Faces for Change: Giving a voice to survivors - Equality Now
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Faces for Change: Giving a voice to survivors

On June 15, 2019, Sahiyo launched its ‘Faces For Change’ photo campaign in Mumbai, India, in collaboration with Orchid Project, Global Health Strategies and Equality Now. The first such photo campaign in Asia, Faces For Change highlighted the practice of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) through portraits and personal stories of eight FGM/C survivors from the Dawoodi Bohra community in India.

The photo campaign brings much needed focus to the experiences of survivors of FGM/C, highlighting the impact this harmful practice has on the lives of women and girls across India and the South Asian region. The campaign urges the Indian government to pass laws and policies to end FGM/C in India; and calls on governments and the international community to provide greater investment, research and support to ending FGM/C across Asia.

All the survivors who spoke at the event noted that the public movement against FGM/C, that has been active in India over the last few years, has helped to break the silence around this taboo topic. The younger generation, they said, is now more willing to listen to arguments against FGM/C.

The need for a law against FGM/C in India?

Divya Srinivasan, Equality Now’s South Asia Consultant, pointed out that when the Supreme Court of India referred the litigation to a five-judge Constitution bench in September 2018, asking for a ban on FGM/C , it was a setback for the movement to end FGM/C. The referral has resulted in a long delay in the case.

More significantly, the reason why the case has been referred to a larger bench is to consider the issue of whether banning FGM/C would be a violation of the right to religious freedom under the Constitution. This takes the focus away from the universality of human rights and how FGM/C violates women and girls’ rights to be free from physical and psychological harm, and their right to bodily integrity and equality. Viewing the issue through the prism of religious freedom shifts the focus on the case from the survivors and potential victims of FGM/C and the harm caused to them to the perpetrators.  The focus of case may now become about whether some women and girls should not have the same rights as other women and girls due to their belonging to a particular religion.

A law against FGM/C would mean going beyond simply criminalising the practice. A law would look at education, spreading awareness in the community, providing medical or psychological support to survivors, and putting in place all these mechanisms. We need to think through these issues, and make sure that the government has consultations with all these stakeholders before passing a law.

‘There is no medical benefit’

Offering his medical view on the subject, Dr Nozer Sheriar said, “Anything damaging done to a woman or a girl is unacceptable by any medical standards.” He added that the Federation of Obstetric and Gynaecological Societies of India has come out with a very strong policy statement opposing FGM/C. “We have also said that we will not accept any medical person – gynaecologist, obstetrician or member of our federation to be involved with this practice. It is unethical, wrong, there is no consent, no medical benefit with a lot of potential for medical harm.”

While defenders of FGM/C often claim that parents have a right to give consent on behalf of a child, paediatrician Dr. Kalpana Swaminathan said, “A child is a person. A child is not the property of a parent. Parents are guardians of a child, and yes, they are allowed to give consent for life-saving medical procedures, but this practice is not a surgery – it can never be called a surgery. It is mutilation.”

‘We need to engage with communities on all fronts’

Speaking as an activist at the forefront of the anti-FGM/C movement in India, Aarefa Johari spoke about the need to see FGM/C from multiple perspectives – medical, legal, religious, cultural, human rights – and to engage with the community on all these fronts. “A lot of the conversations in the movement have taken place online or in metro cities. We need to take the movement more and more offline, to smaller towns and villages,” she said.

What can you do?

Sign Sahiyo’s Change.org petition urging the United Nations, the governments of India and other Asian countries as well as other stakeholders to create laws and policies to help end the practice of FGM/C and ensure the safety of future generations of Indian girls.

Share and explore the photographs and stories here.