Family law council female genital mutilation



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FIGURE 1: Female external genitals (vulva) showing normal adolescent vulva in extension.

2.05 Clitoridectomy or excision. A third form is called excision or clitoridectomy. This is said to be the most common form of female genital mutilation.3 It involves removal of the glans of the clitoris, but usually the entire clitoris, and often parts of the labia minora as well.


2.06 Infibulation. The most severe form is infibulation or “Pharaonic”4 circumcision. This involves removal of virtually all of the external female genitalia. The entire clitoris and labia minora and much of the labia majora is cut or scraped away. The remaining raw edges of the labia majora are then sewn together. In the villages acacia tree thorns are sometimes used and held in place with catgut or sewing thread. Sometimes a paste of gum arabic, sugar and egg is used to close the vulva. The entire area is closed up with just a small opening, about the size of a match stick, left for passing urine and menstrual fluid. A straw, stick or bamboo is inserted in the opening so that as the wound heals the flesh will not grow together and close the small opening. It is understood that in recent years in some areas, some doctors who perform the procedure sew together the labia without cutting.
2.07 The strong opposition to the practice of female genital mutilation is often, but not always, a reaction to the extreme version, infibulation. It is, however, important to place the practice of infibulation in perspective in the Australian context. In Council’s view, while there are women in Australia who have been infibulated, there is no evidence to support the conclusion that this particular procedure is being performed in this country. This issue is further discussed later in this chapter. It is also important, in discussing such matters as the effects of female genital mutilation, to keep in mind that much of the available literature relates to the more extreme versions of the practice.
2.08 Other practices which result in genital mutilation. Council draws the attention of the Government to the possibility that female genital mutilation may not be confined to the practices discussed above. It is possible that other practices which have the effect of genital mutilation may also occur in Australia. For example, other kinds of assault, such as child sexual assault, may also result in genital mutilation.
2.09 Information obtained by Council suggests that a range of female initiation ceremonies have been practised by Aboriginal Australians in the past, generally at the first signs of puberty. It is not known to what extent such practices persist today. The practices appear to have varied from one district to another. As far as is known, none of the ceremonies involve excision or infibulation, but they may have involved practices such as enlarging the vaginal orifice, cutting the perineum and breaking the hymen with a stick.5 Some of these practices would result in mutilation of the genitalia.
2.10 Council is mindful of the possibility that there may be other community groups which follow practices which may result in genital mutilation. However, Council is unaware of whether these practices occur in Australia at the present time.
2.11 Who performs female genital mutilation? Female genital mutilation is believed to be performed almost entirely by women, generally midwives or elder women. In the village environment, women who perform the operation are often paid for their services and have a position of respect and authority within the community. The money earned from female genital mutilation is an important source of income for them. There is some evidence that health personnel in Somalia are carrying out these procedures on health service premises.6 Many are also now advocating that the procedure be done in hospitals to reduce some of the risks involved and this is believed to be happening in some countries.7
2.12 A survey conducted in Cairo in 1985 indicated that female genital mutilation procedures were carried out in the girl’s home in 79.3% of cases. The survey also indicated that 13.5% of operations were performed in a clinic, 4.1% in street booths (where a public declaration of the daughter’s “circumcision” is desired by the family) and 3% in hospitals. Persons performing the operation were midwives (called “daya”) in most instances (60.9%). Physicians performed 22.9% of female genital mutilations and barbers 16.2%.8
2.13 When is female genital mutilation performed? Female genital mutilation is generally performed between the ages of one week and fourteen years, and before the onset of menstruation. In most cases female genital mutilation occurs when the girl is about three to eight years of age. In some countries where infibulation is practised, women are re-infibulated after they have each child, after divorce or on the death of their husband.9 During childbirth a tightly infibulated woman must be de-infibulated to allow the fetal head to crown. Among certain tribes the procedure can be performed on women after they die.10
2.14 In Mali infibulation may be performed on women after they have had their first child. In Kenya and Tanzania women have a clitoridectomy on their wedding night. In Mauritania, Nigeria and Ethiopia female genital mutilation is performed on newborn children, or within the first few weeks after birth.11
2.15 The origins of female genital mutilation. Female genital mutilation is not a religious practice. It is generally accepted as having pre-dated Islam, Christianity and other major religions. It is sometimes incorrectly thought that female genital mutilation has its origins in Islam. Some groups which practice female genital mutilation consider incorrectly that the practice is endorsed by Islam. However, there is no Islamic religious basis for the practice. Both Muslim and non-Muslim religious leaders overseas and in Australia have emphasised the absence of a religious foundation for the custom. The Al-Azhar University of Cairo, the principal authority ruling on Islamic practice, re-stated in 1986 that female genital mutilation is not an Islamic practice or teaching.
