ritual cutting

Petition against female genital mutilation in India gets nearly 2,000 signatures in 48 hours

This is the first time women of the Bohra community have openly signed a petition against the practice without seeking anonymity.

A petition calling for a law to ban female genital mutilation in India has received 1,800 endorsements less than two days after it was released on Tuesday. The letter is signed by 16 women of the Dawoodi Bohra community who have themselves been subjected to ritual genital cutting when they were young.

The Dawoodi Bohras are an influential Shia Islam sub-sect hailing predominantly from Gujarat. There are around 1.5 million Bohras, around half of whom live in India and the rest abroad. They are the only community in India known to practice FGM, which is also known as female circumcision.

“It is historic that 16 Dawoodi Bohra women who have all been subjected to FGM have signed the petition openly,” said Masooma Ranalvi, the first signatory of the letter and founder of a platform of Bohras called Speak Out on FGM.

This is the first time Bohra women have revealed their identities in signing a petition against the practice. The community is tightly knit and not given to openness about the practice, which is why few outsiders know about it, Ranalvi said. On Wednesday, she had been fielding shocked calls all day from people who had never heard of the practice.

“Because this is a very educated, middle-class community, people think nothing goes wrong,” she said. “But this is a closely knit community over which the clergy has a tight control. A lot of women want to speak out, but they don’t want to be identified because of fear of persecution.”

Brave gesture

Members of the community who speak out against the clergy face the risk of a social boycott, being cut off from their families and social circles. Those who are boycotted as not permitted to participate in religious functions and no priest will officiate at their funerals.

This letter is addressed to the Ministers of Women and Child Development, Law and Justice, and Health and Family Welfare. It asks for them to pass a law banning the practice of female genital mutilation. It notes that the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution to eliminate FGM in 2012. Once it has received enough signatures, Ranalvi plans to take this up directly with the government.

An older petition in 2012 was signed anonymously by a woman identified as Tasleem. This letter, addressed to the Syedna, who is the community’s spiritual head and has the last word on community practices, was ignored by the clergy at the time.  Ranalvi said that even media enquiries directed at him and people close to him in the hierarchy were ignored. This petition got more than 3,000 signatures of a goal of 5,000.

The legal approach

According to classification by the World Health Organisation, the kind of circumcision practiced by the Bohras is Type 1, where a part or whole of the clitoris is cut. In Types 3 and 4, which are most severe, most of a woman’s external genitalia is removed. This might sometimes involve sewing up the vaginal opening.

Nigeria and Gambia recently banned the practice, to international acclaim. FGM is outlawed in more than 20 countries in Africa, where genital mutilation is most prevalent.

Bohras outside India also practice FGM. In November, the Supreme Court of Australia convicted three Dawoodi Bohras for practicing genital mutilation on two young girls. The girls’ mother, the nurse who performed the operation and a senior member of the clergy will be sentenced in February.

“The whole practice stems from India because this is the spiritual centre,” Ranalvi said. “Bohras wherever they are in the world continue practicing FGM, even if the law of the land says it is not allowed.”

This is why though the group's petition is addressed to the Indian government, she and several others are also working to reach out to their community to discuss why the practice should be ended.

“People have been conditioned for centuries without knowledge of how harmful this is,” Ranalvi said. “You cannot bring change from above. It has to be from within. We are working with the community to educate women, talk to people and raise our voices, but we need a law to support us.”

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Relying on the power of habits to solve India’s mammoth sanitation problem

Adopting three simple habits can help maximise the benefits of existing sanitation infrastructure.

India’s sanitation problem is well documented – the country was recently declared as having the highest number of people living without basic sanitation facilities. Sanitation encompasses all conditions relating to public health - especially sewage disposal and access to clean drinking water. Due to associated losses in productivity caused by sickness, increased healthcare costs and increased mortality, India recorded a loss of 5.2% of its GDP to poor sanitation in 2015. As tremendous as the economic losses are, the on-ground, human consequences of poor sanitation are grim - about one in 10 deaths, according to the World Bank.

