Mutilation law may do harm – expert


Outlawing female genital mutilation only drives the practice underground and could even further hurt the girls it is meant to protect, according to the president of the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices, Mrs Berhane Ras-Work.

After her speech yesterday to the Women, Power and Politics conference in Adelaide, delegates will debate whether to call on federal and state governments to remove criminal sanctions from any laws drafted on the issue.

Mrs Ras-Work, an Ethiopian who represents 23 African countries in consultations with the United Nations, said she could not comment specifically on Australian moves to make mutilation illegal, but it generally caused more harm than good.

“Sudan in 1946 under the colonial regime passed such legislation. The practice went underground, people did it quietly, which meant that if the child haemorrhaged or became infected, they didn’t bring her to hospital.

“The Government should express its commitment to protecting the children, but criminalising it and throwing the mothers into jail will not help the community. What would be the damage to the child from being separated from the family?” Mrs Ras-Work said the procedure had been performed on more than 90 million women in the world today. It is becoming more common in Australia as a result of migration, and the Federal Government recently promised to outlaw it if the states could not agree on a uniform ban.

The Victorian Attorney-General, Mrs Wade, said this week that she was not opposed to such legislation, even though genital mutilation would already be an offence under the Crimes Act. Mrs Wade said she was consulting before making specific recommendations.

Genital mutilation, in which the clitoris is chopped off and/or the labia minora and parts of the labia majora sliced away and stitched over, is a traditional practice in many African and Middle Eastern countries. It can cause illness and death, long-term pain and gynaecological and obstetric problems. It diminishes or eliminates female sexual sensation.

Mrs Ras-Work, who is based in Geneva, says that governments that want to help migrant communities change their ways should use education and public information campaigns.

“(Its continued practice) is largely due to lack of knowledge about its consequences,” Mrs Ras-work said. “The mother who circumcises her daughter is not abusing her; she is doing it with the best of intentions to help her daughter to be eligible for marriage.”

First published in The Age.