The Role of International Human Rights Law in Addressing Female Genital Mutilation: A Critical Analysis
Picture yourself as a girl or young woman, tied up to stop you from resisting, as respected adults wound your body with a sharp instrument. This is an act of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). The removal of a female’s potential for promiscuity is one given reason for this act, but children and young adults upon whom this violent act is perpetrated lose much more. Their right to a fulfilling sexual life is removed as their basic rights are lacerated. FGM, also known as Female Genital Cutting (FGC), humiliates and damages young women and their capacity to give birth. Other stated motivations for such acts are a rite of female passage, to stop adultery or a grounding for the agony of giving birth.
In recent decades, there has been greater awareness of Female Genital Mutilation internationally. Alien to the traditions of the Western world, it has been almost universally condemned, especially by Western feminist critiques, which brought it to international attention in the 1970s. Prior to this it was mostly hidden from public debate or, when it was discussed, viewed as a women’s health issue. More recently it has been conceptualised as a human rights violation under the auspices of international law. The role of the law in tackling this social ritual is now both firmly established and hotly contested. International law is rooted in the Western tradition, whereas FGM, whilst widespread, originates from certain other areas of the world. Whilst the law is only one method of fostering social change and restraining social and cultural behaviours, it is now being used to a significant degree in attempts to curb FGM. Many Western and African countries have now enacted criminal laws specifically aimed at FGM. FGM has clear implications beyond being a criminal act of physical assault or an inappropriate medical intervention. The practice is a violation of the fundamental rights of the individual, the rights of the child, based upon discrimination against women and girls.
The view of FGM as a human rights violation of women and girls may now be hegemonic. The right of girls and women to be free from FGM now has the backing of numerous international and regional human rights instruments; the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the 1989, Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Within the structures of international law there are regional treaties as well as international including; the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the Banjul Charter) (1986) and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (1953). The United Nation’s, after a slow start, is now active in campaigning to end FGM. There are now many examples of country specific legislation which regulate or ban acts of FGM, although the related health problems, survivor issues and training and awareness raising for health professionals are still overlooked. the World Health Organization (WHO) has now introduced guidelines for health care provides dealing with all aspects of women at risk of and those already affected by FGM.
Is female genital mutilation a violent act of cutting and mutilation, or a moral and good practice of circumcision ? While defined as mutilation by the international community and many feminists and denigrated as a misogynistic system of practices, a circumcision, as it is defined by its defenders and practitioners, is virtuous act. Two fundamentally opposed characterisations, the first, demanding adherence to universal human rights standards is criticised for the cultural imposition of its ‘universal’ values. The second, necessitating cultural accommodation, has been pilloried for masquerading violence as culture. It is important to step back from the intense debate and consider the basic facts and the systems underpinning them
In fact, most women do not see FGM as a violent act, or an abuse of their rights, if they are born into a community where it is practiced and advocated.