Female genital mutilation is hurting Australian girls and we must work together to stamp it out

By agencies working together, we can prevent female genital mutilation, which new research confirms is happening in Australia. from www.shutterstock.com

Female genital mutilation or cutting is largely hidden in Australia and other high-income countries. Most people don’t consider it a major issue. But our research shows it should be.

Our research found girls are presenting to paediatricians in Australia with female genital mutilation, but misconceptions about the practice are common and doctors want more information on how to manage this illegal practice.

Health professionals, lawyers, teachers, child protection authorities and communities at risk must be better informed. They must also work together to help prevent female genital mutilation, which contravenes declarations including the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

What did we find?

We found health professionals worldwide are poorly informed about female genital mutilation: why it is performed, and its relationship to culture rather than religion.

Our survey of Australian paediatricians, for instance, found 10% had ever seen a child with female genital mutilation; few knew the procedure was done outside Africa; few routinely asked about or examined girls for female genital mutilation; or understood the World Health Organisation (WHO) classification types. Few had read local policy on how to manage girls presenting with female genital mutilation. Most had no relevant training and requested educational resources.

Some paediatricians had been asked to perform female genital mutilation, or for information about who would perform it.

Increasingly, we are learning some immigrants to high-income countries, including Australia, may have had the procedure or be at risk.

Of the girls with female genital mutilation who Australian paediatricians had seen, all were from immigrant families, mostly from Africa, and seen in refugee clinics. Two children had female genital mutilation performed in Australia. One child born in Australia was taken to Indonesia for the procedure, a country where as many as 49% of girls under the age of 14 years have had female genital mutilation.

An ancient, global cultural practice

Female genital mutilation is an ancient cultural practice, entrenched in some societies. It is often wrongly thought to be dictated by religion, yet is contained in the scriptures of none. Traditionally, female genital mutilation is practised in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

In some countries (including Egypt, Somalia and Sierra Leone) it affects more than 90% of the female population.

UNICEF identifies female genital mutilation as a global concern, estimating that over 200 million girls and women live with female genital mutilation. At current rates, 63 million more girls will have had the procedure by 2050.

What is female genital mutilation?

The World Health Organisation defines female genital mutilation as:

all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.

Procedures range from cutting or nicking the hood of the clitoris through to total removal of the clitoris and labia and sewing up the external opening (infibulation). Female genital mutilation does not include cosmetic procedures such as labiaplasty that are increasingly popular in high-income countries.

What are the consequences?

Female genital mutilation is usually performed in girls under 15 years old, and is often initiated by someone they trust, including family members, and conducted under non-sterile conditions, without pain relief.

Not surprisingly, female genital mutilation is associated with physical complications, ranging from bleeding to urinary tract infection, incontinence, difficulties with menstruation, sexual problems, infertility and complications during childbirth or for the newborn.

But it is the psychological trauma – post-traumatic stress disorder, flashbacks, anxiety and depression - that haunts many of the victims way beyond childhood and impacts their adult relationships.

Some women who have had female genital mutilation describe it as child abuse, gender-based violence and gender discrimination, associated with a power play by men who want to control the lives of their wives and daughters.

Ending female genital mutilation

Several international agencies have called on female genital mutilation to be banned, including the UN and its children’s agency UNICEF. Although progress has been made towards ending female genital mutilation globally, we have a way to go.

We are aware that preventing this ancient cultural practice requires us to understand the complex motivation behind it. Although inherently risky, the procedure is entrenched in the social fabric of many communities.

As UNICEF explains:

Communities practice [female genital mutilation or cutting] in the belief that it will ensure a girl’s proper upbringing, future marriage or family honour. In many contexts, the social norm upholding the practice is so powerful that families have their daughters cut even when they are aware of the harm it can cause.

Nevertheless, UNICEF remains firm that no form of female genital mutilation be tolerated.

For us to end female genital mutilation, we need a multi-sectoral approach including education and empowerment of women to enable them, in partnership with men in their communities, to say “no” to female genital mutilation.

To do this, communities must be supported by health professionals and child protection authorities, underpinned by legislation banning female genital mutilation.

Unlike the United Kingdom, Australia has no national integrated female genital mutilation prevention policy linking health, education and community services. This should be a priority.

We produce knowledge-based, ethical journalism. Please donate and help us thrive. Tax deductible.