Women’s rights in India – When tradition trumps law

Women’s rights in India – When tradition trumps law

“Sexism is the root oppression, the one which, until and unless we uproot it, will continue to put forth the branch of racism, class, hatred, ageism, competition, ecological disaster, and economic exploitation. No other human differentiation can be similarly powerful in reproducing oppressions, and so, women are the real left.”

-Robin Morgan in Sisterhood is Powerful

Inequalities and diversities define Indian society. In spite of various laws that protect women’s rights, Indian women face some of the biggest gender inequalities in the world. Over the course of Indian history, women’s rights and position in society has been subject to many changes. How did their rights change over time? And what are issues Indian women struggle with nowadays?

History of feminism in India

Indian women did not always face inequalities. In the Vedic period of Hindu culture (c. 1500 – c. 500 BCE), they held the same position as men. Women enjoyed high standards of education, and female scholars like Gargi, Godha, Maitrayi were well-known for their intellectual and literacy abilities. Women also had complete control over gifts and property received at the time of marriage. 

Women’s status quickly declined after, when they were no longer allowed to study religious texts or to receive an education. Instead, they were expected to get married and manage their marriage and domestic lives. Child marriages were not uncommon. Restrictions were also placed on women’s appearance towards men outside of their family – they had to wear a veil to cover their face or whole body when leaving the house.

Women’s position in society further declined during the medieval period when widow immolation, child marriages and a ban on widow remarriage became part of social life in some communities in India. In some areas, groups of women would even immolate themselves together to avoid being turned into sex slaves of enemies after the death of their husbands in war, a practice called Jauhar. Moreover, in many Muslim families women were restricted to inner areas of the house to avoid direct contact with strangers.

When British colonisers arrived in India, several laws aiming to improve the position of women were introduced, such as a prohibition of widow immolation, the Hindu widow remarriage act allowing widow Hindu women to get married again, and the child marriage act which raised the minimum age for marriage to 18 for women and 21 for men.

In the 1920s, various local independent women’s organisations emerged. Among them was the All India Women’s Conference, which was founded in 1927 and aimed to improve literacy levels of women and children. Later, women’s movements became part of Mahatma Gandhi’s Quit India movement, which demanded an end to British rule in India. This opened the door for the spread of women’s organisations1 and legitimised and expanded women’s public activities. 

Although women’s rights groups continued their work after India gained independence in 1947, their advocacy was initially silenced as nationalist agendas on nation-building took precedence over feminism topic2. After, the feminist movement mainly focused on the reasonable treatment of women at home and in the workforce, and on the right to join a political party1. In 1954, the National Federation of Indian Women was established to fight for the empowerment of women and their rights. In the 1970s, the focus of the feminist movement shifted to inequalities such as unequal wages and the relegation of women to unskilled and underpaid spheres of work. 

Over the years, new laws came into force to protect women. Among them were laws to protect women from domestic violence and sexual harassment, and a prohibition of dowry. Feminists helped increase the extent to which women were allowed to engage in the workforce and women gained the right to vote and be elected into the Parliament. This led to the election of India’s first, and so far only, female Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi.

Gandhi, who was elected in 1966 and then again in 1980, spoke out for women’s right to political participation in decision-making processes and political activism. She was killed because of political motives in 1984. Gandhi’s legacy is an unforgettable one. She sought to set an example for women leaders across the country to seek positions of (political) influence and served as an inspiration for many of them. 

Today, in the early 21st century, the aim of the Indian feminist movement has gone beyond treating women as useful members of the society to also ensuring women have the power to decide the course of their personal lives and that they have the right of self-determination1.

Modern-day challenges

Despite ‘on-paper’ advancements, Indian women still face many challenges that prevent them from taking full advantage of their rights and opportunities. Many traditions and customs that are enshrined in the Indian culture still restrict women’s right to self-determination. For instance, in spite of the Dowry Prohibition Act, families in many parts of the country are still expected to pay a dowry when their daughter enters marriage3. This tradition makes daughters be perceived as a financial burden on families. As a woman’s status in her husband’s house is determined by the dowry she brought upon marriage, a family’s ability to afford a big dowry determines whether a woman has a good married life or not. This, along with the expectation that a new wife will move away from her family to be with her husband and family in law and will thus not be able to take care of her parents, makes that families generally prefer having sons over having daughters. 

