecutions occuring. Communities themselves have resisted the effort to ban the practice, often arguing with officials who arrest those involved with carrying FGC out.

According to the UN, FGC has reduced by 24% since 2001, however, at the same time if FGM continues at the same pace it currently occurs, around 68 million girls around the world will be affected by it by 2030. Thus legislative efforts have not been effective deterrents in most countries.

To further understand the legislative framework regarding the issue, this blog series will explore the laws in place in countries affected by FGC in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

In Africa, FGC is criminalised in 18 of the 28 countries it is reportedly practiced in. Criminalisation is only the first step in ending the problem. This fact is illustrated by the situation in Egypt where a law prohibiting FGC has been in place since 2008, but only two cases regarding FGC related deaths have been reported in the years following. According to 28 Too Many the law in Egypt is mentioned in Article 242-bis and Article 242-bis(A) of Law No. 58 of 1937 promulgating the Penal Code. The penalties for violation of the law include:

  • Article 242-bis – the performance of FGC is punishable with imprisonment for between five and seven years.
  • Article 242-bis – where the performance of FGC results in permanent disability or death, the punishment is increased to ‘aggravated’ imprisonment for between three and fifteen years.
  • Article 242-bis(A) – anyone who requests FGC is punishable with imprisonment from one to three years if the mutilation is carried out.

In 2016, an amendment upgraded the performance of FGC from misdemeanour to felony. Where a charge of misdemeanour earlier meant a penalty ranging from three months to five years, it now ranges from five to seven years. The provisions of the previous law had gaping holes, including exempting genital injuries with sufficient medical justification. As a result, FGC moved from hidden corners into medical hands. According to 28 Too Many, 78.4% of incidences of FGC are done my health professionals. The widely covered death of Soheir al-Batea brought this issue to light. A thirteen-year-old, she died at the hands of Dr. Raslan Fadl who performed the procedure. What is surprising here is the fact that despite existence of the law against FGC since 2008, Dr. Fadl is the only health professional to have been implicated for the crime. (See ‘A Small Nick or Cut, they say…’ by Priya Goswami)

This, more than anything, makes it clear that the existence of law is not enough to end FGC The need to conform to societal norms is so strong that people are ready to break the law for its sake. Also, in many communities, honour and pride are strongly associated with notions of women’s purity. Female circumcision, which it is often also referred to, is falsely propagated as a marker of purity, which makes FGC difficult to erase, as people value honour over a women’s safety, comfort or hygiene. Another reason why change is challenging is because the harbingers of change are often considered ‘outsiders’ instead of part of the community. The attempt at reform by these ‘outsiders’ is often viewed as propaganda against the community rather than upliftment of the community and concern for its community’s wellbeing.

What will help, is the inversion of societal notions. If FGC is seen as honourable, people should be made to see the reasons why it is quite the opposite, so it can be dissociated from honour. If FGC is seen to be a requirement for marriage, it needs to be seen as a deterrent instead. If FGC is seen as religiously sanctioned, people need to be made aware how it is not. The long-term solution involves changing the mindset such that FGC is recognised as harmful.. As seen in this blog’s case scenario, penalising an act that much of a  society does not think a criminal offense in itself will not lead to the desired solution.

About Bhavya Singh: Bhavya Singh

Bhavya is 19 year old law student who has a deep interest in human rights and political theory. She is the happiest when extremely busy and wants to use her law degree to help as many people as she can. Always willing to talk about fashion and sitcoms, her other two passions, and she is hungry for new experiences and challenges to be thrown at her.