FEBRUARY 6 ― The Federation of Reproductive Health Associations, Malaysia (FRHAM) is supportive of the government's efforts to implement its commitments to key United Nations conventions and processes.
In conjunction with the International Day of Zero Tolerance of Female Genital Mutilation, FRHAM would like to specifically focus on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and Universal Periodic Review (UPR).
In the third UPR Cycle, Malaysia received several recommendations on gender equality, sexual and reproductive health, access to comprehensive sexuality education and protection of women and girls from violence.
FRHAM's recent baseline monitoring report done in collaboration with the Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW) concluded that as a state party to both agreement and processes, there are progress in fulfilling the commitments however there are much room for improvement.
Like early/ forced/ child marriage, female circumcision — also known as female genital cutting or female genital mutilation — is a contentious subject in Malaysia.
There is little agreement between both sides of the divide, those who believe that the practice should continue and those who want it banned.
The baseline monitoring report found that for the amount of debate on this subject, very little is known about its prevalence, procedures, practice, or reasons for its occurrence.
Aside from three known studies, research on female circumcision in Malaysia is scarce.
From this limited pool of information, it is understood that well over 90 per cent of Muslim women in the country have been circumcised.
Motivated by reasons ranging from health and hygiene concerns to cultural and religious beliefs, for a long time the practice here was largely believed to involve scratching, pricking or inflicting a superficial cut on the skin or tip of the clitoris when they were infants and up to the age of six.
In its 2008 CEDAW review, the Malaysian government reported that this kind of female circumcision fell under Type 4 of the World Health Organisation FGM classification scheme, ie., “all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, eg., pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterising the genital area.”
This was traditionally performed by village midwives but increasingly, in present times, the services of medical doctors are more popular.
Replying to oral questions by the CEDAW Committee at Malaysia's last review in 2018, the then secretary-general of Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development (WFCD) said that studies had found female circumcision in this country to be “harmless and did not have an impact on the sexual health of women.”
She said that routine checks conducted by public health centres on 18-month-olds showed that “83 to 85 per cent of Muslim baby girls had been circumcised without any complications.”
The government has also claimed that Malaysia's practice is part of a cultural obligation and not invasive like that of some African countries.
At this same review, for reasons that are unclear, the government revised its categorisation of the practice here and said that it was Type 1 a, “removal of the prepuce/clitoral hood only.”
In its concluding observations, the Committee stressed that regardless of whether such a procedure was only symbolic or conducted within a medical institution, female circumcision, female genital cutting and female genital mutilation could not be justified on religious grounds and still constituted a “harmful practice.”
FRHAM supports the CEDAW Committee's concluding observation on this issue and coupled with WHO's stand and research that FGM has shown no known health benefits to girls and practice remained largely symbolic and cultural.
It must be stressed that even among Muslim clerics and religious leaders, there is no consensus on this position.
From a rights perspective, FGM, irrespective of its type, constitutes a violation of human rights particularly on women and girls' sexual and reproductive rights.
FGM is an invasive procedure which asserts control over a female's body, her sexuality, bodily autonomy (the right to control one's own body) and bodily integrity (the right to autonomy and self-determination over one's own body).
Call to Action:
Malaysia has stated her commitment in achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), including SDG 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. Target 5.3 in SDG 5 has clearly stated eliminating all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation. FRHAM strongly suggest that:
1. The government, together with health and religious authorities to develop and implement a strategy to end female genital mutilation/ circumcision among women and girls.
2. The collaborative effort between the government and civil society organisations to educate the public against FGM by explaining the consequences of FGM and discourage the practice of FGM.
3. Creating awareness on sexual and reproductive health through comprehensive sexuality education for adolescents and young people.
* Associate Professor Dr Kamal Kenny is the chairman of Federation of Reproductive Health Associations, Malaysia.