Moreover, in India’s male-dominated society, women’s main role is still to have children and to take care of them and all household activities. These social norms imposed on women often conflict with the Indian constitution, as they prevent women from have equal opportunities in life. Even though they are considered illegal, the Indian government chooses not to interfere with religion and personal norms4 to avoid controversy. Authorities only act when women or girls file complaints against discriminating activities, something that only rarely happens as women experience pressure or do not feel safe to do so.

Being worth less

Indian society is largely composed of hierarchical systems which can be broken down into age, gender, kinship relationships, caste, occupations, and relationship to the ruling power. For women this hierarchy means that, from birth onwards, they are entitled to less; from playtime to food to education. Girls in poor families suffer most from this vulnerability and are more likely to become child brides. When poverty is acute, marrying off a daughter allows parents to reduce their expenses. It means one person less to feed, clothe and educate. Although child marriage is illegal by Indian law, yearly 1.5 million under-aged girls are forced to enter marriage, making India home to the largest number of child brides in the world. In 2016, 7 per cent of girls under 15 and 27 per cent of girls under 18 years old were married. To make matters worse, girls who enter into marriage at a young age are less likely to receive education after, increasing the likelihood of lifelong poverty.

Moreover, in India’s patriarchal society, men predominate in roles of political power, social privilege, and control of the property. Fathers or husbands are presumed to be in charge of what happens within their family and function as the official head of the household. All household resources are under the husband’s control and are passed on to his sons when he dies, leaving wives and daughters in poverty.

The male-to-female ratio

While a natural sex ratio is roughly 105 men and boys for every 100 women and girls, in 2015 India had 108 males for every 100 females. That means that there are roughly 2.8 per cent fewer girls and women alive than the natural ratio predicts, another manifestation of their lower worth. 

One reason for India’s uneven gender balance is the occurrence of female infanticide, the murder of baby girls. It has been estimated that, of the 12 million Indian girls born each year, 1 million does not make it to the age of 1 and that an Indian girl between ages 1 and 5 is 75 per cent more likely to die than a boy. Parents make the difficult decision to end their daughter’s life mainly because daughters are often seen as a financial burden to families or because parents may want to spare their daughters the hard life poor girls and women in India often face.

While the murder of baby girls is mainly an issue in lower-educated communities, this does not mean higher-educated families have not found ways to have boys instead of girls. Although foetal sex determination is banned in India, it is secretly practised to determine whether a pregnant couple is having a boy or a girl, often leading to a number of sex-selective abortions until the couple has a son. 

Another issue contributing to an uneven gender-ratio is that women might face barriers in accessing health care services. The World Economic Forum found that Indian women enjoyed only 94.4 per cent of access to healthcare that men do, meaning that millions of Indian women face preventable health issues due to gender-based healthcare barriers. 


The violence that girls face as infants continues throughout life. In 2018 the Thomas Reuters Foundation found that India was the most dangerous country in the world to be a woman. Reasons were the high risk for women to face sexual violence and harassment or to become a victim of human trafficking, and dangers for women due to cultural, tribal and traditional practices. In 2018, 43 crimes against women were reported every hour in India, most of which (32 per cent) fell in the category “cruelty by husband or his relatives”. This corresponds to UNICEF’s finding that 22 per cent of girls and women were subjected to physical, sexual or psychological violence by a current or former intimate partner during the previous twelve months. 

Sexual violence is a daily threat to women in India. In 2018, 33,356 women reported being raped, and 294 women and girls became the victim of murder with rape. Of 8,538 female murder victims, 7,166 were killed because of dowry, either by their own family or by their in-laws. Moreover, women were also overrepresented as victims of other crimes. For example, in 105,000 kidnapping cases, 77 per cent of victims were female (46 per cent women, 31 per cent girls).

While laws such as the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act from 2005 and mitigations to the Criminal law aim to ensure women’s safety, they seem to do little to actually protect women from violence. Court cases for crimes against women only led to a conviction in 23 per cent of court cases in 2018. Many reported cases never make it to court because victims face pressure from family to drop the case. To make matters worse, many cases never even get reported because victims do not feel safe or face tremendous pressure not to, leading to an underestimation of violence against women in India and perpetrators going unpunished. All of these different levels of violence against women have left India as a country in which there are 37 million more men than women and women have to fear for their lives on a daily basis.

