#Act2EndFGM – The relationship between international human rights law and female genital mutilation (FGM)
This is the fourth blog in a series written by LLM students on the Human (In)Security course at Edinburgh Law School. This series celebrates the top five blogs selected in a class competition. This blog is by Evelyn Strutynski. Evelyn is currently reading the LLM in International Law at the University of Edinburgh. She also obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science and Law at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München in Germany.
Over the last decades, much has been achieved to reduce the prevalence of FGM around the world. In 2015, the UN announced new development goals, including the initiative to completely eliminate FGM by 2030. Nonetheless, the procedure still is a highly salient issue. In 2021, more than four million girls are at risk of undergoing FGM and, overall, approximately 200 million girls and women alive today have been subjected to the practice in 31 countries. This blog post will examine the relationship between FGM and international human rights law as well as the global efforts to eliminate FGM.
What is female genital mutilation?
The WHO defines FGM 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”. The procedure is predominantly carried out by traditional circumcisers who use scissors, razor blades or broken glass. Increasingly, trained health care providers perform FGM (‘medicalisation’). The WHO has identified four different types of FGM; one of them is called infibulation which narrows the vaginal opening with a covering seal by, for instance, repositioning the labia minora or stitching.
FGM affects girls and women worldwide, the majority of them are cut before their 15th birthday. It is predominantly practised in Africa; furthermore, it occurs in countries in the Middle East and Asia, and in certain communities in South America. The practice is nearly universal in Somalia, Guinea and Djibouti where more than 90% of girls and women have undergone FGM. The practice is cultural rather than religious, since no religion requires it; nonetheless, religion is often used as a justification. Other reasons for FGM are, inter alia, psychosexual, for example, to control women’s sexuality, or sociological/cultural, to guide a girl into womanhood. FGM causes severe health issues; they range from infections, mental health or menstrual problems to the need for surgeries or even death.
The relationship between FGM and international human rights law
- Child rights – Most girls and women undergo FGM before their 15th birthday. Art. 16 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, for instance, prohibits any interference with the privacy of children; furthermore, Art. 24 (3) urges states to adopt “measures with a view to abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children”.
- Right to health – FGM causes serious health issues, which breaches, inter alia, Art. 12 (1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The provision guarantees the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.
- Right of women to be free from discrimination – According to an Interagency Statement, the procedure is a “manifestation of gender inequality that is deeply entrenched in social, economic and political structures” and it “represents society’s control over women”. Hence, Art. 1 of the Convention for the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women is applicable, as well as Art. 2, which urges states to fight discrimination.
- Right to life and physical integrity – FGM violates Art. 9 (1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which guarantees the right to liberty and security of a person.
- Right to be free from torture – FGM might also amount to torture, which is prohibited by, inter alia, Art. 7 of the ICCPR. The Convention Against Torture has a high threshold for torture; this fact might be problematic, as not all FGM procedures legally qualify as torture.
Supporters of FGM point out that the right to culture, religious freedom and the rights of minorities justify the practice. However, the breaches of the aforementioned human rights are more severe, since FGM undeniably harms the bodily integrity of girls and women and intensifies gender inequality. Furthermore, the conflicting rights are not absolute and may be limited in order to protect girls and women. Generally, there is a lack of jurisprudence regarding FGM and human rights; many cases, such as M.N.N v. Denmark or M.J.S. v. The Netherlands, focus on the risk of undergoing FGM in the event of a deportation.
International response to FGM
A range of international organisations and institutions takes part in the effort to eliminate FGM. For instance, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 67/146, which emphasises that FGM is an “irreversible abuse that impacts negatively on the human rights of women and girls”. The UN Secretary-General published a report, which demands that states should, inter alia, implement legislation that criminalises the procedure. Furthermore, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women published General Recommendations Nos. 14, 19, 24 with regard to FGM. In 2020, the UN Human Right Council adopted Resolution 44/L.20, which “urges States to condemn all harmful practices that affect women and girls, in particular female genital mutilation”.
Are human rights enough?
The universal recognition that FGM undoubtedly breaches international human rights law is an important step in order to eliminate the practice. Because of human rights, FGM is now part of a broader social justice agenda and of an increasing effort to hold governments accountable; additionally, FGM is “viewed through a prism that recognizes the complex relationship between discrimination against women, violence, health and the rights of the girl child”.
However, this recognition alone is not sufficient, the law must be implemented and enforced on a national level. Furthermore, since FGM is such a deeply entrenched practice, a deep-seated social change within each community is needed; the Interagency Statement suggests initiatives like ‘empowering’ education, public dialogue or using alternative rituals. Overall, the efforts so far have been at least partly successful, as the prevalence of FGM declines steadily; however, the progress needs to be ten times faster in order to reach the 2030 goal. Population growth and COVID-19 are further impediments to meeting the target.
 Anika Rahman and Nahid Toubia, Female Genital Mutilation: A Guide to Laws and Policies Worldwide (Zed Books Ltd, 2000), 20.
 Ngianga-Bakwin Kandala and Paul Nzinga Komba, Female Genital Mutilation Around The World: Analysis of Medial Aspects, Law and Practice (Springer International Publishing AG, 2018), 190-192.
 Ngianga-Bakwin Kandala and Paul Nzinga Komba, Female Genital Mutilation Around The World: Analysis of Medial Aspects, Law and Practice (Springer International Publishing AG, 2018), 192.
 Anika Rahman and Nahid Toubia, Female Genital Mutilation: A Guide to Laws and Policies Worldwide (Zed Books Ltd, 2000), 31.
 Ibid., 38.
 Ibid., 20.
 Anika Rahman and Nahid Toubia, Female Genital Mutilation: A Guide to Laws and Policies Worldwide (Zed Books Ltd, 2000), 39.