THE 2012 HELSINKI DECLARATION OF THE RIGHT TO GENITAL AUTONOMY
On Thursday the 3rd of July, the Home Affairs Select Committee published a report “Female genital mutilation: the case for a national action plan.” The report condemns the lack of education, prosecution and action taken with regard to the growing prevalence of FGM within the UK.
It is estimated that every year 65,000 girls under the age of 13 in the UK are living at risk of FGM; a practice defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as the ‘partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons’. While it has been a crime within the UK for almost 30 years to carry out FGM, and illegal for over a decade ‘for a permanent UK resident to aid, abet, counsel or procure the carrying out of FGM abroad on a UK national or permanent resident’, there has not until this year been a single FGM-related prosecution.
Committee Chairman, Keith Vaz, declared this ‘failure to respond adequately’ a ‘national scandal for which successive governments, politicians, the police, health, education and social care sectors all share responsibility’.
Vaz claims that ‘A number of successful prosecutions would send a clear message to practising communities that FGM is taken seriously in the UK and will be punished accordingly’.
The report welcomed the £100,000 Home Office funding but regretted that alone this would not be sufficient. More, it is argued, is needed to implement a full-scale national awareness campaign in order to break the generational cycle of FGM and end what is at its root a serious, gender-based crime and a fundamental form of child abuse. This campaign would require a multi-agency approach from all health, education, social care, police and community sectors to tackle the ignorance and inaction that FGM-related practices face within the UK.
Specifically, the report argues the need for specialist FGM training for frontline officials, and the implementation of specialist pastoral and clinical services for FGM victims UK-wide. It calls for the strengthening of current laws on FGM to include the ‘habitually resident’ and temporary UK citizen within its remit. Moreover, it argues for ‘reinfibulation’ (the ‘re-stitching’ of Type 3 FGM, common for victims immediately following childbirth) to be included in its laws.
The Home Affairs Committee recommended that, if in 12 months time the level of reporting had not reached its expected level, the Government ‘take steps’ to make the failure to report this crime a punishable offence. Patterns within the report reflect a move away from solely victim-directed prosecution systems towards a wider and more multi-faceted approach to what is certainly a community-centred issue. For example, calling for recognition of parental liability in FGM crimes, and the need for a decent, common education about its harmful effects and illegality within communities, throughout healthcare systems and within structures of education.
This is a hugely positive step, and signals a shift in responsibility away from the victim towards the adults and communities who have removed the individual’s right to full bodily liberty in the first place.
The report also, and perhaps most importantly, recognises the need for FGM to be treated not just as a severe form of gender-based violence, or as a sensitive cultural and racial issue, but as a universal and ‘extreme form of child abuse’ where practiced on minors under the age of 18. ‘Misplaced concern for cultural sensitivities over the rights of the child’ is heralded as one of the main reasons why the UK has failed to successfully tackle FGM to date. Linda Weil Curiel, lawyer at the Paris Bar, says:
“People talk of culture and tradition, but children have a fundamental human right not to be mutilated.”
Professionals are called on to address FGM ‘in the same way as other forms of child abuse’ following the ‘leading example’ of France, who have had more than 40 FGM-related prosecutions since 1979. France has relied upon its existing criminal and human rights laws to prosecute FGM:
“There is no specific law against FGM in France. Instead perpetrators are prosecuted under general provisions of the penal code, such as acts involving intended bodily harm, causing permanent infirmity or mutilation.”
As the Home Affairs Committee has recognised, there is a significant argument to be made for following France’s direction in terms of tackling FGM, utilising the criminal law and human rights legislation against bodily harm and interference.
The UK’s Human Rights Act of 2000 is clear already in this respect:
“Article 3: No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
“Article 5(1): Everyone has the right to liberty and security of the person.”
Every human child who is either habitually or fully resident to the UK holds the right to have their full bodily integrity safeguarded by the state. Having ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UK is also required to ‘take all effective and appropriate measures with a view to abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children’.
A universalised approach to FGM within the UK could signal a positive development in the addressing of similar crimes of non-therapeutic surgical intervention. The report is decidedly silent on other forms of bodily and genital mutilation which are commonplace human rights violations both in the UK and worldwide: the surgical ‘normalisation’ of intersex children, and the genital cutting of boys. The majority of cultures that cut girls also cut boys, and the number of intersex infants born every year who are potentially victim to unnecessary genital mutilation is estimated at as high as 1 in 2000. While each of these practices carry the weight of vastly different cultural, religious and gendered intersections, each is at its base a denial of the right to bodily liberty. Each act is a violation of the most basic level of the child’s human right: the right to bodily autonomy.
If we are to follow France’s treatment of FGM as a universal human rights violation, should we not also be examining other forms of non-consensual, and medically-unnecessary genital surgeries committed upon infants who are also owed a duty of care by the state?
We receive this report as a necessary and welcome step towards the freedom of all children to have their right to liberty and security of person safe-guarded, and call upon the citizens of the UK to recognise that similar violations to dignity and bodily integrity are happening every day.
Report by Molly Farrell
A presentation given by Prof. Dr. Tobe Levin to the symposium on genital autonomy, 6th May 2014.
A presentation given by James Chegwidden, Barrister on 17th September 2013 at Keele University, Staffs, U.K. to the Genital Autonomy conference “Children’s rights in Europe: recent developments”. The presentation covers the current law surrounding male circumcision in the U.K.
After the Cologne ruling last year and the retrogressive law passed subsequently in the Bundestag, the German public has not been slow to take up the cause of genital autonomy for all children. A new group Intaktiv e.V. is a most welcome development in the campaign for the equal treatment, protection and respect for the rights of all children to grow up free from the genital alterations adults would like to make. Welcome to Intaktiv. The site has an English language section.
Greater protection for children
The Council of Europe, of which the UK is one of 47 states, took an enlightened move by passing a resolution that children have a right to physical integrity. The resolution sets out a comprehensive regime of protection for children, paragraph 2 states that;
The Parliamentary Assembly is particularly worried about a category of violation of the physical integrity of children, which supporters of the procedures tend to present as beneficial to the children themselves despite clear evidence to the contrary. This includes, amongst others, female genital mutilation, the circumcision of young boys for religious reasons, early childhood medical interventions in the case of intersexual children and the submission to or coercion of children into piercings, tattoos or plastic surgery.
Marlene Rupprecht, MdB (right) led the debate and has steered this resolution and recommendation through the Council. It is to be hoped that all member states take this resolution into their own policy making and seek to promote the human rights of children as being of paramount importance.
Nordic countries seek to protect boys from non-therapeutic circumcision
At a meeting hosted in Oslo by the Norwegian children’s ombudsman Dr Anne Lindboe, the children’s ombudsmen for the Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and the spokesperson for Greenland) met the paediatric surgeons and paediatricians from the five countries on the 30th of September and resolved to work with their respective governments to achieve a ban on the non-therapeutic circumcision of male minors. It is to be hoped that this encouraging initiative will spread rapidly to those responsible for the welfare and safety of children in other countries.
Circumcision without a medical indication on a person unable to provide informed consent conflicts with basic principles of medical ethics, particularly because the operation is irreversible, painful and may cause serious complications. There are no health-related reasons to circumcise young boys in the Nordic countries. Arguments that may argue in favour of circumcision in adult men are of little relevance to children in the Nordic area. Boys can make up their own minds about the operation when they get old enough to provide informed consent.
The full translation of the resolution is available on the Child Rights International Network (CRIN) web site.