Sunday, June 29, 2014

Muslim Council of Britain denounces FGM

Ahead of "Cutting Season" and Girl Summit 2014, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) last week endorsed a landmark declaration making Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) unlawful and clarifying it is not supported by religious doctrine.

The UK’s most prominent Muslim organization on June 20 denounced FGM as contrary to Islam, adding that the traditional practice severely violates the human rights of women and girls.

The first Girl Summit, to be hosted by the UK and UNICEF on July 22, aims to mobilize domestic and international efforts to end FGM and child early and forced marriage (CEFM) within a generation.

Girls and women have the right to live free from violence and discrimination and achieve their potential, but some are being prevented from doing so by harmful practices such as FGM and CEFM, which are illegal in the UK, says a statement on the UK government site.

The summit wants to secure new commitments from the private sector, faith leaders, other civil society organizations and governments.

Child, early and forced marriage occurs in every part of the world, affecting millions of girls every year. One in three girls in developing countries is married by the age of 18, and one in nine by the age of 15. Some are as young as eight.

Girls who marry young have babies while still children, putting them at risk of death or suffering for the rest of their lives. They are more likely to be poor and stay poor. In the UK, hundreds of girls risk being forced into marriage, violating their human rights. Forced marriage victims can suffer physical, psychological, emotional, financial and sexual abuse.

FGM removes a girl’s right to have control over her own body. Traditionally considered essential for marriage and inclusion in the community, it is an extreme and violent way in which girls and women are controlled and disempowered. It can result in a lifetime of pain, psychological problems and difficulty in childbirth. Current trends suggest at least 30 million girls will be at risk over the next decade -- with more than 20,000 at risk in the United Kingdom every year, the UK government website adds.

MCB declaration

The religious and community leaders that signed the historic declaration condemning FGM noted, however, there are still barriers to ending the practice in the UK.

The MCB is one of the UK’s largest and most diverse Muslim umbrella organizations with over 500 affiliated national, regional and local organizations, mosques, charities and schools.

The Church of England and the Muslim Women’s Network UK were two of 160 groups who supported the announcement denouncing FGM as a form of violence against women and a denial of women’s human rights not supported by religious doctrine. The groups will sign a joint declaration condemning FGM -- currently a criminal offense in the UK -- during the Girl Summit.

The MCB will launch a campaign by distributing leaflets in mosques and community centers in Britain to support ending the barbaric practice.

It said it was “not true” mutilation was a Muslim requirement noting that one of the “basic principles” of Islam was not to harm oneself or others.

The MCB said FGM was bringing Islam “into disrepute” and could cause severe pain, bleeding, problems in pregnancy and even death, as well leaving some victims with lasting psychological problems.

The new leaflet states: “FGM is not an Islamic requirement. There is no reference to it in the Holy Quran that states girls must be circumcised. Nor is there any authentic reference to this in the Sunnah, the sayings or traditions of our Prophet. FGM is bringing the religion of Islam into disrepute.”

The document also warns there is “an increasingly high risk of being prosecuted” for carrying out mutilation, which has been illegal in the UK since 1985, and that perpetrators face up to 14 years in prison.

The MCB announcement follows a Home Office summit on June 19 at which other religious organizations, including the Shia al-Khoei Foundation and the Muslim Women’s Network UK, announced their support for a government declaration against FGM to be published at the Girl Summit.

Harmful practice

Three million girls and women are subjected to FGM worldwide each year. That's 8000 girls per day.

FGM is a harmful practice that is recognized worldwide as a human rights violation. The practice of FGM violates:
  • Right to physical and mental integrity
  • Right to highest attainable standard of health
  • Right to be free from all forms of discrimination against women (including violence against women)
  • Right to freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment
  • Rights of the child, and
  • In extreme cases, right to life
The European Parliament estimates 500,000 girls and women living in Europe are suffering with the lifelong consequences of FGM. It still affects up to 140 million women and girls worldwide, with an estimated 20,000 girls at risk in the UK.

Increasingly as migration becomes more common, diaspora communities arriving to Western nations continue the practice. FGM prevalence is therefore rising among migrant residents of Norway, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Britain and the United States. Migrant families, often traveling with their young daughters in summer vacations to their native countries, have the procedure performed at grave risk of infection bleeding and death when non-clinicians perform this procedure. School holidays become “The Cutting Season.”

