What is Female Genital Mutilation?
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) refers to any non-therapeutic procedure that involves removal or damage to the external female genitalia. The term encompasses a wide variety of practices ranging from removal or mutilation of the clitoris and labia majora and/or labia minora to nicking of the genitalia.
FGM is a traditional practice performed on girls and adolescent women, usually between the ages of four and fourteen. The procedure is often known as female circumcision or genital cutting in practicing communities.
Where is FGM practiced?
FGM is practiced throughout the world. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that between 100 million and 140 million girls and women worldwide have undergone FGM. A further 3 million girls in Africa are at risk of the procedure every year.
FGM is prevalent in many African countries including, although not limited to: Guinea, Egypt, Mali, the North of Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Côte d'Ivoire, Chad, Central African Republic, Kenya and Senegal. FGM also occurs in some countries in Asia and the Middle East including Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Pakistan, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Iraq and the Palestinian territories.
In addition, many women and girls who have been subject to the procedure or are at risk of FGM have migrated to Europe, Australia, Canada and the United States. There is significant variance in the nature and prevalence of FGM within any given country or community.
Is FGM practiced in Australia?
There is no evidence to suggest that FGM is practiced in Australia. Nevertheless, migration from communities where the practice is common has meant that there are considerable numbers of women and girls who have undergone the procedure living in Australia.
Why is FGM practiced?
FGM is strongly rooted in tradition. It is practiced for a variety of inter-related cultural, social and economic reasons. The practice is thought to enhance hygiene, fertility and child survival and is sometimes viewed as a form of contraception. It is also practiced for aesthetic reasons.
Many communities believe that FGM contributes to social cohesion and family honour. FGM is often seen as a means of ensuring female chastity before marriage and fidelity within marriage. In many communities where it is practiced FGM is viewed as an initiation into womanhood and a prerequisite for marriage.
Is FGM a religious practice?
Although FGM is often erroneously associated with religion, the practice predates religions such as Christianity and Islam and is not sanctioned by any religion.
What are the effects of FGM?
FGM can have harmful physical and psychological consequences. The effects vary in nature and severity depending on the type of procedure, hygiene, skill of practitioner and general health of the girl.
Immediate physical effects can include severe pain, haemorrhage, urine retention wound infection, septicaemia and sometimes death. There is also a risk of HIV and Hepatitis B transmission.
Long-term consequences include anaemia, abscess, urinary incontinence, recurrent bladder and urinary tract infection, damage to adjacent organs, infertility, painful sexual intercourse and complications in childbirth.
FGM can also have a psychological impact, including anxiety, trauma, depression, a loss of trust in parents and long-term sexual dysfunction.
These symptoms can become more pronounced when those affected move from a community in which the practice is common.
What are the health needs of women affected by FGM?
The health needs of women affected by FGM vary depending on both the nature of the procedure and individual factors for the woman concerned.
Women may require frequent gynaecological checks, pre-natal and post-natal care, special family planning and care in menopause and access to female medical practitioners.
Where infibulation or surgical narrowing of the vaginal entrance has occurred, it is necessary to reverse the procedure in preparation for childbirth or to allow sexual intercourse.
What is the Australian Government doing about FGM?
The Australian Government has initiated a national education program on FGM, which aims to prevent the occurrence of FGM with Australia as well as to minimise adverse health and psychological consequences for those affected by the practice. This program is implemented through state and territory health departments. The NSW Education Program on FGM is part of this initiative.
All Australian states have enacted legislation that prohibits the practice of FGM.
The NSW Crimes Act 1900 Sec 45 prohibits female genital mutilation. Anyone who performs FGM or aids, abets, counsels or procures a person to perform FGM is liable for up to 21 years imprisonment. The Act is applicable to anyone who is usually a resident in NSW, whether or not FGM is performed within NSW or elsewhere. It is therefore illegal to send a child overseas to undergo FGM. It is not a defence under the Act that the person undergoing FGM consents to the procedure.
The Program is currently working with members of the Egyptian, Ethiopian, Nigerian, Sierra Leonean, Somali, Sudanese, Liberian and Eritrean communities and is planning to extend its services to communities from Burundi and Congo in the future.
These communities are diverse. They differ in culture, language, religion, social structures, background and history of settlement in Australia. The languages spoken within the target communities include Arabic, Amharic, Tigrinya, Igbo/Yoruba, Somali and Krio.