World leaders have pledged to end the practice of female genital mutilation by 2030.
But, according to the United Nations, over four million girls are still subjected to FGM every year. And many more are going uncounted.
A new global report looks at 60 countries where FGM is practiced and may be widespread. But it happens in secret. It is not against the law, and governments do not even collect official data about it. Instead they pretend it does not exist.
India, for instance, has no FGM because the Indian government declares it so. Yet curiously enough, I vividly remember when I was seven, I was led by my grandmother into a dark dilapidated building in Mumbai’s Bhendi Bazaar area, where an old lady stripped me down and with a blade cut a piece of my genitals.
It was only when I got the courage to openly talk about this, years later, that I discovered an entire generation of women who were cut just like me, secretly suffering the same pain, loss and psychological trauma.
Despite the government’s denial, the vast majority of girls in the Bohra Muslim community continue to be subject to this ritual cutting, often referred to as Khafz.
The Bohra community—numbering two million—is mostly spread over four large western states of India.
In 2018, my survivor-led organization, We Speak Out, published a study which affirmed that over 80 percent women in this community are cut. This is consistent with what previous research found.
Thanks to the huge efforts of survivors and their organizations, India’s print and television media widely covered this issue. The country’s largest daily newspaper, Hindustan Times, has tracked the issue closely for a number of years.
Further evidence comes from well-publicized court cases. Bohra expats have been charged with performing FGM in Detroit and Sydney, where FGM is outlawed. And in India, public interest litigation on the validity of FGM is now being heard by the Supreme Court.
We have submitted all our research findings to relevant government ministries. They have all of the evidence unearthed by the media and the courts. Yet their response is to insist that there is no FGM in India.
After initially being receptive to the stories of survivors, the Ministry of Women and Child Development has now gone on record denying the presence of FGM to the country’s Parliament and Supreme Court. The government claims that the lack of official data on the existence of FGM in India is proof that it does not exist.
It’s a classic Catch-22 situation: On one hand, the government has dismissed existing research as not being “official data,” and on the other it refuses to launch its own enquiry and collect data on the practice.
India is not alone: There is no official data on FGM in Pakistan, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates and Iran as well. Yet, we know FGM is happening in these countries by virtue of anecdotal evidence, survivor stories and the small yet important research studies conducted by NGOs and activists.
On the official FGM map, we remain invisible. Little global attention is being paid, and our efforts to nudge governments to commission large quantitative studies have been ignored. The world has pledged to end this practice. But we do not even know how widespread it is in many countries.
If our governments will continue to deny it, international organizations should do their part. They can include India in official United Nations documents.
At international forums where our government representatives have signed treaties denouncing FGM, government officials should be asked what they are doing about FGM in India. India should not be allowed to hide behind its supposed support for international treaties and conventions promising to end FGM globally, while denying the practice happens in its own country.
Large scale qualitative and quantitative studies must be undertaken by UN agencies—if not the government—to unearth the nature and scale of this practice which differs much from the practice in Africa. This would be the first step to inform policies within Asian countries to eliminate FGM.
International funding barely reaches us and we survive with hardly any local contributions. Can we be part of the larger global effort to end FGM by 2030 in terms of funding, research, legal and technical expertise?
For many of us this is an incredibly hard issue to talk about. The handful in my community who have spoken out have faced rebuke and harassment. Our own and extended families have ostracized us, banished us from family gatherings and religious services and refused even to speak to us.
Many of us have summoned the courage to tell the truth to stop what happened to us from happening to others. If we can do this, then governments must listen and act too. Denying the problem exists is no way to solve it.