2.16 The Hadith, which is a collection of the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed recorded from oral histories after his death, also contains no justification for the practice. Islam clearly acknowledges women’s sexuality and emphasises her right to sexual satisfaction, as long as this is confined to marriage.12
2.17 Female genital mutilation is not practised in predominantly Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Algeria, Pakistan and the Gulf States. There is little doubt that female genital mutilation preceded Islam in Africa and it is likely that when Islam entered Africa the practice became linked with the new religion. It is also interesting to note that when Islam entered Asian countries through Arabia or Iran, it did not bring female genital mutilation with it, but when it was imported to Asia through Nile Valley cultures, female genital mutilation was a part of it. An example is the Daudi Bohra of India, a group which practises female genital mutilation and which was established by an Egyptian-based sect of Islam.
2.18 In Australia some Muslim religious leaders have come out strongly against female genital mutilation. Al Naggar 13points out the status afforded to women in the Koran and asks how, in the light of this high status, parents could harm their female children “by removing parts of their body without this being necessitated by sickness or bad health, namely by performing excision?”
2.19 In a speech in the NSW Legislative Council on 10 March 1994, the Hon Franca Arena AM MLC said:
...there is no Islamic religious basis for the practice. I want to emphasise this because many people, especially women, in the Islamic community are not prepared to bring the problem into the open because they think it will be used as an attack on their religion. I emphasise that it has nothing to do with Islam.
2.20 As with the Koran, neither the Bible nor the Torah make specific mention of, nor advocate, female genital mutilation. The only Jews known to practise female genital mutilation are the Ethiopian Falashas.
2.21 Female genital mutilation is predominantly found in Africa and those countries which have been influenced by African culture. It seems likely that female genital mutilation began as a part of traditional puberty rites. Many myths apparently surround the practice. For example, Slack refers to the following: (1) the clitoris represents the male sex organ and, if not cut, will grow to the size of a penis; (2) females are sterile until they have been excised (i.e. had a clitoridectomy) and the operation actually increases fertility; and (3) the operation is a biologically cleansing process that improves the hygiene and/or aesthetic condition of female genitalia. In Sudan, it is believed that a woman is polluted and can only be cleansed and prepared for marriage and childbirth by excision.14
2.22 In its submission the Ecumenical Migration Centre suggested that:
Female circumcision is best understood as an expression of patriarchal social relations. When women’s economic survival is dependent on marriage and an essential pre-requisite for marriage is virginity, circumcision becomes the symbolic and practical guarantee for a woman’s future.
2.23 Why is female genital mutilation practised? In 1985 a body associated with the UN Commission on Human Rights, the Working Group on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children, revealed that 54% of persons practising female genital mutilation advised that they did so because of tradition. Religion and diminution of women’s sexual sensitivity were the next most common reasons for the practice. Other reasons given were reduction of women’s sexual urges, increased sexual performance for men and protection of the health of babies. A similar result was obtained in a survey in Nigeria where the main reason given was tradition.15 A form of clitoridectomy was practised in the USA and Europe during the last half of the nineteenth century as a “cure” for female masturbation and insanity.16
2.24 In the past there was a medical view in western countries that clitoral or labial alteration was sometimes necessary in cases to improve cosmetic appearance, enhance sexual enjoyment, cure marital problems and to cure psychosomatic illness17. Some women’s magazines promoted such ideas in the mid-1970s18. The current medical view appears to be that such claims cannot be substantiated and it is unlikely that these procedures are being followed in recent years.
2.25 Pre-marriage inspections. In some countries where infibulation is practised, shortly before the woman is married it is often the practice for women from the groom’s family to visit and examine the bride. The women check to ensure that the bride has been infibulated and that she is still a virgin.
2.26 Cultural significance. A major effect of the widespread practice of female genital mutilation in some communities is that women who have not been genitally mutilated are considered unclean and to have uncontrollable sexuality which is assumed will lead to promiscuity. In many communities the woman is likely to be ostracised and marriage within her community would be unlikely.
2.27 Toubia suggests that:
The thinking of an African woman who believes “[female genital mutilation] is the fashionable thing to do to become a real woman” is not so different from that of an American woman who has breast implants to appear more feminine.