FGM tradition

Also known as female circumcision or simply as “cutting,” FGM/C involves removing all or part of the clitoris, the surrounding labia (the outer part of the vagina) and sometimes the sewing up of the vagina, leaving only a small opening for urine and menstrual blood.

There are no medical benefits to this tradition. It is carried out for cultural reasons, often because it demonstrates a girl's virginity on her wedding night.

It seems the practice predates Christianity and Islam. There is mention made of Egyptian mummies that display characteristics of FGM/C. The historian Herodotus claims that in the fifth century BC the Phoenicians, Hittites and Ethiopians practiced circumcision. It is also reported circumcision rites were practiced in tropical zones of Africa, in the Philippines, by certain tribes in the Upper Amazon, and in Australia by women of the Arunta tribe. It also occurred among the early Romans and Arabs.

Many different peoples and societies have followed the FGM/C practice. It cuts across ages, continents, religions and is performed by Muslims, Christians, Ethiopian Jews and Copts among others.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates between 100 and 140 million girls and women worldwide have been subjected to one of three types of female genital mutilation. Estimates based on the most recent prevalence data indicate that 91.5 million girls and women above the age of nine in Africa are currently living with the consequences of FGM. There are an estimated three million girls in Africa at risk of undergoing FGM every year.

WHO has identified four types of FGM/C:

Type 1: Excision of the prepuce, with or without excision of part or the entire clitoris.

Type 2: Excision of the clitoris with partial or total excision of the labia minora.

Type 3: Excision of part or all of the external genitalia and stitching/narrowing of the vaginal opening (infibulation) -- sometimes referred to as pharaonic circumcision.

Type 4: Others, such as pricking, piercing or incising, stretching, burning of the clitoris, scraping of tissue surrounding the vaginal orifice, cutting of the vagina, introduction of corrosive substances or herbs into the vagina to cause bleeding or to tighten the opening.

The removal of, or damage to, healthy, normal genital tissue interferes with the natural functioning of the body and causes several immediate and long-term health consequences. For example, babies born to women who have undergone female genital mutilation suffer a higher rate of neonatal death; end in stillbirth or spontaneous abortion; and in a further 25%, the newborn has a low birth weight or serious infection, both of which are associated with an increased risk of perinatal death.

WHO says FGM/C is nearly always carried out on minors and is therefore a violation of the rights of the child. It also violates the rights to health, security and physical integrity of the person, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death.

In Egypt, 94% of women arrange for their daughters to undergo this “medicalized” form of FGM/C, 76% in Yemen, 65% in Mauritania, 48% in Côte d’Ivoire, and 46% in Kenya. This approach may reduce some of the immediate consequences of the procedure -- such as pain and bleeding -- but, WHO and UNICEF point out, it also tends to obscure its human rights aspect and could hinder the development of long-term solutions for ending the practice.

How many more generations will it take to eradicate FGM/C? Is the magic word “education”? Is FGM/C a practice too deep-rooted to overcome? Maybe only time will tell…

In the meantime, you can take a stand with me against FGM/C and child and forced marriage by signing the pledge  to show your support in ending these harmful practices forever. Our voices will be heard at the Girl Summit.

Related articles and references:

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Syria: Children in battle

“At first I was so scared… then I got used to it,” said Ayman, who began fighting with an FSA brigade in Salqin when he was 15 years old.
“Maybe we’ll live, and maybe we’ll die,” said Omar, who began fighting at age 14 with Jabhat al-Nusra.
Non-state armed groups in Syria have used children as young as 15 to fight in battles, sometimes recruiting them under the guise of offering education, Human Rights Watch said in a report released on Monday. The groups have used children as young as 14 in support roles. Extremist Islamist groups including the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) have specifically recruited children through free schooling campaigns that include weapons training, and have given them dangerous tasks, including suicide bombing missions.

The 31-page report “‘Maybe We Live and Maybe We Die’: Recruitment and Use of Children by Armed Groups in Syria,” documents the experiences of 25 children and former child soldiers in Syria’s armed conflict. Human Rights Watch interviewed children who fought with the Free Syrian Army, the Islamic Front coalition, and the extremist groups ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al-Qaeda affiliate, as well as the military and police forces in Kurdish-controlled areas. The report does not, for logistical and security reasons, cover all armed groups that allegedly have used children in Syria, in particular pro-government militias. Using children in armed conflict violates international law.

