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Ensuring virginity? Outlawed, 21 lakh females in India undergo genital mutilation per yr

By Payal Mathur, Aditi Chaudhary* 

Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) is one of the most pervasive, ongoing, and harmful human rights violations. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is just one of the forms in which it exercises violence against women. As per World Health Organisation (WHO), Female genital mutilation (FGM) is the procedure of partial or total removal of external female genitalia or other types of injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.
It is carried out on young girls between infancy and adolescence, and sometimes on adult women. Though medically, the practice has no health benefits for girls and women yet is practised worldwide. And it is also ubiquitous across various African, Middle Eastern, and Asian nations. In India, an estimated 2.1 million girls and women undergo the procedure every year.
February 6th 2023, marks more than a decade of recognising The International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation. In India, too, the evil practice of FGM has been outlawed since 2016. Nevertheless, it continues to be practised in some parts of the country owing to its deeply entrenched cultural roots.
Despite the combined efforts of various stakeholders, there are still numerous segments of society where this cruel practice is ingrained. A massive number of people are not even aware of such a barbaric practice existing within the peer groups of their residents.
The discomforting reality is that it accompanies excruciating pain and causes severe bleeding and urinating problems, eventual cysts and infections. Undeniably, complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths are also concomitant. Irrespective of all this, it is extensively practised citing age-old customs and traditions. It holds the importance of the cultural distinctiveness of girls and women in diverse regions.
The practice is further worrying because it is typically done in a highly unsanitary way and the unhygienic procedure causes severe health issues like excruciating pain, profuse bleeding- haemorrhage, shock, menstrual problems, infections and even death. The long term effects of anxiety, depression, trauma and extreme pressure on the survivors' mental and sexual heath cannot be ignored.
The reasons why people practice FGM vary from one society to another. In some cases, it is seen as a way to control female sexuality and ensure virginity before the marriage. In other cases, it is a way to protect family honour or reduce the risk of promiscuity among women. Some ethnic communities follow it to restrain sexual acts between youth members of the group.
Some newly established groups follow it to maintain ethnicity (identity protection in case groups migrate and displace a lot). All of it is done under the belief that keeping the group's distinctness during social disruptions is crucial. Whatever the reason, FGM has severe physical and psychological consequences for those who have to undergo it.
Since 2008, UNFPA and UNICEF have been in charge of the most remarkable global effort to end FGM in 30 nations. In conjunction with governments, NGOs and other decision-makers of the UNFPA-UNICEF joint Programme, they are working tirelessly towards ending this practice. According to a UNFPA estimation, 2 million FGMs will occur in the next decade due to program interruptions during the pandemic.
Given the situation, the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of eliminating FGM by 2030 seems like a far-fetched dream.
What can we as a society do?
The media plays a critical role in spreading factual information to households and educating people about the necessity of positive change. It might raise people's awareness and motivate them to oppose this disgusting practice.
Through a flexible and open mindset, people can understand their rights related to FGM. Stakeholders can use various traditional communication techniques, such as drama, poetry, dance, music, and storytelling, to communicate the problems associated with FGM.
To help patients and communities understand the negative impacts of FGM, healthcare providers like ASHA workers and ANMs can raise awareness. We need to educate women about their sexual and reproductive rights and reproductive health in order to assist them in realising the ill effects of FGM. Additionally, health professionals can provide outreach initiatives, including community and school health education, to increase awareness.
The road ahead involves promoting and defending human rights which are the direct responsibilities of UN organisations. All sexual and reproductive rights programmes related to adolescents and young girls should have a particular focus on this. Girls in such an age group already undergo substantial physical, psychological and social changes; at that tender age dealing with another of such issues is a war and nightmare for young girls and women.
Keeping all this in mind, the decision-makers must include FGM in various policies to bring change. Inaction is not an option; to permanently end FGM, we must get together, spread awareness, and take action. The wholesome development of all women and girls cannot be unilaterally done but can only be achieved by ensuring equitable access to healthcare, work and educational opportunities; only that would hasten the end of FGM.
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*Respectively: PhD Scholar. Amity University, Jaipur; PhD Scholar, International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai

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