...However, there is one very important difference between [female genital mutilation] and the way in which women alter their bodies in other cultures: [Female genital mutilation] is mainly performed on children, with or without their consent.19
2.28 The Family Law Council considers that the cultural pressures on mothers, even when they move to completely different cultures, are a major consideration in the perpetuation of the practice. It is not a matter of simple choice for the women concerned. They will be under considerable pressure, on the one hand, from within their communities to continue the tradition and, on the other hand, from outside their community to resist the tradition. The problems will not end there. Pressures on them will no doubt persist so long as contact with relatives and friends in their country of origin remains, which will generally be for a life time.
2.29 Council is aware that the pressures on women to continue the practice of female genital mutilation on their children are significant. Some women have had to separate and divorce to protect their daughters from the practice. Others have been ostracised by their communities. These problems can only be addressed properly through a community education program. The education issue is fully examined in Chapter 6 (Strategies).
2.30 Council’s conclusions. Council has concluded that for at least one generation, women from countries which practise female genital mutilation will be under considerable pressures to continue this practice. This is especially relevant when considering strategies for eradication of the practice and requires that particular attention be given to the issue of community education.
2.31 Secrecy. The secrecy surrounding the practice of female genital mutilation has begun to be lifted only in recent years. In Somalia, for instance, the Somali Women’s Democratic Organisation has succeeded in getting a public campaign under way with the support of the Health Department and other departments, including Education. The campaign to eradicate genital mutilation is going on in the schools and on radio and television. The shroud of secrecy which surrounds the issue can be fully lifted only if women themselves speak out about the practice.
2.32 The global incidence of female genital mutilation. Female genital mutilation is practised in more than 40 countries, including 27 African countries, the southern part of the Arab Peninsula and the Persian Gulf.20 There is evidence that it is practised by some people in India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brazil. The number of countries where female genital mutilation is practised is increasing because of increasing migration to Western countries from countries where female genital mutilation is traditionally performed. Countries with migrant populations, including the United Kingdom, France, Canada and Australia are examples of the last mentioned category.
2.33 Women in Mali, Sudan and Somalia are almost all infibulated. Excision, but also other forms of genital mutilation, is understood to be widespread in the other African countries.
2.34 The countries with the highest incidence of female genital mutilation are Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia. Eighty to ninety percent of women in Somalia, Djibouti and Sudan are said to be infibulated.21 In 1982, there were an estimated 74 million genitally mutilated women in Africa alone and a BBC television program in 1983 estimated the number as high as 84 million in 30 countries.22
2.35 In India the Daudi Bohra (an ethno-religious minority of half a million) practise excision. Other Muslim groups in India do not practise female genital mutilation.23 In Indonesia genital cutting operations were done in the past, but it is understood they are no longer performed. Ritual ceremonies remain in which there is cleaning and applying substances around the clitoris, symbolic cutting or light puncture of the clitoris. Female genital mutilation is reported among some Muslims in Malaysia, but the situation in that country is unclear.24
2.36 The incidence of female genital mutilation in Australia. It is important to stress that the fact that a person comes from a particular country or holds a particular religious belief, does not mean that the person practises, or supports the practice of, female genital mutilation. Council wishes to repeat the concern it expressed in its discussion paper about media sensationalisation of this issue and about the possibility of people from a particular country or persons of a particular religious belief being vilified or victimised over the issue. It is an incorrect assumption that female genital mutilation is a Muslim practice. Similarly it is incorrect to assume, for example, that all Somali residents of Australia support the practice. At least one Somali community leader in Australia has expressed opposition to female genital mutilation.
2.37 The evidence relating to the incidence of female genital mutilation in Australia is mainly anecdotal. However, it would not be unreasonable to infer from recent developments in migration from African countries which practise female genital mutilation, that it is likely that the practice is now occurring in Australia. The extent of that practice, however, is not known.
2.38 The 1991 Census indicates that there were 75,968 women in Australia from countries which practise some form of female genital mutilation. Nearly 30%, or 21,812, were from African countries. The Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs (DIEA) advises that during 1991-92 and 1992-93 a further 1,601 women arrived from African countries. Of these, 470 were girls under 16 years of age. Most were from Somalia where infibulation is practised and 150 were from the Sudan which also practises infibulation.
2.39 Migrants from the Horn of Africa began arriving in Australia in 1982-83. By 1989-90 their number had reached 1,355. A further 800 applications are expected to be processed by the end of 1993-94. Somalis in Melbourne number between 600-700. Most are single males under 30. Of the 226 Somalis granted visas during 1991 and 1992, 37% were women.