“Syrian armed groups shouldn’t prey on vulnerable children -- who have seen their relatives killed, schools shelled, and communities destroyed -- by enlisting them in their forces,” said Priyanka Motaparthy, Middle East children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “The horrors of Syria’s armed conflict are only made worse by throwing children into the front lines.” 

The number of children fighting with armed groups in Syria is not known. By June 2014, the Violations Documenting Center, a Syrian monitoring group, had documented 194 deaths of “non-civilian” male children in Syria since September 2011.

The children Human Rights Watch interviewed had fought in battles, acted as snipers, manned checkpoints, spied on hostile forces, treated the wounded on battlefields, and ferried ammunition and other supplies to front lines while fighting raged. They said they joined non-state armed groups for various reasons. Many followed their relatives or friends, while others lived in battle zones without schooling or other options. Some had participated in public protests that motivated them to do more, or had personally suffered at the hands of the government. While all those interviewed were boys, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) police force and armed wing, the People’s Protection Units, enlisted girls to guard checkpoints and conduct armed patrols in Kurdish-controlled areas.
Boys have joined armed opposition groups for various reasons. Many simply followed their relatives or friends. Others lived in battle zones without open schools, participated in public protests, or had personally suffered at the hands of the government. Islamist groups such as ISIS have more aggressively targeted children for recruitment, providing free lectures and schooling that included weapons and other military training.
“At first I was so scared…then I got used to it,” said Ayman, who began fighting with an FSA brigade in Salqin when he was 15 years old.
Others interviewed echoed his words. Few had plans or real hopes for their future beyond the next battle. “Maybe we’ll live, and maybe we’ll die,” said Omar, who began fighting at age 14 with Jabhat al-Nusra.
International humanitarian law (the laws of war) and international human rights law ban government forces and non-state armed groups from recruiting and using children as fighters and in other support roles. The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Syria ratified in 2003, bans non-state armies from recruiting or using children under age 18 in direct hostilities. Conscripting or enlisting children under 15, including for support roles, is a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
Several of the children interviewed said they fought with two or three different armed groups fighting Syrian government forces. Some -- like Amr who said he received US$100 a month -- received monthly salaries of up to $135, while others said they participated without pay. Many attended training camps where they learned military tactics and had weapons training.
Children who wished to leave armed groups and resume a civilian life told Human Rights Watch they had few options to do so. Saleh, 17, said he fought with the Free Syrian Army at 15 after he was detained and tortured by government security forces. He later joined Ahrar al-Sham, then left to join the Jund al-Aqsa, an independent Islamist armed group. “I thought of leaving [the fighting] a lot,” he said. “I lost my studies, I lost my future, I lost everything. I looked for work, but there’s no work. This is the most difficult period for me.”
Some armed groups told Human Rights Watch that they prohibit child recruitment, or have taken preliminary steps to end the practice. In March 2014, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, a coalition of opposition groups supported by the Free Syrian Army, announced that it had implemented “new training for Free Syrian Army members in International Humanitarian Law to eliminate the recruitment and participation of children in armed conflict.”
If they have not already done so, armed groups operating in Syria should publicly commit to end recruitment and use of children under age 18, and should demobilize all fighters or others under 18 currently in their ranks, Human Rights Watch said in the report.
Those recruited under age 18 but now no longer children should be free to leave opposition forces. Armed groups should also work with international agencies specialized in child protection to rehabilitate and reintegrate these children into civilian life. Finally, they should ensure that all officers under their command understand the ban on recruiting or seeking assistance from children, and establish age-verification procedures they must follow to enforce it. Officers responsible for recruitment who continue to enlist children should be appropriately disciplined.
To address the practice of children joining armed groups in Syria, UN bodies should seek public commitments from armed groups not to recruit or enlist children under age 18 and use age-verification procedures to ensure that children do not join. The UN Security Council should refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court to allow prosecution of war crimes, including the conscripting or enlisting of children under 15 into armed forces or non-state armed groups or their active participation in hostilities.
Governments providing aid to armed groups in Syria should review these groups’ policies on child recruitment, and should suspend all military sales and assistance, including technical training and services, to all forces credibly implicated in the widespread or systematic commission of serious abuses, including the use of child soldiers, until they stop committing these crimes and take appropriate disciplinary action against perpetrators. They should also restrict residents of their countries from providing military support to these groups.
Finally, humanitarian agencies operating in Syria or assisting refugees in neighboring countries should support efforts to provide secondary education opportunities for children, and address the particular needs and vulnerabilities of boys aged 13 to 18 in their child protection programming.