Among several concerns about India’s human rights performance raised at the United Nations’ 41st Universal Periodic Review, a noteworthy one was the issue of female genital mutilation or FGM, with Costa Rica recommending India develop a national plan to tackle the issue.
Interestingly, India itself made similar recommendations on FGM during the UPR to Guinea and Mali. However, when it came to the practice at home, the Narendra Modi government has so far failed to even acknowledge that FGM exists.
Colloquially known as khatna or khafz, FGM has been a quiet practice within the Bohra community, a sect of Shia Muslims, for centuries. The practice involves the cutting of the clitoral hood when a girl child turns seven years old. The reason behind the practice is primarily to ‘control’ the sexual drive of a woman and ‘save her’ from becoming ‘promiscuous’ and ‘oversexed’.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), FGM has no health benefits and harms girls and adult women in many ways. It often leads to immediate health risks such as infections, pain, and bleeding. In the long term, women who are subjected to this practice report that sex is never a pleasurable activity. In fact, for some, it is so painful that they dread sex.
The Bohra community in India, numbering approximately 2 million, is largely situated in four large western states—Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh. Two studies by survivor-led organisations Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut, conducted in 2016 and 2017, affirmed that over 80 per cent women in this community have undergone FGM.
The media has actively reported on these anecdotal studies, with some carrying detailed interviews with survivors. Two important cases in Detroit and Sydney, where FGM is illegal, involve Bohra expats. In India, the Supreme Court is hearing a Public Interest Litigation on the validity of FGM.
But the government has so far refused to acknowledge that FGM even happens in India. The Ministry of Women and Child Development has issued a denial of the existence of FGM in Parliament as well as the Supreme Court.
It seems like a classic Catch-22 situation: On the one hand, the government refuses to collect data, and on the other, it does not accept the existence of FGM based on the lack of official data.
An ‘invisible’ process in India
Little or no global attention is on Asian countries like India. This stems from the oft-mentioned fact that there is no official data on FGM in India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, United Arab Emirates, and Iran, among others. The practice in these countries continues to be invisible, except for the anecdotal data from survivor stories and the small, yet important, research studies conducted mostly by survivors and activists. Even at the UPR pre-sessions where we met several member countries for support, most expressed surprise when we spoke to them about FGM in India.
On 6 February, the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres gave a call to accelerate investment to end FGM and uphold the human rights of all women and girls.
There was no response from India. The commitment toward the UN’s sustainable development goal 5.3 to end FGM/Cutting by 2030 then seems meaningless.
What the UPR may change
In such a context where there is a lack of FGM data in India, we hope that the recommendation made by Costa Rica at the UPR brings a change. The statement went as follows: “Legally adopt the WHO definition of Female Genital Mutilation, criminalise it by law, and establish a national action plan to eradicate the practice.”
For the first time, international attention was drawn to FGM within Indian borders.
This was the first attempt at participation in a global human rights review process. The UPR is essentially a means for holding accountability through a periodic review of the human rights records of all 193 UN member states. It provides an opportunity for all States to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries, while gently nudging them to overcome their challenges. It is a political and consultative process, with every country getting less than 55 seconds to make their recommendations.
Even a single recommendation can drive change. Now, India will need to submit its response to the recommendation at the UN process. It can either accept the recommendation or take note of the problem. Either way, this creates an international record of the prevalence of FGM in India and will force the government to respond and, hopefully, at least acknowledge that this practice takes place in the country. This recommendation also increases the likelihood of other member nations taking up the issue with India in the next cycle.
Until now, the community had managed to keep this practice under wraps. With international attention, India will be compelled to demonstrate some progress on the issue from its side. Even if the central government waits on criminalisation, individual states can criminalise the practice with necessary amendments.
The urgency for doing this work cannot be expressed in simple terms. Every delay in taking action means more girls will be cut. More girls will suffer pain, humiliation, and irreversible damage to their sexual parts and sexuality. It means leaving them with a damaged body and psyche.
Masooma Ranalvi is co-founder, India Lead, at WeSpeakOut. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)