2.40 The occurrence of infibulation among the Somali and Sudanese populations is extremely high and it is possible that some young girls from these communities in Australia may be at risk of some form of female genital mutilation.
2.41 Anecdotal evidence. Information on the incidence of female genital mutilation in Australia is mainly anecdotal. Information gained by DIEA and made available to Council includes the following:
• Some women from the Somali community in Melbourne have indicated that they intend having clitoral circumcision performed on their daughters rather than excision or infibulation.
• Cutting the clitoral hood is practised in the Malaysian community in WA.
• Some WA residents from the Cocos and Christmas Islands, and some residents of the Cocos and Keeling Islands (which are a part of WA), perform a ritual circumcision ceremony - it is unclear whether this is purely symbolic or whether it involves clitoridectomy.
• Somali women in Victoria have reported that there are Egyptian women in Melbourne who perform female genital mutilation.
• Women are known to have approached doctors in the ACT and WA requesting operations for their daughters.
• The SA Children’s Interest Bureau was told in December 1992 that a child was being admitted to a private hospital on Christmas Eve for female genital mutilation by a doctor.
• There are believed to be 2 cases of female genital mutilation having been done in NSW which are known to authorities in that State.
• A reliable spokesperson for the Somali community in SA alleges that the Somali community in Melbourne are using “old grannies” from the Somali community to practise genital mutilation on young Somali girls.
2.42 Council has had informal discussions which revealed that a Government Working Party, which recently looked into the incidence of female genital mutilation in NSW, concluded that the incidence of female genital mutilation in that State was low.
2.43 In Victoria in 1987, according to information informally provided to Council, there were calls for an investigation into alleged child abuse in Melbourne which specifically referred to female genital mutilation. Claims were made that babies were being circumcised by Melbourne doctors and that there were numerous young women who had undergone the operation in Melbourne. These claims led to an inquiry which examined hospital records at a number of Melbourne hospitals and had inquiries made among Victorian medical practitioners. These inquiries involved a review of medical records from 1976 to 1986 at a number of public hospitals. It indicated that, although a number of infibulated women were admitted to hospital for various medical procedures, there were no cases of girls being admitted as a direct consequence of excision, infibulation or other forms of female genital mutilation or with complications associated with the practice. There was also no evidence that doctors had performed female genital mutilation in Victoria.
2.44 Council is aware of the work of Inspector Vicki Fraser (formerly Sergeant Vicki Brown) who has had considerable experience with child abuse (including allegations of female genital mutilation) in Melbourne. Council’s Secretariat was in contact with Inspector Fraser shortly after this study commenced and acknowledges the support and assistance given by her.
2.45 Some additional information was also provided to Council in submissions. An Australian born woman reported being “circumcised” to meet the requirements of her husband’s family when she visited them overseas. Individual respondents and a number of organisations also reported on occurrences as follows. Organisations making reports are identified:
South Australia. Occasionally I have heard of female circumcision occurring in South Australia. The most recent being at the end of last year. This information was second hand and it is difficult to get proof.
A number of incidences have occurred within South Australia that led the committee to believe that female genital mutilation may be occurring in this State, although none of the cases that committee members were aware of had actually been confirmed. [SA Child Protection Council]
NSW and WA. It is a cultural practice in Malaysia, Indonesia and other parts of southern Asia. We have received migrants from these countries and they continue with these practices in Australia. The Katanning Muslims in Perth in 1986 admitted to the practice of minor clitoral surgery on Frank de Chiera’s documentary titled ‘The Broken Silence’...I have a testimony from a man in Sydney who stated that Australian communities are sending the children overseas to have [female genital mutilation]...I have information from a nursing sister who described young girls presenting to the casualty department of a Sydney Hospital between the ages of 5 and 8 with fresh clitoral incisions...[A Sydney Doctor]
Queensland. To our knowledge there is no such practice being actively carried out in the Queensland [Muslim] community...The only case which has come to our attention is that of a [non-Muslim] woman who stated quite openly that it was “terrible” that circumcision had been banned. [Independent Islamic Sisterhood]
There have been no known cases of female genital mutilation of children in Queensland. However, given the increase in immigration from countries where female genital mutilation is practised it is considered likely that the issue will occur in a child protection context in the future. [Queensland Department of Family Services and Aboriginal and Islander Affairs]
Victoria and Western Australia. Since becoming involved with [female genital mutilation] in early 1990, I have been given anecdotal evidence of [female genital mutilation] occurring in Melbourne, including two cases of infibulation; school teachers suspecting female students have been excised due to their sudden reluctance for physical activity over a few days; a doctor being asked to perform female genital mutilation and refusing. I have also been given anecdotal evidence of doctors who perform [female genital mutilation] as well as ‘grandmas’. I have heard that [female genital mutilation] is also suspected to occur in Sydney and that the ‘sunna’ form is still carried out among the Malay, Cocos and Keeling Islands and Christmas Island communities in Western Australia...