Marriage, children and household responsibilities

Traditional and social pressure on Indian women to enter marriage is significant. Marriages are considered to be between two families rather than two individuals, and in many families women are not allowed to decide whether or to whom to get married. Instead, when a woman’s relatives decide it is time, they choose a suitable partner for her. This generally happens at a young age too. In fact, over a fourth of Indian women is married by the time they are 18, and it is unusual for a woman not to enter into marriage at all. 

Once married, a wife’s life is ruled by her husband and his parents5 and her main responsibility becomes having and raising children and managing household tasks. According to the OECD, Indian women on average spend roughly six hours a day on unpaid work such as household tasks and taking care of children and relatives. This is six times more than Indian men, and more than women in any other OECD country. Women’s unpaid work is often overlooked as the results are often-times invisible or just not given any importance and it does not bring in any money. However, unpaid work plays a crucial role in keeping the country’s economic activity going and is estimated to be worth roughly 3.1 per cent of India’s GDP, not to mention it plays a big role in ensuring the wellbeing of children and the elderly. 

However, India’s fertility rate has been steadily declining for roughly 60 years from approximately 6 children to just over 2 children per woman in 2017. Contraceptives and education have enabled women who have access to them to take control of their reproductive function and to build lives outside of the home. For women who do not have access, however, little has changed.


Indian women’s unequal careers opportunities start very early in life, as girls have fewer opportunities to receive education. In 2018, 4.1 per cent of girls between the ages 11 and 14  and 13.5 per cent of girls aged 15 and 16 still were not enrolled in school. The popular belief that girls should enter marriage early in life to produce healthy offspring is one of the things standing in the way of girls receiving a proper education. And as daughters will just get married and have children, families often do not see a reason to invest in their education. Another reason for girls’ lower enrolment rates is the expectation that girls stay at home and help their mothers in domestic activities after a certain age, instead of going to school. This allows them to learn to do household activities such as cooking, stitching and cleaning, which will be expected from them once they are married. Because their mothers often did not receive a lot of education either, this is where many girls’ education stops. 

However, things have improved over the last decades. The 1986 National Policy on Education aimed to empower women by creating a learning environment that enabled them to realise their potential and take charge of their own lives. The policy expanded scholarships and adult education, provided housing and incentives to poor families to send their children to school and set out the development of new educational institutions. It also expanded the open university system, which has an open-door academic policy with minimal or no entry requirements. This policy was later followed-up by the 2009 Right to Education Act, which made education free and compulsory for all children between the ages of 6 and 14, and thereby made it more acceptable for girls to receive an education.

Employment and positions of power

As girl are more likely to receive less education, they are overrepresented among illiterate Indians. According to the latest data, India’s adult literacy rate is 73.2 per cent – of 313 million illiterate Indians, 59 per cent are women. Once they enter the job market, low education and literacy levels confine women to low paying and low skilled jobs.

However, like in virtually any country in the world, women are still paid less than men for doing the same jobs. The World Economic Forum found that Indian women earn only 55.5 cents for every dollar Indian men earn and enjoy only 35.4 per cent of economic participation and opportunities that men do. Women are also grossly underrepresented as legislators, senior officials and managers, as they are 84.2 per cent less likely to hold such a position. On top of that, only 11.5 per cent of members of Parliament are women. 

The Indian government has made efforts to eliminate inequality in the workforce. Indian constitution guarantees the right to equality, the freedom to carry out any profession and the right to liberty. Moreover, the Equal Remuneration Act of 1976 grants equal employment rights to men and women and aimed to increase equal pay and decrease gender discrimination in the workplace. These guarantees can empower women to make their own choices and can decrease gender disparity. It is clear that Indian laws have created a framework in which women and girls can enjoy equal opportunities and treatment. At this point, it is mostly weak enforcement of such laws and the traditional role models that are projected onto girls and women that keep them from reaching their potential.