Poor sanitation contributes to about 10% of the world’s disease burden and is linked to even those diseases that may not present any correlation at first. For example, while lack of nutrition is a direct cause of anaemia, poor sanitation can contribute to the problem by causing intestinal diseases which prevent people from absorbing nutrition from their food. In fact, a study found a correlation between improved sanitation and reduced prevalence of anaemia in 14 Indian states. Diarrhoeal diseases, the most well-known consequence of poor sanitation, are the third largest cause of child mortality in India. They are also linked to undernutrition and stunting in children - 38% of Indian children exhibit stunted growth. Improved sanitation can also help reduce prevalence of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). Though not a cause of high mortality rate, NTDs impair physical and cognitive development, contribute to mother and child illness and death and affect overall productivity. NTDs caused by parasitic worms - such as hookworms, whipworms etc. - infect millions every year and spread through open defecation. Improving toilet access and access to clean drinking water can significantly boost disease control programmes for diarrhoea, NTDs and other correlated conditions.

Unfortunately, with about 732 million people who have no access to toilets, India currently accounts for more than half of the world population that defecates in the open. India also accounts for the largest rural population living without access to clean water. Only 16% of India’s rural population is currently served by piped water.

However, there is cause for optimism. In the three years of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the country’s sanitation coverage has risen from 39% to 65% and eight states and Union Territories have been declared open defecation free. But lasting change cannot be ensured by the proliferation of sanitation infrastructure alone. Ensuring the usage of toilets is as important as building them, more so due to the cultural preference for open defecation in rural India.

According to the World Bank, hygiene promotion is essential to realise the potential of infrastructure investments in sanitation. Behavioural intervention is most successful when it targets few behaviours with the most potential for impact. An area of public health where behavioural training has made an impact is WASH - water, sanitation and hygiene - a key issue of UN Sustainable Development Goal 6. Compliance to WASH practices has the potential to reduce illness and death, poverty and improve overall socio-economic development. The UN has even marked observance days for each - World Water Day for water (22 March), World Toilet Day for sanitation (19 November) and Global Handwashing Day for hygiene (15 October).

At its simplest, the benefits of WASH can be availed through three simple habits that safeguard against disease - washing hands before eating, drinking clean water and using a clean toilet. Handwashing and use of toilets are some of the most important behavioural interventions that keep diarrhoeal diseases from spreading, while clean drinking water is essential to prevent water-borne diseases and adverse health effects of toxic contaminants. In India, Hindustan Unilever Limited launched the Swachh Aadat Swachh Bharat initiative, a WASH behaviour change programme, to complement the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Through its on-ground behaviour change model, SASB seeks to promote the three basic WASH habits to create long-lasting personal hygiene compliance among the populations it serves.

This touching film made as a part of SASB’s awareness campaign shows how lack of knowledge of basic hygiene practices means children miss out on developmental milestones due to preventable diseases.

Play

SASB created the Swachhata curriculum, a textbook to encourage adoption of personal hygiene among school going children. It makes use of conceptual learning to teach primary school students about cleanliness, germs and clean habits in an engaging manner. Swachh Basti is an extensive urban outreach programme for sensitising urban slum residents about WASH habits through demos, skits and etc. in partnership with key local stakeholders such as doctors, anganwadi workers and support groups. In Ghatkopar, Mumbai, HUL built the first-of-its-kind Suvidha Centre - an urban water, hygiene and sanitation community centre. It provides toilets, handwashing and shower facilities, safe drinking water and state-of-the-art laundry operations at an affordable cost to about 1,500 residents of the area.

HUL’s factory workers also act as Swachhata Doots, or messengers of change who teach the three habits of WASH in their own villages. This mobile-led rural behaviour change communication model also provides a volunteering opportunity to those who are busy but wish to make a difference. A toolkit especially designed for this purpose helps volunteers approach, explain and teach people in their immediate vicinity - their drivers, cooks, domestic helps etc. - about the three simple habits for better hygiene. This helps cast the net of awareness wider as regular interaction is conducive to habit formation. To learn more about their volunteering programme, click here. To learn more about the Swachh Aadat Swachh Bharat initiative, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hindustan Unilever and not by the Scroll editorial team.