by SENATOR MICHAELIA CASH
Female genital mutilation.
As Australian women, these three words make us recoil in horror.
However for millions of young girls around the world, these three words represent an abhorrent act which will change their lives forever. And no, not for the better.
Just one week ago, West Australian police charged a couple with subjecting their baby daughter to genital mutilation. Today news has emerged that two Sydney residents have been charged by police in connection with the genital mutilation of two young girls, aged 6 and 7. This from the Daily Telegraph:
Police arrested the Sheik, 56, from Auburn and the 68-year-old nurse earlier today. The children’s parents were charged last Friday with two counts of female mutilation.
NSW Police Force’s Sex Crimes Squad began investigating the allegations earlier this year and set up Strike Force Longfield and have been been working closely with NSW Health and the Department of Family and Community Services.
Police will allege the two girls had the procedure, which is also known as female circumcision, performed on them in NSW when they were aged six and seven.
The practice of female genital mutilation, or FGM, is internationally recognised as a violation of the human rights of girls and women and is illegal in Australia.
The practice, which varies from country to country and between regions, involves partial or total removal of the clitoris, or excision of any other part of the genitals including the labia majora and labia minora, or any other kind of mutilation of the genitalia.
Perhaps one of the worst aspects of this practice is that it is mostly carried out on girls up to the age of 15. An estimated 100-140 million women have experienced genital mutilation worldwide and three million girls are estimated to be at risk of undergoing the procedure every year. Deformed and in pain, these girls are denied any kind of real childhood.
There are no benefits that come from this violent procedure. None. What it can cause is infertility, severe bleeding, infection, trouble with urination, cysts, fistula, the need for further surgeries, complications in childbirth and increased risk of infant mortality.
As someone who values gender equality, it is impossible to imagine the pain and the horror that women and girls subjected to this brutal practice experience. But that immediate pain is replaced with a lifetime of both physical and often psychological suffering. It is impossible to comprehend the lifetime of suffering these girls and women experience and the trauma they go through.
Consider the case of Faduma, who was subjected to FGM at the age of 6. She told SBS in an interview:
‘You bleed, you just cry, you can’t defend yourself…imagine having an operation live without anything. Somebody is cutting your body and you are just lying there hopeless.’
World Health Organisation estimates that 140 million girls and women worldwide are living with the consequences of FGM, and a UN Women report confirms that:
‘a growing number of women and girls among immigrant communities have been subjected to or are at risk of female genital mutilation in Australia and New Zealand, as well as in countries in Europe and North America.’
In 2010, the Royal Women’s Hospital in Melbourne reported it was seeing between 600 and 700 cases of women each year who were victims of FGM – and keep in mind this is only the women who both needed and sought medical attention.
It is fair to say that Western society, and in particular Western women, have been too reluctant to point out and too slow to condemn the plight of women outside the West for fear that any censure of anti-female practices would be seen as culturally insensitive.
It is a regrettable fact that harmful traditional practices have been committed against women in certain communities and societies for so long now that they are considered part of accepted cultural practice. In other words, excuses are made under the guise of traditional cultural practices for allowing women to be subjected to crude and unrestrained primitive practices that should not be tolerated anywhere under any circumstances.
In Australia, all types of FGM are illegal, banned by specific legislation in every jurisdiction. The legislation takes precedence over common law, which means that even if a woman over the age of 18 consents to undergoing FGM, any doctor who administers it would be committing an offence. For legislative purposes, FGM is also illegal under child protection legislation, which means that mandatory reporting on the issue where suspected by a teacher or other professional must occur.
And the National Education Program on Female Genital Mutilation, introduced in 1995, aims to prevent FGM through community education and awareness, as well as assistance to women who have already been subjected to the practice.
As the Executive Director of UN Women, Ms Michelle Bachelet, pointed out at a Parliamentary Breakfast in Canberra this week, FGM is carried out for cultural reasons, not religious ones. Many parents believe without FGM their daughters will not be able to marry. Others believe that uncircumcised girls will have overactive sex drives, or that female genitalia are and dirty and FGM is it is a type of ‘cleaning’ or ‘cleansing’. It has also been reported that there is a belief in parts of Burkina Faso and Nigeria that if a baby touches the clitoris during childbirth, it will die.
When migrants come to Australia, they bring with them a system of beliefs, and for those who come with the belief that practicing what amounts to the torture and disabling of young women is okay, it is incumbent on us to help families to overcome the belief that it is necessary or acceptable. We cannot tiptoe around this issue on the pretence that cultural relativity must prevail. In this case, the health of young women is at risk for no good reason whatsoever.
And outside Australia, it is my belief that lifting women from poverty through education and empowerment is the only way to make progress in this area, and many others. There is plenty of data to show that aid investment in women, and especially in their education, reaps enormous benefits not just for those women but also for their families and children.
All girls deserve the right to be free from torture and mutilation, and it is only through speaking out, raising awareness and unveiling the shame and secrecy around this process that we may begin to change the minds of those who believe it is a necessary and normal part of girlhood.
Senator Michaelia Cash is a Liberal Senator for Western Australia and the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration and the Status of Women.