The Swayam Sidha scheme, which was launched by the Ministry for Women and Child Development in 2001, tried to break through such role patterns. The scheme aims to empower women and make them financially independent with the support of 650 women’s self-help groups, voluntary associations of women in vulnerable situations. These groups help women have better access to all kinds of resources such as microcredit, in addition to increasing awareness of women’s rights and improving skills. The scheme resulted in improvements in the socioeconomic status of rural poor women and to improved skills of women to generate an income. 

Women in cinema

Finally, when it comes to women’s empowerment India, Bollywood films have proven to be a groundbreaking factor. With its huge popularity, Bollywood cinema is a major point of reference for Indian culture and has played a big role in promoting the empowerment of women in India. In conventional Indian movies, the role of female characters was usually restricted to being a good homemaker and a good mother. More recently, we see a significant improvement in the roles played by women in Indian films, with profound characters that have unconventional roles in life. Popular movies and female characters leave a mark on society and are an inspiration for women all over India.

Inequality – more than gender alone

When looking into the inequalities faced by women in India, it is hard to ignore all the other factors that create inequality for large sections of Indian society, including men. For one, the caste system, which stratifies the Indian population into hierarchical groups based on their karma and dharma, creates huge inequality by giving privileges to some and repressing lower castes. For instance, while the less caste’s average income is 34 per cent under the national household income, the highest caste’s average income lies 48 per cent above. Moreover, castes seem to have a significant effect on one’s health outcomes, with the lowest caste having a 7.1 years lower life expectancy, a lower likelihood of receiving healthcare, and more likelihood of being in poor health. 

Another factor that significantly affects one’s chances in life is the location in which they live. One-third of the Indian population lives in rural areas, where extreme poverty is rampant, education is poor and 15 per cent fewer people know how to read. Gender differences are also bigger in rural areas. For instance, women are 16 per cent less likely to be able to read in rural areas, compared to 9 per cent in urban areas. Child marriage is also more common in rural areas, with at least a quarter of girls age 10 to 17 married in some regions.

Life is also far from easy for India’s LGBT+ community. According to the government’s estimations, there are 2.5 million gay people in India, although LGBT+ rights activists say the real figure is likely to be higher. Sadly, no data is available on the number of trans or non-binary people or other members of the community. Besides a 2018 Supreme Court ruling that decriminalised same-sex relationships and a 2014 ruling that recognised transgender people as a third gender, Indian law does not include many protections for LGBT+ people. People from the community are more likely to face gender-based violence and harassment, including from police as well. They are often discriminated against when looking for housing and are more likely to experience homelessness as they are forced to leave their family homes. They are also more often denied education and are more likely to face discrimination when looking for a job and to end up in jobs that offer less security and worse working conditions. 

As Hindu nationalism is becoming more prominent, India is also becoming more and more a dangerous place to be a Muslim. While 14.2 per cent of the Indian population is Muslim, Muslims are increasingly being treated as foreigners, invaders. Prime Minister Modi, who was first elected in 2014, has played a big role in this increased violence, as his strategy relies on polarisation between Hindus and Muslims, and framing Muslims as a common enemy. Ever since, they have been the targets of lynchings and other forms of violence and discrimination. Most prominently, Modi’s government promised a so-called National Register of Citizens that will require Indians to provide documentary evidence of their citizenship, something that Muslims are less likely to be able to deliver. To illustrate, when a version of this exercise was conducted in the state of Assam, 1.9 million Muslims were declared non-citizens


How well a society treats women is a robust indicator of the success of that society. Equal participation of women at all stages is not just a matter of social justice, it is also an important factor for economic growth and sustainable development.

There is no denying the fact that Indian women have made considerable progress in the past years, but they still have to overcome many obstacles that prevent them from fully participating in India’s male-dominated society. For women’s empowerment to gain momentum, laws meant to protect women should not remain on paper only. Substantial steps should be taken to implement the laws which were meant to facilitate detention, prevention, and punishment of crimes against women. Moreover, efforts to ensure girls and women’s education should be increased, and society, specifically women, should be made aware of the various laws, policies and funding schemes that are meant to protect women and provide them with opportunities. Popular media also plays a big role in breaking gender roles, and with that, the expectations laid upon women, by showing women in non-traditional roles. 

