Because Female Genital Mutilation is deeply rooted in cultural, social and religious beliefs, we need to understand it in this context and seek appropriate consultation. It is important that as well as protecting girls and young women from harm, we also work to maintain and strengthen family relationships in these circumstances.
This key information provides a discussion on the practice of female genital mutilation, what New Zealand Law says about female genital mutilation, and what social workers should do if they come across a case of actual or suspected female genital mutilation.
Female genital mutilation is a complex, multi-faceted practice. It is deeply rooted in cultural, social and religious beliefs and can only be understood within this context.
Despite its harmful effects, female genital mutilation is perceived as a beneficial custom providing girls and women with many cultural, religious and social advantages. Girls are often considered unclean, immoral, ineligible for marriage and socially unacceptable if they have not undergone the practice. Female genital mutilation is endorsed by the community and caring parents in what is believed to be in the best interests of a young girl - despite how harmful it appears from one's own personal and cultural viewpoint.
A sensitive and multi-pronged child protection approach to the issue is vital.
Female genital mutilation is the term for "All procedures which involve partial or total removal of the external female genitals and/or injury to the female genital organs whether for cultural or any other non therapeutic reasons" (WHO, 1996).
There are a number of different types of female genital mutilation practised, ranging from partial removal of the clitoris to removal of all genitalia and the narrowing of the vaginal opening (infibulation).
Female genital mutilation is practised predominantly in Africa - occurring in 28 African countries. An estimated 150 million girls and women have undergone female genital mutilation and two million girls a year are currently considered 'at risk'.
Female genital mutilation is deeply rooted in a complex social, cultural and economic framework. It is seen as a beneficial custom and is supported by a wide range of beliefs, customs, values and sociological pressures. Some of the reasons given for the practice include:
Female genital mutilation is seen as a very beneficial practice amongst affected communities and is performed with the best interests of the young girl at heart. Girls who have not undergone the procedure are often considered unclean, immoral, ineligible for marriage and socially unacceptable.
Female genital mutilation is practised by followers of many different religions: Muslims, Catholics, animists, and Christian Coptics. It is practised by some Muslim communities in the belief that it is demanded by the Islamic faith. However, there is no substantial evidence in the Koran, or any other religious text, supporting female genital mutilation as a religious requirement.
There are a wide range of complications associated with female genital mutilation which vary depending on the type of female genital mutilation practised. They can include acute and/or chronic medical complications, sexual problems and psychological difficulties.
There is no documented evidence that female genital mutilation is practised in New Zealand. However, some women immigrating to New Zealand from African countries have already undergone female genital mutilation, and some girls here may be at risk of female genital mutilation occurring.
In January 1996, the New Zealand government made female genital mutilation an illegal practice under an amendment to the Crimes Act (Section 204A). There is a maximum of seven years jail term for anyone found guilty of practising female genital mutilation.
The law also states that it is illegal to:
Social workers should always seek advice from professionals experienced in female genital mutilation investigations before putting their own investigation plan into place. Oranga Tamariki regional practice advisors, and a forensic interviewer from each region, have undergone training with the Female Genital Mutilation Education Programme. These resource people should be the first point of consultation for any social worker investigating an actual or suspected case of female genital mutilation.
What an investigation plan will likely include
When a child must be interviewed about actual or suspected female genital mutilation, a referral should be made to a Oranga Tamariki or Police specialist child interviewer. These interviewers are specially trained to talk to children and young people about suspected or actual abuse.
A specialist interview is in the best interests of the child or young person because: it allows the child or young person to state freely and clearly what they know, it avoids repeat interviewing of the child or young person, and the electronic record becomes a legal document.
This material has been adapted from the Female Genital Mutilation Education Programme information pamphlets and the Refugee Health Education Programme booklet for Health and Child Protection professionals (Female genital mutilation in New Zealand: Understanding and responding, 2004). It is used here with permission.