Female Genital Mutilation (FGM): Australia's Position/Response
What is FGM?
FGM refers to the practice of Female Genital Mutilation. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) the practice “comprises 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. It is mostly carried out on girls aged between infancy and 15 years by traditional circumcisers.” Australia accepts this acronym and definition.
(Ref: World Health Organisation, Media Centre, Fact Sheet No.241, February 2014, Review of Australia’s FGM Legal Framework, March 2013)
Types of FGM practiced?
There are four: (Type 1) Clitoridectomy - the partial/total removal of the clitoris, (Type II) Excision - the partial/total removal of the clitoris and the labia minor, (Type III) Infibulation – the removal of the clitoris and labia and the sewing up of the vaginal opening leaving only a small opening for urine and menstrual blood, and (Type IV) Other – options such as pricking, piercing, incising and scraping of the genitals.
(Ref: World Health Organisation, Classification of female genital mutilation)
What is the purpose of FGM?
It is perpetrated on girls/women to control their bodies and sexuality for the benefit of men. By removing the female’s clitoris it results in her being unable to experience sexual feeling, and by stitching up the vaginal opening it ensures that she suffers extreme pain when having sex. Such consequences, assures communities where FGM is culturally practiced, that women will remain chaste before marriage, as well as faithful to their future husbands.
(Ref: Unicef - Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A statistical overview and exploration of the dynamics of change 2013, African-Women org - What is behind the Tradition of FGM? African-Women org –Consequences of FGM, NSW Education Program on FGM)
What is the International response to FGM?
The United Nations (UN) has found no justification for this procedure and has declared FGM to be harmful, and a violation of the human rights of girls/women. It is considered unnecessary and an extreme form of discrimination against gender that needs to be eradicated. As a result, in 2012 the United Nations called for a worldwide ban on all forms of FGM.
(Ref: United Nations adopts worldwide ban on female genital mutilation, December 2012)
What are the harmful impacts?
The harmful impacts vary greatly and are dependent on which type of FGM is practiced. As FGM is generally performed with crude implements such as razor blades or glass and without anaesthetic, it encompasses obstetric, gynaecological and mental health issues. Immediate documented side effects include severe shock, pain, haemorrhaging, infections and even possible death, while long-term issues include scarring, difficulties with urination, menstruation, sexual intercourse, fertility and childbirth.
(Ref: African Women Org – Consequences of FGM, World Health Organisation, Media Centre, Fact Sheet No.241, February 2014, Department of Health, National Female Genital Mutilation Summit, September 2013, Medical Journal of Australia: Female genital mutilation: Australian law, policy, and practical challenges for doctors)
Which countries practice FGM?
WHO estimates that there are 29 countries, predominately in Africa, the Middle East and Asia where FGM is concentrated According to UNICEF, more than 125 million girls and women alive today have been cut in these 29 countries, but admit that exact figures remain unknown.
(Ref: World Health Organisation, Media Centre, Fact Sheet No.241, February 2014, Unicef - Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A statistical overview and exploration of the dynamics of change, 2013)
What is the relevance of this issue to Australia?
As a result of migration, population groups that practice FGM now reside in Australia, increasing the chances of FGM occurring here. Sadly, rates of detection and prosecution are extremely low in Australia with only two cases in New South Wales (NSW) currently before the courts.
(Ref: Sydney Morning Herald, Female Genital Mutilation a problem in NSW: Pru Goward, NSW Community Services Minister, No FGM Australia – Australian Statistics, March 2014)
Who is most ‘at risk’?
Girls born to mothers who are survivors of FGM are at most risk. However, it is important to note that these mothers do not view FGM as being harmful to their daughters. They genuinely believe it to be a vital prerequisite for her social acceptance and future marriage, thereby making women the primary custodians of this tradition.
(Ref: No FGM Australia – Australian Statistics, March 2014, African-Women org - What is behind the Tradition of FGM? Unicef - Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A statistical overview and exploration of the dynamics of change, 2013)
What is the legal status of FGM in Australia?
