Medically unnecessary female genital mutilation/cutting has been defined by the World Health Organisation and UNICEF and incudes not one but FOUR types.
I. Excision of the prepuce [the fold of skin surrounding the clitoris], with or without excision of part or the entire clitoris.
II. Excision of the clitoris with partial or total excision of the labia minora [the smaller inner folds of the vulva].
III. Excision of part or all of the external genitalia and stitching or narrowing of the vaginal opening (infibulation).
IV. Unclassified, which includes pricking, piercing or incising of the clitoris and/or labia; stretching of the clitoris and/or labia; cauterization by burning of the clitoris and surrounding tissue; scraping of tissue surrounding the opening of the vagina (angurya cuts) or cutting of the vagina (gishiri cuts); introduction of corrosive substances or herbs into the vagina to cause bleeding or to tighten or narrow the vagina; and any other procedure that can be included in the definition of female genital mutilation
Public discourse on FGM/C in Aust and NZ seems driven by a belief that all FGM/C is always Type III which exposes the growing child to unnecessary risks of infection, difficulties with menstruation and childbirth and increased incidence of fistula. However on the international stage FGM/C includes a wide range of less harmful practices including the “ritual nick” (once recommended by the American Academy of Pediatricians) and the most extreme form of FGM widely assumed by many in politics and the media is in fact very rare.
Procedures such as pricking, piercing, incising, scraping, cauterization or burning that are carried out for nonmedical purposes are classed by the WHO as mutilation, along with practices that alter or remove any part of the genitals. The more extreme practices can lead to severe bleeding, urination problems and complications during childbirth, according to the WHO.
“FGM” has been outlawed by criminal statute since the mid 1990s in all Sates and Territories in Australia and in New Zealand. Each law has its own definitions but none define the central word “mutilation”. CEDAW Article 5 addressed cutting only indirectly by requiring States Parties (including Aust and NZ) take all appropriate measures:
“To modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women”
In the preparatory talks (Travaux Preparatoires) to CEDAW it was accepted that cutting, altering or interfering with a girl’s external genitals was primary a means of shaping their body to conform with gender stereotypes of passivity, submission and suffering. This is the cultural change that will underlie the elimination of FGM/C.
Article 24.3 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCROC) was more specific, requiring States Parties to eradicate “traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children”. An attempt by Canada to specify FGM/C in the Travaux Preparatoires was resisted by a number of nations and NGOs at the UN and rejected on the grounds that there are many such traditional practices, so the UN adopted words that can include – and clearly refer to – FGM/C.
Not only is it illegal to perform FGM/C in Australia and NZ, but it is illegal to take a girl to another country for FGM/C. As recently as 2010 the Indonesian government outlawed the more invasive practices but allowed by regulation “scraping the clitoral hood, without injuring the clitoris” and religious authorities approved a ritual pinprick in a clinical setting as adequate discharge of religious observance. In Egypt a vast majority of girls undergo FGM/C Type I or II and in Saudi Arabia Type III FGM/C is available in clinical settings in state of the art hospitals with world-class surgeons and equipment.
Scientists do not actually know whether some sanitized and/or minimally-invasive form of female genital cutting would reduce the risk of various infections. To ask the question is morally repugnant; to answer it would be illegal. It is known that girls in infancy suffer Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs) at a higher rate than boys, but no one suggest that surgery is the way to prevent or treat it, when good hygiene and antibiotics are available.
Believers in various forms of FGM/C continue do it because it conforms the child to others in her culture (“she’ll look like mum”) so that she will be marriageable in culture that is used to it (“it looks better or neater”), so that sexual excesses in adolescence will be reduced, or in some Muslim sects because the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) either condones it or requires it as proper Muslim observance. Most Muslims in the world toady do not practice any form of FGM/C on their daughter. Almost all perform MGM/C on their sons.