Victoria. In 1987 Sergeant Vicki Brown (now Fraser) of the Victoria Police called for an inquiry into this practice; several primary school teachers reported that secondary haemorrhage occurred at school to girls after their genital ‘surgery’.
I enclose a personal testimony from a lady, who after the birth of her child had a clitoridectomy performed. This was done without her permission by her general practitioner.
Western Australia. There is no direct evidence that female genital mutilation is being performed in Western Australia. Some recent anecdotal evidence suggests that children from a number of communities may be at risk. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a very small number of children may be taken outside Australia for [female genital mutilation] procedures.
2.46 In a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald on 3 March 1994 Dr Caroline de Costa of the NSW State Committee of the Royal Australian College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, made the following point:
...in 13 years of practice, I have seen one woman, a North African, who had a procedure done overseas. Discussions with the other 14 women gynaecologists in this city reveals that they also have encountered cases very infrequently, always in adults and done overseas. I have not been able to find a single gynaecologist, male or female, who has been approached to perform such a procedure here or who has had to deal with the consequences of it having been performed in Australia.
2.47 One respondent summed the position up as follows in his submission:
It must be a matter of some concern that the extent of female genital mutilation practices in Australia is really unknown. There is enough anecdotal evidence, much of which is contained in your discussion paper, to create a concern that the practice in some communities is quite widespread. It would be difficult to hold an open inquiry, as doubtless the communities in which the practice is carried on would be unwilling to take part.
2.48 Summary. There is no empirical evidence on the practice of female genital mutilation in Australia. The evidence is largely anecdotal. However, a number of factors need to be taken into account:
• It is not surprising that the evidence relating to the practice is mainly anecdotal, given the serious consequences for persons, including professionals, who might perform the procedure in this country;
• The anecdotal evidence is strong, particularly in relation to Melbourne, where it would appear there are persons who are prepared to do the procedure but also in relation to SA and WA;
• It is only in very recent years that numbers of migrants from countries which practice female genital mutilation have been arriving in Australia. It is not surprising, therefore, that more evidence is not available at this time;
• The practice involves deep-rooted beliefs and traditions that have been in place for centuries and it could not be expected that it was discontinued “overnight”;
• Anecdotal evidence from school teachers and others, including the police, give a strong indication that children have been genitally mutilated in this country; and
• In recent years there has been a significant number of migrants arriving in Australia from countries which practice female genital mutilation. Other countries with a migration intake from such countries (such as the UK, Canada, France and other European countries) are finding instances of the practice. It would be optimistic and naive to assume that somehow Australia is immune from the practice.
2.49 On the other hand, a number of contrary factors need to be taken into account. These include:
• There is no strong evidence of the need for medical intervention such as might be expected if infibulation were being performed here to any significant extent by non-professionals. Some of the communities with whom Council has been in contact are of the view that infibulation is not practised in Australia and is not advocated within their communities;
• Doctors generally are not reporting instances of children who are exhibiting signs of having recently been genitally mutilated; and
• Many of the persons involved are refugees and it is unlikely that children would be taken back to their country of origin for the procedure to be done unless and until it is safe for them to return.
2.50 Some respondents suggested to Council that there should be further inquiry into the incidence of female genital mutilation in Australia. For instance, the Immigrant Women’s Speakout Association of NSW Inc. (Speakout) takes the view in its submission:
We would submit to the Council that it is difficult to conclude anything without a comprehensive information base and documented case studies.
It is interesting to note that in its submission Speakout endorses the view that “legislation would be counterproductive” but advocates a full inquiry into the incidence of the practice. Council considers that an effective inquiry into the incidence of a practice such as this among refugees, who are possibly the most vulnerable members of the community, would undoubtedly prove to be intrusive, insensitive and counterproductive.
2.51 Council does not advocate a more detailed study of the incidence of female genital mutilation in Australia. In Council’s view for such an inquiry to be successful it would need to resource intensive. It would be virtually impossible to conduct a thorough inquiry without alienating members of vulnerable communities.
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