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Governments in Asia must take action on female genital mutilation

By Nawmi Naz Chowdhury, Global Legal Advisor, Equality Now  

Ending female genital mutilation (FGM) globally is unachievable unless efforts are significantly stepped up across Asia, where FGM remains widely unaddressed despite occurring in at least ten countries. A major reason is the failure by regional governments to introduce and implement effective laws against FGM. Another challenge is the lack of comprehensive and reliable data from state authorities on the extent and nature of the problem. All governments urgently need to provide this information as it underpins the development, delivery, and measurement of effective interventions.  

Information on FGM in Asia is urgently needed

FGM is a harmful traditional practice involving the partial or total removal of external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. It can cause immense physical and psychological damage and is internationally recognized as a grave violation of women’s and girls’ human rights. Yet this invasive practice – done to control the sex drive of women and girls – continues in communities found worldwide. 

The dearth of reliable government data on FGM in Asian countries means the exact scale of how many women and girls are impacted and in what ways remains unknown. This scarcity of information makes it harder to instigate action, design and implement policies, and hold governments and other duty-bearers to account, particularly in advocating for the introduction and effective implementation of legislative measures against FGM. It also makes it more difficult to secure funding.

Indonesia and the Maldives are the only states in Asia that provide national-level prevalence data. For other practicing countries – Brunei, India, Malaysia, Pakistan, Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, and Thailand – evidence is available just from sources such as civil society organizations, media reports, and anecdotal studies based on interviews with survivors.

Legal bans on FGM are needed

Without legal bans that expressly criminalize and punish FGM and prohibit it for both women and minors, the United Nations says it will be impossible to provide “accountability frameworks and disciplinary sanctions” essential for prevention and eradication.

Among measures recommended in the Human Rights Council Resolution on the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation, States are urged to “respect, protect and promote the human rights of all women and girls, and to adopt and expedite the implementation of laws, policies and programmes” to end FGM. However, the study “Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A Call for A Global Response” by Equality Now, End FGM European Network, and US Network to End FGM/C found that no such legal prohibition currently exists against FGM in any Asian countries.

States in Asia are working towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Agenda 2030 and are parties to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). SDG 5.3, CEDAW and CRC expressly prohibit FGM and call on States to take action. Women’s rights groups and others calling for FGM to be explicitly and fully criminalized are increasingly linking their advocacy to these international human rights commitments, and this has yielded some positive results.

In the Maldives, during the country’s last CEDAW review session, the government took the initiative to criminalize FGM by committing to draft an amendment to the country’s Penal Code. In Sri Lanka, the Ministry of Health issued a circular advising doctors not to perform FGM.

Over the last few years and for the first time ever, some Asian countries have received inquiries and recommendations from United Nations mechanisms about enacting FGM laws. In the 2022 United Nations Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR),  India was called upon to take action, and in early 2023, a UPR review of Sri Lanka recommended the country take action to eradicate FGM, prevent gender-based violence, and strengthen women’s rights. Singapore has also been questioned about FGM during its review before the CEDAW Committee. This marks a crucial advance in drawing international attention and paves the way for greater government accountability. 

Little or no progress

Unfortunately, in other parts of Asia, there has been little or no progress. The Philippines and Thailand have still not officially recognized that FGM occurs within their borders. While in India, a public interest litigation filed in 2017 seeking a ban on FGM was referred by the Supreme Court to the Constitution bench, which grouped the case alongside three other petitions dealing with women’s rights and freedom of religion. Five years on from the original litigation being filed, things remain pending.

In Muslim-majority countries, conservative religious groups justify FGM by misinterpreting it as a religious requirement, and their opposition to ending this harmful practice is hampering endeavors. For example, in the Maldives, such groups are promoting narratives in favor of FGM that could reverse recent positive developments, including potentially derailing ongoing efforts towards criminalization.

In Indonesia, a circular warning issued on FGM’s negative health effects was contradicted by a Ministry of Health regulation that referenced religious and cultural sentiments and allowed medical staff to carry out “less invasive procedures.”

Against this backdrop, calls for collective action, such as those being led by the Asia Network to End FGM/C, are vital as they shine a much-needed spotlight and galvanize collaboration. To achieve the SDG 5.3 target of ending FGM throughout the world by 2030, the international community must follow suit by do more to address FGM in Asia. This includes prompting Asian governments to act quickly in adopting a zero-tolerance approach incorporating full criminalization, data collection, and the implementation of a coordinated multi-sectoral approach. Without this, countless women and girls across the region will continue to suffer this grave human rights violation, and the ambition to end FGM globally will remain unobtainable. 

This article was originally published on Relief Web

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