Female genital mutilation/cutting in Australia

By Leona Hameed

The above image is taken from the Heartlands Refugee Art Prize exhibition. Click here to see more.

This article is part of our July focus on “Australia in the World”. Click here for more articles in this issue.

By Leona Hameed

An estimated two to three million girls are subjected to the practice of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) each year. This is approximately 7,000 women or girls per day. Worldwide, the United Nations estimates that 130 to 140 million women have undergone the procedure. There are no medical arguments to be made for the practice, and in many cases the health and well-being consequences are both life threatening and ongoing.

FGM/C involves the cutting off of the outer genitalia. In some cases it is the clitoris and in others it is the external genital tissue in its entirety. In more extreme cases “infibulation” takes place, during which the vagina is sewed up or healed over, with a small hole inserted before healing to allow for menstruation and urination. Apart from the fact that the removal of healthy genitalia seriously compromises basic functions of the body, it also can cause extreme pain, shock, the possibility of hemorrhage, the possibility of bacterial infection, urination difficulties and open wounds.

The practice is often carried out without anesthesia, in an unhygienic environment and it is generally done to children between the ages of seven and ten, prior to puberty. The long-term consequences of the procedure can include chronic urination difficulties, complications in childbirth, infant mortality, reduced sexual pleasure and unsurprisingly, a number of psychological issues.

The cultural beliefs about gender and sexuality that underpin FGM/C are deeply entrenched in communities who practice it. It is associated with ideas of beautification, modesty and the cleanliness of women. The UN describes it as “a manifestation of deep-rooted gender inequality that assigns [women] an inferior position in society”. The World Health Organization defines FGM/C as “all procedures involving the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genitalia organs for no medical reason.”

The role of the law

Australia has joined the United Nations in attempting to eradicate the practice. It was as a result of this push that former Prime Minister Julia Gillard instigated a program addressing FGM/C within Australia, led by Tanya Plibersek and resulting in the Attorney-General’s Review of Australia’s Female Genital Mutilation legal framework, which was published in March of this year.

The review makes six recommendations in regards to the legal framework around criminalising FGM/C in Australia and in doing so it sparked debate about the best and most effective way to address and eradicate the practice of FGM/C. The review advises changes that will increase the consistency of prosecution in Australia and in particular advises changes in the law to allow for prosecution regardless of where the offence occurs so long as it was inflicted on or intended for an Australian citizen.

Dr Susie Costello who authored a report on FGM/C for the Department of Health and Research believes that for the most part, this approach is a good one. “The law is essential,” she says, “it has to be there, there has to be the bottom line of the law. You can’t do much in terms of stopping things if you don’t have the law. But the law isn’t there just to punish people, it is there as a deterrent. And I think the way they’re framing it is a very good deterrent.”

“The tendency internationally has been to jail medical practitioners because they should know better, and to use suspended sentences for mothers and parents who’ve arranged it, and also to charge practitioners from countries of origin, where they practice it.”

Costello believes that clear and concise legislation is essential, but that community engagement and consultation, an increase in emphasis on child protection services, and a healthy debate are of equal importance when it comes to addressing FGM/C.

In her report, Costello estimates that there are over 109,980 people living in Australia who were born in the 29 countries where FGM/C is common practice, mostly in Africa. Legislatively, the rate of prosecution in Australia is extremely low, and there is no evidence to illustrate how common the practice actually is.

Without properly understanding why women undergo, facilitate or inflict [FGM/C] there can be no way of effectively eradicating the practice.

FGM/C as a cultural issue

Dr Jasmin Chen works for the Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health in Melbourne. For her organization, the “main concern [is] to provide accurate health information to women who are arriving who may have already been through the process and who might need specialist health services.”

“It’s easy to look at it through a frame of violence, and particularly violence against women and children, and that’s fair enough. But at the level of prevention and health education, the problem with that kind of framework is that it doesn’t recognise FGM/C as a cultural issue,” Chen explains.

Framing of the issue is important, she says. “Usually when we’re talking about violence we want to point at somebody to blame, and this is a much more complicated issue.”

The fact that FGM/C is often carried out by women who underwent the process themselves as young girls is evidence of this. In many communities it is a deeply entrenched practice that is essential in order for women to gain acceptance in their society. Without properly understanding why women undergo, facilitate or inflict it, there can be no way of effectively eradicating the practice.

Parents don’t do it because they intend to hurt their child. “They do it for deeply ingrained cultural, social and economic reasons,” Chen says.

Pretending otherwise demonises women who should be supported, and ignores the amount of work women from African communities have done to eradicate the practice from within. Some have argued that the way we talk about FGM/C is an example of Western imperialism, especially when considering the inconsistency between laws that address FGM/C and the increasingly popular practice of female genital cosmetic surgery in Australia. The Attorney-General’s review touches on this briefly, recommending that a discussion is needed on the issue, and Costello likewise believes that “there is a racist element in the fact that if you can afford that sort of surgery just so you can look more beautiful”, it’s legal (and available with a Medicare number).

Even the language used to describe the practice displays the way ideas of Western Imperialism underpin the terminology of FGM/C. The Australian Government and the United Nations both use the term “Female Genital Mutilation” to describe the procedure, but the term “mutilation” can be disempowering, shaming and alienating to women who have been victims of the practice. For this reason the term “cutting” has increased in popularity because it is factual rather than emotive.

Wudad Salim, who has worked with Family Planning Victoria’s Family and Reproductive Rights Education Program (FARREP) since 2000, and who is also the spokesperson for the Harari Australian Women’s Group, a support group for women who have experienced FGM/C, believes that it is of utmost importance that change come from within in order for it to be truly effective.

The Harari Australian Women’s Group has begun a project entitled “Change Within” which seeks to enact change from within the community itself. One of the main obstacles as Salim sees it is that communities practicing FGM/C might feel that someone is trying to take away their cultural identity.

“With the ‘Change Within’ project, these issues are not there, these obstacles are not there. It is a moral commitment and it is within, it is not another person telling other people how to live their culture. It is simply modifying the culture,” Salim says.

“Harari people are from south Ethiopia, and they started coming to Australia in 1986,” Salim explains.

“The first daughter who was born in Australia, the first daughter from Harari background, is getting married tomorrow. So this girl is not circumcised and she is still getting married and lives her life to the fullest. She was brought up within the culture so she is one bit of evidence that we are actually leaving FGM/C behind.”

Leona Hameed is finishing her Media and Communications degree at the University of Melbourne. She is a reporter at Panorama SYN and an intern at The Lifted Brow.