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Thursday, July 9, 2009

Viewing Female Genital Mutilation with the Legal Eye

July 9, 2009

Several domestic and international legislations have been passed outlawing this practice - how far would it go in protecting women from tradition?

As the world generally advances in age, technological breakthroughs are recorded and democratic governance is gradually accepted and deeply ingrained in the fabric of every human society, people everywhere are becoming more enlightened about the need to stop the practice of certain cultural traditions and conventions which were hitherto accepted or at least tolerated. These are practices that have been identified as being detrimental to any human good and brazenly border on barbarism. One of such practices is the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

To help in the fight, governments, legislators, human rights groups, the media and the legal practitioners are raising their voices against this heinous and most socially degrading practice meted on women. But how effective are these voices? Are they being heard?

Human rights activists and groups and the media have been successful in advancing legal arguments against FGM. The international community has taken a stand against this practice, creating international and domestic remedies that would lead to its eventual eradication. Laws that advance the cause for this much needed eradication include Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the African Charter on Human and peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), as well as several domestic statutes. Scores of prominent men and women from countries where FGM is practiced are making a global appeal that governments, international bodies and non-governmental organizations take more concentrated and concerted action to bring this practice to an end.

Silence and inaction concerning FGM are the best allies of this terrible practice that has already claimed the lives of several victims across the world. In February 2003, a conference tagged “Zero Tolerance” for FGM was held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where it was observed that an intolerable number of women were mutilated and abused in the name of tradition; therefore the need to take a firm stand against this practice.

The United Nations General Assembly, in January 2002, adopted a resolution on traditional or customary practices affecting the health of women and girls. This resolution characterizes FGM as a serious threat to not only women, but to humanity at large. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and international and local non-governmental organizations often point to this resolution in their work. This resolution is also used by these organizations to hold governments accountable.

The contribution of CEDAW in the fight against FGM is monumental and worthy of note. It focuses on traditional practices which violate women and their human rights. Articles 1 and 5 of CEDAW specifically call for the elimination of discrimination against women based on cultural practices impairing women’s human rights and fundamental freedoms. This includes the need for the elimination of the practice of female circumcision.

In the same vein, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) contains the only codified prohibition of female circumcision in human rights laws. Article 24 (3) of the CRC requires nations to abolish traditional practices that would jeopardize the health of children. The articles’ scope encompasses female circumcision although not specifically mentioned. The term “harmful traditional practices” as used in the Article is widely defined to include FGM.

Article 4 of the African Charter states that, “…human beings are inviolable. Every person shall be entitled to respect for his life and integrity of his person”.

Article 5 of the same Charter further states that “torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment or treatment shall be prohibited”. The purport of Article 16 is to the effect that every African is entitled to the highest level of physical and mental health. Female circumcision is clearly in violation of the terms of these Articles. If women are entitled to the highest level of health maintenance, female circumcision must be considered a violation of such rights.

In addition to the variety of international documents which provide a useful framework for banning female circumcision, a number of countries prohibit the practice. Burkina Faso, Great Britain, Sweden, Switzerland are among the countries that have responded to this abuse against women. Countries such as Canada, France, The Netherlands, Belgium, Australia and Switzerland punish the practice under child abuse laws, while Great Britain and Sweden have explicitly outlawed the procedure. African countries such as Cameroon, Djibouti, Egypt, Ghana and Sudan have also enacted legislations which prohibit female circumcision.

In June 1995, the United States House of Representatives passed the retired-Representative Schroeder’s Resolution, “Urging the president to help end the practice of female (circumcision) Worldwide”. However, it was not until September 30th, 1996 that the US Congress enacted a provision criminalizing the practice of FGM as part of the Illegal Immigration Reform Responsibility Act of 1996.

Nigeria is not left out in the campaign against FGM and the protection of the fundamental rights of women. FGM has been outlawed in four of its states – Edo, Cross-Rivers, Delta and Ogun covering some areas of the country where this practice is especially widespread. Akwa Ibom and Bayelsa States are reported to be close to passing similar laws. Chapter 4 of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution guarantees that all citizens are entitled to equal rights, including women. The chapter enshrines fundamental human rights such as right to life, right to dignity of the human person, right to freedom from discrimination and a host of other rights.

The question that must be asked is; how effective are these legislations in curbing this evil and inhuman practice? Legislation serves as a framework by which FGM and other similar abuses will eventually be eliminated through the prescription and enforcement of penalties. But it must be noted that what is commonly known to the international community as FGM is indeed a cultural habit that has been learned over long periods of time, and as a popular saying puts it, “old habits die hard”. In this vein, punishment is not as effective as education and prevention. This cultural habit can be unlearned through proper enlightenment and awareness.

Where undue emphasis is placed on legislation and punishment, the end result can be counter productive as it might force the practice to go further underground. Women who have been battered may not seek medical care later in life because their parents might be charged; parents may be reluctant to take their mutilated children to the hospital if complications arise for fear of being criminally charged with child abuse.

In the 21st century, it is unfortunate that Female Genital Mutilation with its grave consequences on the health of women is still practiced. It is hoped that African governments in collaboration with countries world over will take proactive steps to end this practice. These steps as a matter of necessity and urgency should go beyond enacting legislations to educating people on the dangers of this heinous practice.