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Updated: 06 February, 2018 14:22 IST | Gaurav Sarkar | Mumbai

In a first, Female Genital Mutilation survivor group undertakes study to prove practice still continues in India

The Bohra faith is followed by 1.2 million people worldwide and is a sect of Shia Islam that originated in Yemen. Representational Picture/AFP
The Bohra faith is followed by 1.2 million people worldwide and is a sect of Shia Islam that originated in Yemen. Representational Picture/AFP

A first-of-its-kind study released yesterday in Delhi by MP Shashi Tharoor, on female genital mutilation and cutting (FGM/C) among Bohras in India, has revealed the mental and physical trauma that women face while practising the tradition. While 97 per cent of the 83 women surveyed, recalled the experience as "painful", 33 per cent claimed it had negatively impacted their sexual life, and 10 per cent reported of having developed urinary problems after.

The study, titled The Clitoral Hood a Contested Site: Khafz or FGM/C in India, was undertaken by Lakshmi Anantnarayan, Shaban Diler and Natasha Menon in collaboration with WeSpeakOut, the largest survivor-led movement to end the practice among Bohras, and Nari Samta Manch, a trust for gender equality.

Masooma Ranalvi, founder, WeSpeakOut
Masooma Ranalvi, founder, WeSpeakOut

Go figure
The team has called the findings "a fitting reply" to the Ministry of Women and Child Development, which in its affidavit to the Supreme Court in December 2017 — following a petition to ban the practice — had claimed that there was "no official data to support the existence of FGM/C in India". The study, funded by Maharashtra Foundation, a New York-based non-profit that promotes economic empowerment and social justice, and AmplifyChange, which, among other issues, works against sexual and gender-based violence, included responses from 94 participants of which 83 were women and 11 men.

Data indicated that 81 women in the sample had been subjected to khafz, also called khatna or FGM. While most recalled it as a traumatic experience, 37 per cent participants supported it, 43 per cent opposed it, 16 per cent changed their mind from pro to anti, and 4 per cent remained undecided.

Lakshmi Anantnarayan, writer of the study
Lakshmi Anantnarayan, writer of the study

"This is the first-ever qualitative research study of its kind. Nothing like this has been done before," said Masooma Ranalvi, founder, WeSpeakOut. Indian participants for the study were selected from 12 locations across five states — Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Kerala. Additionally, Bohra expatriates from three countries — Canada, United Arab Emirates and the United States of America — also participated in the study. The sample included traditional circumcisers, healthcare professionals, and teachers.

The team says it took care to cover a wide socio-economic bracket, diverse geographical locations including metropolises, small towns and medium cities, and covered the Reformists, Conformists, Alvi Bohras, etc.

Key findings
The 59-page report reveals startling statistics and trends regarding the practice in India. According to the report, 75 per cent of all women, who participated in the study sample, said their daughters were also subjected to FGM/C. Further, 97 per cent women, who had undergone khatna, recalled the experience from childhood as "painful". While most women said they suffered immediate pain from the procedure, only two women said they did not experience any immediate or long-term impact. Despite sex being a taboo subject, approximately 33 per cent of the women subjected to FGM/C in the study admitted that it had negatively impacted their sexual life.

Low sex drive, inability to experience sexual pleasure, difficulty in trusting partners, and over-sensitivity in the clitoral area were some of the problems they identified. Nearly 10 per cent of the women, who had undergone the procedure from the current study, specifically mentioned urinary problems, recurring UTI and burning. Respondents said they had felt fear, anxiety, shame, anger, depression, low self-esteem, and betrayal of trust following khatna.

'Khatna exists'
The report, which is rich in honest narratives from survivors, including an eight-year-old girl who underwent FGM/C last year and was stitched up 12 hours after a botched-up procedure, was undertaken following an affidavit submitted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development's to the apex court, which stated that there was
no data by the National Crime Records Bureau to support its practice or existence in India.

The ministry's affidavit was in response to a petition by advocate Sunita Tiwari seeking a ban on the practice that some girls within the Bohra community are subjected to. "The first step is to declare it as a crime; only then will government bodies like NCRB carry out further research," said Ranalvi. "Anyone who doubts or denies the existence of FGM/C in India must read this report," she added.

'More than just a nick'
Supporters of the practice in India claim that the practice is not FGM/C because "it is just a nick on the clitoral hood, which is just useless skin". But the writer of the study, Anantnarayan, who is an independent researcher with a masters in social work and sustainable international development, said, "Most women subjected to khatna in India undergo type 1 FGM/C or clitoridectomy (partial or total removal of the clitoral hood) and very few younger women may be subjected to type 4 FGM/C (pricking, piercing, cauterisation)."

Dr Sujaat Vali, gynaecologist, who observed FGM/C in 20 Bohra patients for the report, also confirmed that type 1 FGM/C is the predominant practice in India, but said it was "more than just a nick", as otherwise presumed. "Given that most girls are cut at age seven, without anaesthesia, by traditional cutters, and the procedure happens in a minute or two, the operator does not get enough time to figure out the separation between the clitoris and the skin. So, usually, they end up cutting the clitoris along with the skin that covers it," Vali pointed out in the study.

FGM among Bohras in India became a subject of heated debate when two international legal cases against practising Bohras in Australia and the US came to light. The protesters hope to end the practice through legal reform in India and by raising community awareness about the psychological impact of the tradition on women. Unfortunately, few national-level studies have been conducted and published, often giving the supporters the right to cite 'lack of evidence' about the impact of FGM/C in India to argue that it is not harmful.

Areas the study covered
Gujarat, MP, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Kerala, plus Bohra expats from Canada, United Arab Emirates and the United States of America
The fallout
Approximately 33% of women subjected to khatna in the study believe FGM/C has negatively impacted their sexual life. They noticed:
* Low sex drive 
* Inability to feel sexual pleasure 
* Difficulty trusting sexual partners 
* Over-sensitivity in the clitoral area
* Fear, anxiety, shame, anger, low self-esteem

Study recommends
* The Government of India must stop denying the existence of khatna and act to end it.
* Launch a targeted, grass-root level outreach programme to reach younger women (19-30 years) in medium cities and small towns with higher concentrations of Bohras.
* Constitute a closed safe group for survivors to build a support network. 
* Work with men, especially youths, and formalise a space to politicise their role in stopping FGM/C. 
* Inform traditional circumcisers about the harms of FGM/C and train them in alternative income-generating activities that are more remunerative.
* Educate non-Bohra doctors serving Bohras about FGM/C. Train anti-FGM/C doctors to counsel Bohra patients (parents of five- or six-year-old girls) about the health consequences and risks of FGM/C. 
* Carry out a multi-disciplinary research study on the psycho-sexual and physical health impacts of type 1 FGM/C in India.



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First Published: 06 February, 2018 08:03 IST

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