It is ILLEGAL for any person in Australia to perform FGM on a woman, girl or female baby. Criminal legislation prohibiting FGM within and outside of Australia has been passed in all States and Territories. In March 2014, there were legislative changes in NSW, which saw an amendment to the Crimes Act 1900. Section 45A has been inserted after Section 45 with the Crimes Amendment (Female Genital Mutilation) Bill, which increases the maximum penalty for performing or procuring FGM from 7 years to 21 years. Under this new law it is also now an offence for parents/guardians to remove an Australian child outside of NSW to undergo FGM, or to arrange for a circumciser/cutter to come to Australia with the intent to commit FGM on an Australian resident.
(Ref: Review of Australia’s FGM Legal Framework, March 2013, Crimes Act 1900, Section 45: Prohibition of female genital mutilation, Crimes Amendment (Female Genital Mutilation) Bill 2014)
FGM statistics in Australia
It is impossible to obtain accurate data on the prevalence of FGM in Australia as it is performed in secret. However, as early as 1994 the Family Law Council believed that FGM was being practiced in Australia. In 2010, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG) confirmed that hospitals/doctors have been treating women for post FGM complications. In 2014, No FGM Australia reported that over 83,000 women, who are likely survivors of FGM, now reside in Australia and estimates that they will give birth to around 1100 girls each year, placing 3 girls per day at future risk.
(Ref: Family Law Council: Female Genital Mutilation, June 1994, Medical Journal of Australia: Female genital mutilation: Australian law, policy, and practical challenges for doctors, No FGM Australia – Australian Statistics, March 2014, )
Children’s Services/Schools and Mandatory Reporting
In Australia FGM is considered Child Abuse and falls under the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998. It legally binds people in occupations working with children to report if they believe a child to be ‘at risk’ of significant harm. As a result, childcare workers and teaching staff occupy a unique position in the fight against FGM, as they deal directly with children/students and parents on a regular basis. For instance, if a worker hears a young girl from a known community where FGM is culturally enforced, talking of going overseas for a ‘big party’, of ‘becoming a woman’, or that a female relative is coming to Australia especially for her, it needs to be taken seriously.
(Ref: Legislation governing child protection and child wellbeing services in NSW, Keep them Safe Fact Sheet No.3 – Legislative Amendments, 2010, African-Women org - What is behind the Tradition of FGM)
Healthcare Providers and Mandatory Reporting
Australian healthcare providers are also mandated to report any Australian minor (under 18 years of age) who they suspect is in danger of undergoing FGM, or has already been subjected to this abuse. Also, (unless medically warranted), both registered and retired doctors/nurses/midwives are now prohibited by the new laws from performing re-infibulation (re-stitching) after childbirth, as it is a recognised form of FGM under the Australian accepted definition.
(Ref: Australian Institute of Family Studies - Mandatory reporting of child abuse and neglect, July 2013)
Religious and Cultural Sensitivity
While FGM is often associated with religion, there is no religious text that advocates this practice. However, Muslim population groups are more likely to support FGM, with many new communities in Australia viewing it as a cultural ‘rite of passage’ for females. However, Australia is a signatory to both the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CROC) and the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination and Women (CEDAW), and just as Australia rejects the tradition of child brides, it also rejects the culture of FGM.
(Ref: African-Women org - What is behind the Tradition of FGM, NSW Education Program on FGM, Human Rights Treaty Body Reporting, Attorney General’s Department)
What can I do?
Be vocal! Be an advocate for child safety and raise this issue with family, friends and colleagues. Remaining silent because of cultural sensitivity places young girls in Australia at further risk from communities where this abuse is firmly entrenched. Also, ongoing education, information and support for mothers who are survivors of FGM, is strongly needed in order to change embedded FGM attitudes. Lastly, combined information sharing between the public, health officials, schools, police and interpreters, should increase detection and prosecution rates against those who would choose to ignore Australia’s laws.
(Ref: African-Women org - What is behind the Tradition of FGM? NSW Education Program on FGM, Obstetrics and Gynaecology International: What works and what does not” A discussion of popular approaches for the abandonment of FGM)
In 2012, the UN General Assembly called for all member states, such as Australia, to observe February 6 as the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, and to use the day to raise awareness by educating the community on this heinous crime against healthy female genitalia and to take action against it happening here.
(Ref: UN, International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, December 2012)