Female Genital Mutilation has declined globally, but Dawoodi Bohra women continue to fight 'khatna' in India

International Day of Zero Tolerance For Female Genital Mutilation: In India, FGM in the form of 'khatna' is strongly associated with the Dawoodi Bohra community.

Aprameya Rao February 06, 2019 11:45:01 IST
Female Genital Mutilation has declined globally, but Dawoodi Bohra women continue to fight 'khatna' in India
  • International Day of Zero Tolerance For Female Genital Mutilation is observed worldwide on 6 February

  • At least 200 million girls and women in 30 countries have been subjected to FGM

  • FGM is often wrongly viewed as an Islamic tradition since many countries where it is practiced are Muslim-dominated.

Since 2003, the world has been observing International Day of Zero Tolerance For Female Genital Mutilation on 6 February. This is part of the United Nations' efforts to raise awareness about the practice, which is considered a violation of the rights of women and children.

"It denies them their dignity, endangers their health and causes needless pain and suffering, even death," UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, while calling for global action against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

Prevalence of Type I and Type II FGM 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines FGM as a practice comprising "all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons".

The WHO classifies FGM into four types. Type I is the partial or total removal of the clitoris; Type II includes the removal of the labia minora, as well, with or without excision of the labia majora; Type III is termed infibulation (the narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal); and Type IV includes other ways in which the genitals are mutilated (pricking, piercing or incising).

Female Genital Mutilation has declined globally but Dawoodi Bohra women continue to fight khatna in India

Representational image. Reuters

Types I and II are the most common forms of FGM, accounting for 85 percent of all cases. At least 200 million girls — mostly between infancy and the age of 15 — and women in 30 countries have been subjected to FGM.

Several African countries, along with some Asian countries, contribute significantly to this list. Nearly half of the cases are recorded in just three countries — Ethiopia, Egypt and Indonesia. According to the data available from 2004 to 2015, nearly all women between 15 and 49 in Somalia have have been subjected to FGM.

FGM's negative health effects

Minimising sexual desire, preserving virginity, initiating girls into womanhood and improving their marriage prospects are considered the prime motivations for practicing FGM — a widespread cultural phenomenon. Nonetheless, UNICEF considers it a patriarchal activity, calling FGM a "manifestation of patriarchal control over women".

FGM negatively affects the physical and mental health of girls and women. Immediate effects include severe pain, excessive bleeding (haemorrhage), genital tissue swelling, fever and infections. Infections and excessive blood loss could also be fatal.

Long-term effects of FGM include reduced sexual pleasure, menstrual problems, formation of cysts and painful urination due to recurring urinary tract infections. A study in six African nations between 2001 and 2003 also found a direct link between FGM and complicated child births.

Women face several psychological issues, as well. Girls subjected to FGM are likely to face depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and low self-esteem in their adult life. According to a research article, many girls also face nightmares and a sense of humiliation and betrayal by parents after circumcision.

FGM is often wrongly viewed as an Islamic tradition since many countries where it is practiced are Muslim-dominated. In fact, some Christian communities in Africa as well as Ethiopian Jews also practice female circumcision, but none of the religious scriptures advocate the practice. Many religious leaders, especially in Africa, have also denounced FGM and supported its abolition.

Consolidated efforts of community leaders and international organisations have resulted in over 20 African countries banning the practice. According to a study published in BMJ Global Health, there has been a significant decline in FGM in East and North Africa since the 1990s. But the report also acknowledges the under-reporting of cases.

Dawoodi Bohra activists fight 'khatna'

In India, FGM in the form of 'khatna' is strongly associated with the Dawoodi Bohra community. According to Sahiyo, an NGO that advocates the abolition of FGM, practitioners often quote the Da'im al-Islam (a 10th-Century book of jurisprudence) to justify khatna. They believe that khatna is practiced for physical as well as spiritual hygiene. Speaking anonymously to The Hindu, a community leader said, in 2017, that khatna did not fall under any of the four categories of FGM and insisted that it is "mild and harmless".

A recent Sahiyo survey report revealed that 80 percent of those surveyed had undergone khatna. A similar percentage of them had studied up to the undergraduate level, which is higher than the 22 percent average of the member states of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. At least 56 percent of them belong to the upper-middle income group and high-income group — another aberration from the global data. Also, the majority of the respondents believe that khatna is a tradition or a measure to curb sexual desire.

Despite their efforts to raise awareness against FGM, Mariya Taher, the author of the report and co-founder of Sahiyo, said the organisation continues to face backlash from the Bohra community. "But that is the reality of advocacy work and trying to bring about change," she added. "We experience backlash on a daily basis on social media. It isn't easy, and there days when it gets to me more than others."

However, social sector professional Hamnah Mistry, while conducting her independent research, encountered several women speaking out against khatna. "Most of the women who underwent the painful process remember it like it was yesterday. Many who went under the knife are unwilling to let their daughters undergo the cut," Mistry said.

Policy analyst Shaheeda Tavawala-Kirtane said the discourse around khatna has changed in recent years. "A private, hidden and secretive practice that has been silently perpetuated for centuries has now come into the public arena and is being questioned and openly debated," she said.

Meanwhile, the lack of official data in India has resulted in no national law against FGM, and consequently, the Ministry of Women and Child Development refuses to consider FGM an issue. "Even if a law banning FGM comes into effect, it is important to not stigmatise the survivors or the community," Mistry asserted.

While efforts to bring in a national law continue, organisations like Sahiyo advocate large-scale community outreach to encourage women to speak up. "We're utilising storytelling methods to build a critical mass of voices against female genital cutting to show that there is a growing community trend towards abandonment of the practice," Mariya explained.

Tavawala-Kirtane, however, laments that there is no woman from the community who can act as the collective voice of the Dawoodi Bohra women. Tavawala-Kirtane, who is also an intervenor in the FGM case, claimed she has heard paradoxical and polarised arguments in the Supreme Court. "We hope that the learned judges make a decision that will be in the best interest of all Dawoodi Bohra girls and women in India and around the world," the policy analyst said.

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