Will criminalisation stop female genital cutting?

In what appeared to be a huge step in history, FGM was officially banned by outgoing Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan.

For those who do not know, female genital mutilation is a process carried out in which external female genitalia is partially or completely removed. It is more often than not, done without consent or even anaesthetic to girls anywhere from infancy upwards.

It is practised most commonly in central Africa and some parts of the Middle East and is said to be practised for several reasons. According to ‘End FGM European Network’ it is carried out because it is assumed to reduce women’s sexual desire, therefore ensuring their virginity remains which is a highly important pre-requisite for marriage in places where FGM is carried out. In some communities the procedure is carried out as a rite of passage and a transition into adulthood. Commonly FGM is carried out so woman can be viewed as completely feminine as some believe that removing a girl’s labia and clitoris means that their ‘male parts’, which contribute to sexual desire, are removed and women will become more obedient.

This procedure is done with a blade, razor or broken glass without medication or anaesthetic and yet hygiene is cited as one of the reasons it is carried out. This is to an extent where in some cultures, women who have not undergone FGM are regarded as dirty and are not allowed to handle food or water.

With the information above, it is no wonder that the news of banning FGM in Nigeria was so celebrated. But with the procedure being made illegal, will this really be enough to stop it from happening?

On the same day that stories were released about the ban in Nigeria, other stories about the rise of FGM cases in Burkina Faso in West Africa emerged. The procedure has been illegal there since 1996.

Amnesty International’s Executive Director Colm O’Gorman explains that it takes much more than criminalisation for change to happen. “People must be committed to the work that goes into making something illegal rather than just doing it because they are under pressure to. You need to look at educating the actual people who perform the cutting -most of whom are women- understanding that it is their livelihood and supporting them.”

O’Gorman goes on to explain that the change in a culture that has always carried out this procedure, will not happen as soon a ban is put in place. “Just because something is illegal does not mean that it will stop immediately, there is a massive need for education and support.”

Although it emerged in and is most common in African countries, a surprising number of women in Ireland have also been subjected to FGM. As women and families from countries with high prevalence of FGM continue to migrate to Ireland, there is a corresponding need for appropriate health services. According to the Irish Family Planning Association there are over 3,780 women and girls between the ages of 15 and 44 in Ireland who are estimated to have undergone the practice.

In 2008 IFPA led Ireland’s First National Plan of Action to Address FGM. Their goals included prevention of FGM, protection for women at risk and specialised healthcare and support for women who have been affected.

IFPA’s Medical Director Dr Caitriona Henchion explains that FGM is illegal in Ireland since 2012 and that the Plan of Action was an important part of the advocacy that helped to secure the passing of this legislation. “Last year, we opened Ireland’s first specialist treatment service for FGM based in our Dublin city centre clinic, offering free specialised care to women affected by FGM. We have information leaflets in French, Arabic and English on the service.”

While criminalisation in all countries is ideal, that alone is not enough to implement a permanent change. “It is just one aspect of an effective strategy to eliminate FGM. Sustained education and awareness raising among FGM-practising communities, and the provision of comprehensive care to women and girls affected by FGM, are also essential,” Henchion said.

So while many people may think that those living in Ireland are not affected or cannot contribute to the change, there are many organisations set up within our country to help educate and eliminate FGM. “In terms of what people can do, education and awareness raising is key. While AkiDwA, the Migrant Women’s Network, is also a good source of information and support,” Henchion said

If you have been affected or would like to know more about FGM visit www.ifpa.ie

Megan Roantree

Image Credit: Google Images

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