While there are many positive aspects to the media’s coverage of this issue, Dr Jasmin Chen, from the Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health in Melbourne, also suggests that a more accurate representation of the issues involved would help efforts to stop the practice.
Many women who have experienced the practice do not see themselves as victims of violence or mutilation, and both the media and policy makers need to realise that the language they use may work against efforts to change the cultural and social norms associated with the practice.
Let’s talk about this as a health and human rights issue
Jasmin Chen writes:
As an organisation that has worked for decades to bring greater attention to the issues facing immigrant and refugee women, we have been pleased to see the national focus on female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C).
However, whenever FGM/C makes headlines, many community workers, health professionals and migrant communities hold their collective breath.
We do so because the way in which the issue is reported can have negative consequences for the women and communities affected by it; because it’s a topic that is deeply emotive and politically loaded; and because its successful, long-term abandonment depends on reporting the issue accurately.
We agree that FGM/C is a harmful practice that needs to be urgently addressed.
According to the World Health Organisation, an estimated 100 – 140 million women worldwide have undergone some form of FGM/C, which involves the cutting or alteration of female genitals, and another three million may join them each year.
It is a serious threat to the sexual and reproductive health of women and girls, with both immediate and long term effects.
The tradition is most common in parts of Africa, as well as Yemen, Iraq, Malaysia, Indonesia and among certain ethnic groups in South America. However, migration of these groups makes FGM/C a global issue. The new measures announced by the Australian government respond to a UN Committee resolution calling for a global ban on FGM/C, and recognise that an issue we may once have considered outside the Australian experience is common for many immigrant and refugee women arriving from countries where FGM/C is routine.
For Australians who have never been exposed to FGM/C, it’s difficult to imagine the practice outside a criminal context, or to see it as anything other than violence against women and children.
Cultural and moral opposition is also evident in the emotive language often used in reporting on the issue, which tends to emphasise the violence and brutality of the event, peppering vivid descriptions with words like ‘barbaric’ and ‘horrific’.
It may well be that your personal response to the issue is one of horror or outrage. However, international efforts to eliminate the practice suggest that addressing FGM/C primarily as violence against women and girls may not be the most effective way to change social norms and cultural attitudes.
One issue to consider when describing FGM/C as violence against women is that the ‘perpetrators’ of violence are likely to be the same women who were subjected to the procedure themselves as girls.
Without acknowledging that FGM/C is culturally entrenched, such an understanding fails to address the motivations behind the practice, which are not necessarily harmful in intent but are certainly harmful in outcome.
This is particularly problematic when we are dealing with already stigmatised and marginalised immigrants and refugees, who may have been dislocated from their community in the settlement process, or disconnected from changing attitudes to FGM/C in their country of birth.
Vilifying people in these vulnerable communities threatens to drive the process further underground, or to further alienate people who could benefit from clear and accurate information about the practice, and who need our support in breaking with past traditions.
It is unfortunate that a link is often wrongly drawn between Islam and FGM/C. There are no religious scripts, Islamic or otherwise, which prescribe the practice, and yet the misconceptions persist on both sides of the fence; practitioners of FGM/C often wrongly think it has religious support whilst the imagery used in reporting the issue often reinforces this connection.
This is not a call for “cultural relativism” or tolerance for the practice of FGM/C. Nor is it to suggest that we shouldn’t prosecute men or women who are found to practice FGM/C in this country or abroad.
On the contrary, we need accurate reporting and representation, with a focus on education and dialogue about the issues and misconceptions surrounding FGM/C.
Not every woman who has undergone the practice has the same experience of FGM/C. Not every community has the same understanding of the tradition.
Describing the practice as “mutilation” does not accurately represent the experience or self-image of many of the women with whom our organisation has worked.
This focus forms the basis of an effective international effort to end the practice within one generation, headed by the UNFPA and UNICEF. The success of the joint program depends upon using a human rights based approach to encourage communities to act collectively to abandon the practice, with the support of community and religious leaders, the media, and legislation.
Working in countries where FGM/C has become normalised, education about the health risks, introduced within a framework which emphasises human rights, has been successful in changing cultural perceptions and practices. Since 2008, around 8000 communities across Africa have already abandoned the practice.
From programs like these there is strong evidence to suggest that a collective, coordinated and sustained effort to eliminate FGM/C can only be achieved if women who have undergone the procedure are treated with respect and provided with the support and resources needed for cultural change.
Programs in Australia have already demonstrated success in adopting such an approach. For the last 16 years several state-based health education programs have been working with the help of communities to eliminate the practice of FGM/C.
What these programs have found is consistent with the large body of international literature, which strongly demonstrates that the most effective approaches to eradicating FGM/C are those that understand it primarily as a women’s health and human rights issue, rather than as an act of violence against women and girls.
The government’s commitment to increase its focus on the potential risk of the practice being performed in Australia is an important reminder that, as our nation expands to embrace migrant and refugee populations, we have a responsibility to our newest Australians to protect their rights, to ensure they have access to accurate health information and that they feel empowered to act on it.
Framing FGM/C in a way that empowers the women affected by the practice is an important first step in engaging communities in dialogue and providing the support and information necessary for change.
• Jasmin Chen is Research and Executive Assistant at Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health
• For more information about the Joint Program and stories of change across Africa: http://www.unfpa.org/topics/genderissues/fgm
• For information about the strategic approach of the Joint Program:
• For fact sheets about FGM/C: