The Supreme Court on Monday announced that it has accepted the petition seeking a ban on female genital mutilation and scheduled the hearing on July 16.
The petition was filed by advocate Sunita Tiwari last year. Her petition was contested by members of the Dawoodi Bohra community, who argued that the practice should be allowed as the Constitution guarantees religious freedom under Article 25.
Let’s take a look at the various facets of the case before the matter is presented in the Supreme Court.
What is Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)?
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), or female circumcision, is a practice which involves cutting off the clitoral hood, or partial or total removal of the clitoris. FGM is practised by tribal communities in Africa, but is a prevalent practice in India’s metro cities as well. According to certain media reports, FGM is also performed by some literate communities in Kerala.
The Dawoodi Bohra community, a Shia sub sect which practices FGM, usually names the ‘custom’ Khatna or Khafz. They believe the clitoris to be an ‘immoral lump of skin’ or a ‘source of sin’ which needs to be cut off in order to ‘curb sexual desire in women’ so that they don’t stray out of their marriages, according to a report in Hindustan Times.
FGM is mostly performed in illegal clinics of decrepit colonies by midwives in unhygienic conditions. The victims, who are generally girls between the age of six and 12 years, have later come out and said circumcision was performed on them using unsanitised blades or knives.
What is the Dawoodi Bohra community's contention?
“Khafz (circumcision), as practiced by the community, involves a nick on the female foreskin covering the clitoris. No part of the clitoris is touched during the process. The practice finds mention in the scriptures of Judaism and Christianity as well, and circumcision is gender neutral in all sacred texts,” the group’s application said, as reported by Mumbai Mirror.
“Khafz as recorded in Fatimid jurisprudence (the school of Islam practiced by the Dawoodi Bohra community) is an integral part of the religious practice to achieve taharat (religious purity) and cleanliness. For the Dawoodi Bohra men and women, the practice constitutes an integral ritual mentioned in several texts. Taharat is a necessary requirement for the valid performance of prayers,” the application said.
What is the magnitude of the problem?
According to an online survey conducted by Sahiyo, an NGO that consults with the victims as well as members of the Dawoodi Bohra community and advises them against the practice, 80% of the 400 respondents were cut.
More than 200 million girls and women alive today have been cut in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia where FGM is concentrated, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Have other countries banned FGM?
The United Nations declared Female Genital Mutilation to be a human rights violation in 2012; however the practice is yet not banned in India. The practice has now been declared illegal in several countries like US, Australia, UK, and 24 African nations, including Nigeria and Gambia.
According to WHO, FGM has adverse short-term as well as long-term effects. While extreme pain and severe bleeding are immediate effects of female circumcision; in the long term, it can lead to urinary tract infections, childbirth complications, sexual problems and even post-traumatic stress disorder.
What is the legal recourse against FGM?
As of now, FGM can be a crime under Sections 320 (causing grievous hurt), 323 (punishment for voluntarily causing hurt), 324 (voluntarily causing hurt by dangerous weapons or means), and 325 (punishment for voluntarily causing grievous hurt) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). It is also a crime under various sections of POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses) Act.
Then why is there a need to ban it?
The 14th Century custom is still practised and banning it would be a stronger and more assertive step towards eradicating it.
What is the Centre’s stand on the issue?
In June 2017, the Supreme Court had sought responses from the Centre and four states – Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajathan and Delhi – after a petition to ban the practice was filed in the top court.
Union Minister of Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi had said last year that if the 2-million-strong Dawoodi Bohra community do not voluntarily stop the practice, then the government will bring in a law to ban it.
In a recent hearing on the matter, Centre’s counsel Attorney General KK Venugopal has sought directions from the top court to put curbs.
The Supreme Court has also added the states of Kerala and Telangana as parties to the matter, besides the existing four states.