Is the U.S. and U.N. doing all they can to assist and protect victims of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM):
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is an ongoing practice among many primitive peoples of the world. Rooted in religious doctrine and mysticism, this practice is a form of abuse against women, for it deprives them of attaining full sexual pleasure. Both the United States and the United Nations are powerful political entities that can do something about this problem. The United Nations, as part of its pledge to uphold principles stated in the UN Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) document, has been at the forefront of efforts to curb this practice. The United States, on the other hand, has also chipped in with funding and lobbying efforts to eradicate FGM. But these efforts have not been sufficient to significantly reduce the occurrence of FGM. The rest of this essay will foray into the successes and failures of the US and the UN in protecting victims of FGM and also in preventing it.
The United Nations has brought up the issue of FGM under its broader program for women’s health. In the United Nations assemblies in Vienna (1993), Cairo (1994) and Beijing (1995) women’s issues were deliberated upon. Most nations of the world then committed themselves to act and promote healthy reproductive practices for women and also to upkeep the rights endowed them by the UNDHR. Also during these meetings, major UN agencies and programmes have pledged their support to Governments in meeting these commitments. (Germain, 1998, p.22)
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But when one looks at the United States’ record on alleviating FGM globally, it has acted counter to United Nation programmes. This detrimental tendency was especially acute during the Bush Presidency, where some of the the Republican party’s Christian fundamentalist roots had an effect on the American government’s policies. As early as the first month since his inauguration in 2001, Bush exerted pressure on humanitarian organizations across the world into downplaying abortion rights. Since his Administration’s priorities were to promote Christian fundamentalist values, it took a reactionary approach to women’s rights in general and their reproductive rights in particular. (Prescott, et, al., 1999, p.45) Since FGM falls under these categories, issues pertaining to it were either neglected or left unacknowledged. Since FGM is usually performed on babies and girls, the Bush Administration’s hostile attitude to children’s rights indirectly undermined progress on FGM awareness and prevention programs. For example,
“He then stripped the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) of 12.5 percent of its budget, withheld $3 million from the World Health Organization’s Human Reproduction Program and is now earmarking $33 million–almost exactly the amount he took away from the UNFPA–to augment domestic abstinence – until-marriage “sex-ed.” He dispatched his emissaries to throw colossal tantrums at the UN General Assembly Special Session on Children, the World Summit on Sustainable Development and, most recently, the Fifth Asian and Pacific Population Conference, bringing all three negotiations to a near-halt over objections to no-brainer public health concepts like “consistent condom use” for HIV prevention and “safe abortion” where it is legal. Together, joined by the Vatican, these culture warriors fought to purge the world of comprehensive sex education for adolescents, restrict STD – prevention and contraceptive information to heterosexual married couples, and redefine “reproductive health services” to exclude legal abortion.” (Block, 2003, p.18)
Hence, what we learn the American government, especially during the Bush reign, has acted in a manner that is counter-productive to the programs initiated by the United Nations. Since FGM is said to increase the chances of HIV infection, the American government’s opposition to condom use (a position derived from its Christian fundamentalist allegiance) has not helped in controlling FGM occurrence. The American government’s obsession with abortion issues and its insistence on abstinence as the chief mode of contraception have thus undermined efforts by the United Nations in trying to reduce instances of FGM victim-hood.
Since most victims of FGM are young girls (although the full extent of FGM manifests only when they become sexually active), it is instructive to read UN and US responses to the issue under two categories – women’s rights and children’s rights. On November 20, 1989, the United Nations General Assembly passed the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which endowed basic rights for all children across the world. A total of 191 countries have agreed to accommodate its provision into their local legal systems and have created Children’s Charters. (Prescott, et, al., 1999, p.45) But it is interesting to note that the United States is yet to ratify the Children’s Convention, showing its lackadaisical attitude to UN initiatives. Under the broad framework adopted by the Children’s Convention prevention of FGM and counselling for victims of FGM are provided for. It also deals with other aspects of children’s health and well being:
“The Children’s Convention covers all children below eighteen years of age, recognizing legal rights whose respect is incumbent upon parents, families, and governments. It forbids discrimination based on caste, color, creed, or gender in safeguarding children’s rights. Under the Convention, every girl and boy, irrespective of territorial boundaries, enjoys freedom of expression and the right to access information. Governments are to safeguard children’s religious freedom, their freedom of thinking, and their right to mix with others. Child rearing is recognized as the primary responsibility of parents, but governments must extend a helping hand when needed. Children are not to he treated as the personal property of parents, and they are not to be abused.” (Innaiah, 2003, p.47)
The UN Children’s Convention rightly recognized the role played by religions in perpetrating FGM. But since major political institutions including the government of the United States are heavily influenced by religious doctrine, it is difficult to safeguard children from abuse. “Religious influence is strong; even at the UN. For example, the Vatican has co-opted UNICEF, convening a recent conference at which religious leaders shed crocodile tears over children’s plight but took no substantial action. Child abuse rooted in religion was described in sanitized language as a “cultural crisis.” (Innaiah, 2003, p.47)