Tuesday, 13 March 2012
Female Genital Mutilation
With International Women's Day celebrated last week on 8 March, it is timely to reflect on the treatment and status of women, both overseas and here in Australia. While much progress has been made, the human rights afforded to many women need to be questioned, with many millions of women still treated in inhumane and degrading ways. I speak of female genital mutilation. When Australian authorities start turning a blind eye to brutality against girls and women in our own country, it is time for reflection to end and law enforcement and government to step in.
In 1997 Amnesty International reported that an estimated 135 million of the world's girls and women had undergone genital mutilation and that some two million girls a year were at risk of mutilation—approximately a staggering 6,000 girls and women per day. More up-to-date data collected by the Population Reference Bureau puts the numbers of girls and young women at risk of genital mutilation every year at over three million. While the exact nature of the practice varies from country to country and region to region, it involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, including the prepuce, clitoris, labia majora and labia minora. Methods include cutting, piercing, cauterising, scraping or in some cases using corrosive substances. One can only imagine the adverse effects on the girls and women who are victims. The effect is profound, affecting them physically, psychologically and sexually for the rest of their lives.
For those who may not be familiar with the physical torture and brutalisation, I suggest reading one of Waris Dirie's books on the subject. Waris, originally from Somalia, is known to many of us as an internationally recognised model and an outspoken whistleblower and critic of this cruel and medieval practice. She has set an example for all women to be just as outspoken. I might add that she has been a victim of this practice herself. It is a practice that should not be tolerated in any community, society or country.
Australians associate female genital mutilation, known as FGM, with places far away from our own easygoing lifestyle —in Africa, the Middle East and even parts of Asia. As the number of Australians with backgrounds from countries which practise FGM has increased, so has the incidence in Australia. The Royal Women's Hospital in Melbourne, just one of the 1,000 hospitals across Australia, has said that it sees 600 to 700 women a year who have been the victims of FGM. In many cases this was done to these women in their native countries before they immigrated. However, increasingly the female children of these immigrants are also being mutilated and are being sent home to the countries of birth of their parents. Most states and territories have enacted specific legislation prohibiting FGM. Regardless, most legal authorities are of the view that our traditional laws prohibiting physical assault ensure that FGM is illegal in Australia. However, one must note that prosecutions are very rare in any state or territory. Increasingly, states and certain elements of the medical profession have been medicalising the practice. In recent years, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists proposed a smaller mutilation be allowed by Australian surgeons as a way of saving these young girls from the backyard butchers currently performing the procedures in the name of culture and religion. While I do not doubt RANZCOG's good intentions in minimising the harm that their members see every day, this is a perversion of multiculturalism which surely cannot be countenanced in Australian hospitals.
Fact sheets drafted by state health authorities increasingly advise contacting a doctor and a social worker on finding an instance of FGM, but do not recommend contacting the police. Consideration must be given to a federal takeover of policing this horrendous crime which should be backed up by a policy of zero tolerance. Parents and community leaders from a cultural and religious background which promotes FGM must know that, if a girl under their care is mutilated in this way, they will be caught and they will go to jail. Today, I regret to say that no such fear exists as it is hidden and protected in the name of cultural tolerance.
The serious nature of the possible risks to young girls, who live here with the families, demands overarching federal legislation to replace state jurisdiction that does not seem to be working. I believe that the federal government has the power to enact such a law by virtue of the foreign affairs power and by our acceptance of the UN convention against torture. This law should be extraterritorial in its effect, meaning that taking a child overseas for the procedure should also be illegal. There should be mandatory reporting by medical and school authorities, making it illegal to not report the mutilation of a girl. It should be a rebuttable presumption that both parents knew and consented to the procedure, and they will both be tried under the new law.
We need to unveil FGM from the religious and cultural cloak in which it hides. A woman who comes from a culture which wears a hijab can, in Australia, decide to take that veil off if she so chooses. But, if we allow young Australian girls to be physically mutilated, we are allowing scars which will never heal and a veil which will never be lifted.