Female genital mutilation
Associate Professor Ben Mathews
Health Law Research Program
QUT Faculty of Law
3138 2983
[email protected]
What I’ll cover briefly today:
1. The nature of FGM
2. Physical and psychological health consequences
3. Australian laws prohibiting FGM
4. Recent developments in Africa
5. Can an absolute human right against FGM emerge?
1. The nature of FGM
The deliberate, non-therapeutic physical modification of female genitalia, usually in
young girls (approx age 5-7)
4 forms (may be administered individually or in combination):
1. clitoridectomy (partial or total removal of the clitoris);
2. excision (partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, and
sometimes also the labia majora);
3. infibulation (narrowing of the vaginal opening);
4. all other harmful non-therapeutic procedures (including pricking and incising)
Types 1 and 2 more typical
But infibulation is estimated to affect 10% of those who have experienced FGM;
especially likely in Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan
In which societies is FGM most often conducted?
Concentrated in some African nations (especially Islamic) but reported worldwide
11 African nations have rates of FGM in females aged 15-49 of 70-98%: Somalia,
Egypt, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Djibouti, Sudan, Eritrea, Gambia, Ethiopia,
Burkina Faso and Mauritania
How many?
100-140 million girls and women now alive
3 million girls in Africa at risk each year
Why is it conducted?
Historical records since 450BC; so predates, and has no basis in, Koran or Bible
A cultural tradition, motivated by a patriarchal social desire to control females’
bodies, roles, and capacity for sexual enjoyment and fulfilment:
 ensure virginity at marriage (preserving family honour)
 help attract a husband (uncircumcised women seen as immoral)
 prevent infidelity by limiting sexual desire
 rite of passage into womanhood
2. Physical and psychological health consequences
Often conducted in unsterile environments (no anaesthetic, antiseptic or
antibiotics), by persons with no surgical training (often female family member, or
women from community), using implements such as stones, razors, glass
Fatalities: risk of infection is high; death from haemhorraging is not infrequent
Physical injuries
The more invasive the FGM, the greater the complications for intercourse,
menstruation, recurrent infections, chronic pain, childbirth and perinatal death
Those who are infibulated suffer re-incision to facilitate intercourse and childbirth,
with higher risk for fatalities in childbirth
Significant effects on longevity
Psychological consequences
Post-traumatic stress disorder
Fear of sexual relations
3. Australian laws prohibiting FGM
USA and Australia, 2010: peak medical bodies considered endorsing the
medical administration of a ‘lesser’ form of FGM – ‘ritual nicks’
Proposals quickly overcome
Australian criminal prohibitions
Every State and Territory (eg Criminal Code Act 1899 (Qld) s 323A)
Legislation prohibits performance of any type of ‘female genital mutilation’,
defined as including clitoridectomy, excision of any other part of the
genitalia, infibulation (narrowing or closing of the vagina), and any other
mutilation of the genitalia
Also prohibits taking child out of country for performance of FGM: s 323B
4. Recent developments in Africa: legal, practical
Legal developments:
FGM has been made illegal by a growing number of nations (at least 16)
Also prohibited by the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’
Rights 2003 (the Maputo Protocol)
Consistent with other international instruments:
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women
1979 (articles 1, 2, 5, 12)
United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989 (articles 19, 24, 34).
But note that legal prohibition (and even enforcement), while a positive step, will
never by itself be sufficient to create real change:
 example of Egypt (2007 law; decline pre- and post-law; yet still conducted
post-law especially by GPs; 1 in 3 young doctors defended FGM, thinking it
was required by religion)
 attitudinal change is also necessary to produce practical change
Practical strategies:
Educating the public about FGM (cooperation between government and
nongovernment agencies, religious leaders, societal opinion leaders and
health experts)
Using culturally and linguistically appropriate methods of communication with
the community (eg theatre and role-play), to heighten awareness of the issues
and catalyse self-starting cultural change
Education of young girls (since mothers play a major role in FGM of their
Promoting awareness of key human rights instruments
Involving men and community leaders in these educational and awarenessraising efforts
 including facilitating conversations between men and women who have
suffered FGM – the simple act of talking – facilitates understanding,
empathy, compassion and attitudinal change
5. Can an absolute human right against FGM emerge?
An intriguing possibility...
1924: League of Nations’ Declaration of the Rights of the Child
1948: Universal Declaration of Human Rights: childhood requires special care and assistance
1959: Declaration of the Rights of the Child: ‘the child, by reason of his [or her] physical and
mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal
protection’ (Pr. 2).
1990: United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child enters into force
Article 19 obliges States parties to take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social
and educational measures to protect children from all forms of abuse and exploitation
2003: Maputo Protocol (African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights 2003) ban on FGM
2005: Islamic context: Rabat Declaration on Child Issues art 10: eliminate discrimination against
girls and harmful traditional practices such as FGM and child marriage; art 20: take
legislative measures
But note: distinction between theoretical ‘rights’, and legal ‘rights’, and rights in
Law/theory vs attitudes and practice: the requirement of attitudinal change regarding
gender (and gender roles), sexuality, society, children and violence
Key publications
B Mathews, ‘Female genital mutilation: Australian law, policy and practical challenges for doctors’ (2011)
194(3) Medical Journal of Australia 139-141
See also:
D Barstow, ‘Female Genital Mutilation: The Penultimate Gender Abuse’ (1999) 23 Child Abuse & Neglect
S Rasheed, A Abd-Ellah and F Yousef, ‘Female genital mutilation in Upper Egypt in the new millennium’
(2011) 114 International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics 47-50.
M Rajabi-Ardeshiri, ‘The Rights of the Child in the Islamic Context: The Challenges of the Local and the
Global’ (2009) 17 International Journal of Children’s Rights 475-489
K Morris, ‘Issues on female genital mutilation/cutting-progress and parallels’ (2006) 368 Lancet S64-S66.
W Wakabi, ‘Africa battles to make female genital mutilation history’ (2007) 369 Lancet 1069-1070.

Presentation (MS PowerPoint 592kB)