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Australia Sees Rising Demand for Female Genital Mutilation

Last year saw the failure of policy considerations to legalize "ritual nicks" in the United States. With increasing immigration from high-prevalence countries, FGM is on the rise in Australia and many are calling for increased vigilance against this harmful practice in all its forms.
Sterilized scissors showing excised clitoris
Sterilized scissors showing excised clitoris from an infant

(NEW YORK, NY) — A recent article in the Australian Medical Journal by Ben Mathews, LLB, PhD, calls for increased protection of girls and women from female genital mutilation (FGM). Australia is seeing an increasing demand for FGM along with a rise in immigration from high-prevalence countries.

Female genital mutilation (FGM, also known as female circumcision or female genital cutting) refers to a wide range of procedures where parts of the external female genitalia are cut off to satisfy cultural requirements of chastity, cleanliness, and aesthetics. FGM is often practiced in poor sanitary conditions, leading to significant complications.

Dr. Mathews writes in response to last year's controversy surrounding the alleged considerations of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (RANZCOG) to legalize "ritual nicking." Less harmful than male circumcision, "ritual nicking" is the practice of extracting a drop of blood from the clitoris to satisfy cultural adherents of female circumcision.

Last year saw the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) to legalize "ritual nicking," the reason why the topic was brought under critical discussion by RANZCOG. The AAP policy recommendation was reverted after widespread outrage from human rights organizations, including Equality Now and Intact America, an organization that also campaigns against male circumcision.

Legal Protection

FGM is banned in many countries worldwide, including in at least 16 African countries. Current human rights statutes protecting girls and women from FGM include the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, the Protocol of the Rights of Women in Africa, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child.

Children are currently protected from genital cutting under Australian law:

  • It is illegal to infringe upon a person's right to bodily integrity.
  • Courts have authority over parents who do not act in the child's "best interests."
  • Parents do not have the right to perform any treatments without a child's consent once the child reaches "sufficient understanding and intelligence."


Dr. Mathews stands behind the legal protections against all forms of FGM, which currently outlaw even consensual adult FGM procedures.

There are many justifications for these strict legal protections, writes Dr. Mathews, which are based on the following findings:

  • FGM predates the Koran and the Bible, and is therefore a cultural practice.
  • FGM is a form of direct social control on females' bodies and sexuality.
  • FGM victims have a high risk of infection, hemorrhage, and even death.
  • FGM causes complications for intercourse, childbirth, menstruation, including recurrent infections, chronic pain, and perinatal death.
  • Infibulation (or FGM type III, the most severe form of FGM, around 10% of all occurrences) requires re-incision for intercourse and childbirth, and includes a higher risk of fatalities during childbirth.
  • FGM causes severe psychological consequences comparable to rape, including post-traumatic stress disorder and a sense of violation.
  • FGM has significant effects on longevity.


 Many support the decision to allow "ritual nicking" in a medical setting, believing it preferable to the reality of girls and women being taken abroad or underground to have FGM performed on them in unsterile conditions. To others, legalizing "ritual nicking" is a shocking concession.

"To sanction medically performed FGM would leave undisturbed the damaging assumptions motivating it, and would endorse the unjust attitudes to girls' and women's rights embodied in the practice," writes Dr. Mathews.

Recommendations

FGM presents practical challenges for medical practitioners, who must call upon relevant organizations in case they are asked to perform, treat, or give advice about FGM. Current Australian law requires doctors, nurses, school principals, and police officers to report each suspected instance of FGM.

Dr. Mathews calls for more research on the incidence (annual rate) of FGM, and on evaluating strategies in Australia in response to increased demand for FGM.

Ben Mathews, LLB, PhD, is an associate professor of law at the Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.


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