Guest blog by Meti Tadesse, 28 Too Many Health Volunteer.
In our world today, individuals’ right to participate in their culture and freedom of religion is protected by law. What appears to be difficult to enshrine by law, however, is the right for an individual girl to ‘opt out of certain cultural practices’ which are now at best considered as ‘challenging’ and have clearly been identified as ‘harmful’ to the individual’s development and psychosocial wellbeing.
The dilemma, which is faced by the young girls who are exposed to FGM, is of serious concern and significance, particularly for health professionals, which have the responsibility for the physical and psychological wellbeing of this population but also for society at large. The practice of FGM is still largely considered as a ‘cultural’ activity and which needs to be addressed, by all organisations in society, whose main concern is the welfare of the female population.
I was delighted to be approached by 28 Too Many to share my views about this important Child Protection issue within the framework of the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC). The injustices of this practice, highlighted by organisations like 28 Too Many, must remain on top of the Children’s Rights and Child Protection agendas until it is eradicated, as the abusive practice which it is observed to be.
The complex interpersonal relationships and the actual trauma to the child’s psychosocial wellbeing were recently depicted by two powerful episodes of the television programme ‘Casualty’. These episodes brought home, very clearly, the cruelty and complexity of this practice, outlining the physical and psychological impact as well as the multiplicity of significant interpersonal interactions, which are involved in this practice, both within and outside of the family. The multiple actors, include the children and their desperate bid to belong to their family, community and society. It showed how every relationship has a stake to preserve its own wellbeing.
The truth it seems, is that if the practice were to be eradicated, ultimately society’s loss would be financial, as well as, the loss of face for adults. However, for the child, it is much more serious. They will carry the memories of their traumatic experience of being cut, the physical transformation or disfigurement which will remain and be followed by the physical trauma during childbirth. This is perhaps what makes this practice such a complex and difficult issue to shift, despite the obvious abusive elements, which are clearly focused and directed at the innocent and vulnerable young girls who become the ‘victims’ in their own society.
Examining the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in the context of the CRC might in some instances appear as though opportunities, are given to defend those perpetuating FGM, as there are so many shades in each Article, which highlight different aspects of the arguments, between the rights of girls and the issues of stepping on other people’s cultural practices and boundaries.
However, in regards to cultural practices and rights of girls, surely the bottom line must be, that there is no culture that is worthy of inflicting physical harm on children.
No physical disfigurement and transformation on a human body, which has clearly been found to be detrimental to the biological functioning of young girls, can be acceptable even as a cultural practice, particularly against an innocent young girl who is not only denied a say on how her body is being treated but is not even left until she is old enough to have her say.
This is not to argue that Western cultures are better and that they should dictate the terms of how any society should conduct its cultural norms. However, if we look at children’s rights issues and the action it seeks to establish in all societies, then we can clearly see how this whole practice goes against the convention.
We see that serious issues are played out, which go against the child and young women’s human rights, so how does this practice infringe upon their rights, which are protected by the convention? I would argue, the Articles that are relevant in this context are the following, (Articles from UNICEF )
“Article 2 (Non-discrimination): The Convention applies to all children, whatever their race, religion or abilities; and irrespective of their background states. No child should be treated unfairly on any basis”
It can therefore be argued, that having no choice or not being allowed to use their own voice, would be considered as being treated ‘unfairly’.
“Article 3 (Best interests of the child): The best interests of children must be the primary concern in making decisions that may affect them. All adults should do what is best for children. When adults make decisions, they should think about how their decisions will affect children”.
As mentioned earlier, adults justify their actions to secure and retain their sense of belonging, within their community and to avoid being ostracised from their own society.
“Article 5 : Parental guidance states that the Convention places on governments the responsibility to protect and assist families in fulfilling their essential role as nurturers of children”.
In this context the key word is ‘nurturing’ and if parents are allowing the practice of FGM on their daughters this could not be perceived as nurturing their daughters physically or psychologically.
“Article 12 (Respect for the views of the child): When adults are making decisions that affect children, children have the right to say what they think should happen and have their opinions taken into account”.
In this context the convention takes account of the child’s maturity. In the case of FGM, the girls who are predominantly too young and not able to voice their opinions or decisions. Their voices will not be heard, even if they were to be older and more mature. Hence, in this context, the voice of the children is not being heard the convention is being broken.
“Article 13 (Freedom of expression) …participation in decisions must be appropriate to the child’s level of maturity”.
The girls are still too young to be involved in making any decisions or exercising their rights to voice their opinions. Hence their freedom rights are always greatly compromised.
“Article 14 (Freedom of thought, conscience and religion: The Convention recognises that as children mature and are able to form their own views, some may question certain religious practices or cultural traditions”.
Sadly, children are again, too young when they have FGM and so their participation is effectively denied.
“Article 16 (Right to privacy): Children have a right to privacy. The law should protect them from attacks against their way of life, good name, families and homes”.
In view of these girls being taken out of the country, having to live with their experience in new social contexts, this issue is also being challenged, denying them their rights. If the decision to have FGM was taken after being fully informed, at a more mature age that would be different.
“Article 17 (Access to information; mass media): Children have the right to get information that is important to their health and well-being”.
This again relates to maturity and the age at which adults take the decision to cut their daughters.
“Article 19 (Protection from all forms of violence): Children have the right to be protected from being hurt and mistreated, physically or mentally. Governments should ensure that children are properly cared for and protected from violence, abuse and neglect by their parents, or anyone else who looks after them. Protection needs to be appropriate to the child’s level of development and take the best interests of the child into consideration”.
It can be argued that FGM completely violates this Act, as each action which this act professes is involved in the practice of FGM.
Article 24 (Health and health services): Children have the right to good quality health care – the best health care possible – to safe drinking water, nutritious food, a clean and safe environment, and
information to help them stay healthy. Rich countries should help poorer countries achieve this”.
Every society yearns to achieve good quality of health care, however it cannot be argued that with the practice of FGM these values are being respected for girls. They do not remain healthy.
“Article 34 (Sexual exploitation): Governments should protect children from all forms of sexual exploitation and abuse”.
It can be argued that, if they are having FGM, in order to prevent early sexual activity, then in some senses this can be considered a form of ‘exploitation’. Their body is not being respected for their wishes.
“Article 36 (Other forms of exploitation): Children should be protected from any activity that takes advantage of them or could harm their welfare and development”.
In this respect, the girls can be considered as exploited on several grounds. It can be argued that this practice takes advantage of girls who are predominantly too young and even at a mature age, are not informed and no heed is taken of their opinions. Girls are physically harmed as a result of the procedures, placing them at a greater risk, of even losing their life. They are left disfigured and at a greater risk of having complications during pregnancy and childbirth.
Girls are denied their rights for normal life, because their body has been exploited and their natural capacity to carry and deliver their children taken away from them. Girls have to also deal with other medical challenges, such as bladder infections, fistula and pain related to this condition. These become created conditions for these girls. Thus, the girls are denied their rights; they are harmed physically and psychologically going against the Convention.
“Article 42 (Knowledge of rights): Governments should make the Convention known to adults and children. Adults should help children learn about their rights, too. (See also article 4).”
This is a very important aspect of the work that must be done in this field. Every effort needs to be made to support the parents and the girls. It is only when there is greater understanding for both the girls and their parents that change can truly be implemented and can indeed become established.
28 Too Many works to deliver research; share knowledge and advocates for changes in the law and practice regarding FGM. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org, Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.