However, the underlying problem to women’s unequal position is a society that is built on class and inequality. Women and girls are just one of many groups whose life is made more difficult by a conservative society in which Hindu heterosexual men from the highest castes and who live in urban settings hold power. Ultimately, progress made by women will remain meager unless the underlying system of inequality is resolved. 

Foot notes

  1. Kumar R. The History of Doing: An Illustrated Account of Movements for Women’s Rights and Feminism in India 1800-1990. Zubaan; 1997. 
  2. Neely CL. Book Review: Gangoli, G. (2007). Indian Feminisms: Law, Patriarchies, and Violence in India. London: Ashgate Publishing. das Dasgupta, S. (Ed.). (2007). Body Evidence: Intimate Violence Against South Asian Women in America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. Violence Women 2008;14(4):496–501. 
  3. Chaudhuri M. Feminism in India. 1 edition. London: Zed Books; 2005. 
  4. Narain V. Reclaiming the Nation: Muslim Women and the Law in India. University of Toronto Press; 2008. 
  5. Sharma I, Pandit B, Pathak A, Sharma R. Hinduism, marriage and mental illness. Indian J Psychiatry     2013;55(Suppl 2):S243–9.
Posted by Dr. Abha Kaundal in Current Affairs, Feminism
Feminism – accomplishments and challenges

Feminism – accomplishments and challenges

Feminism is a global movement aimed at advancing women’s rights. It has a long and complex history, with big and small accomplishments in each country and region. In this first part of the feminism mini-series, we discuss these accomplishments, but also shed a light on the challenges it still faces.

Fundamental rights

One of the most famous accomplishment of feminists is the acquirement of women’s right to vote and to hold public office. Famously, the suffragettes fought for these rights in Ireland, the UK and the USA. However, it was New Zealand who first granted the right to vote and hold public office to women in 1893. Other countries were quick to follow. In 2011, Saudi Arabia was the last country so far to join those where women have these basic rights. Nowadays, there are just two countries that have yet to come through; Brunei, where all citizens are denied the right to vote, and Vatican City.

Building a live

Another important fundamental right that women and girls enjoy because of the work of feminists is the right to education. Receiving a proper education opens doors for women and empowers them to choose the kind of live they want to live. Girls who have received education are less likely to become victim of domestic and sexual violence and to enter into child marriage. Moreover, educated women have greater chances of escaping poverty, leading healthier and more productive lives, and can thereby provide a higher standard of living for their children, families and communities.

As beneficial proper education is to girls, its effects go much further than that. Mothers who have received education are much more likely to ensure that their children receive education. They also generally have less children, which enables them to direct more resources to the children they have. Moreover, their children are generally more healthy.

However, while an increasing number of girls go to school, worldwide 130 million girls still do not have access to education. While gender seems to play little role in whether a girl has access to primary education, it is a huge factor in secondary education and beyond. Moreover, whenever education is disrupted by conflict or early marriage, girls are far less likely to go back to school than boys.

Sexual and reproductive rights

Whether and how many children women have significantly impacts their health and wellbeing and their social and economic situation. While a great deal of credit should be given to scientists for coming up with measures such as birth control and abortion, women would not have the right to use these technological advances to their benefits if it had not been for feminists. By establishing rights to birth control, sexual education and abortion, feminism has given women the power to decide over their own futures. 

However, feminism’s accomplishments in terms of sexual and reproductive rights extend beyond family planning abilities. For instance, just a few decades ago, notions of sexual assault and rape were non-existent because women were seen as property, they did not have rights. Because of the efforts of the feminist anti-rape movement, the notion of sexual assault emerged around the 1970s. Most countries now define coerced sexual acts as rape. Moreover, practically every country in the world defines sex with children now as statutory rape because children cannot consent, with notable exceptions of Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

By creating the notion of sexual assault, feminism basically established the right to bodily integrity, the right to control one’s own body. This was a giant step forward, as the common preconception used to be that women caused men to have sex with them, purely by being in their presence. Women used to be seen as a temptation for sex to which men had no way of resisting. But increasingly, men’s predatory behaviour is seen as being the problem.

More than just a vessle of life

By fighting for access to birth control and establishing the notion of sexual assault and women’s right to bodily autonomy, feminists managed to liberate women from the burden that their reproductive function used to be. Women are less and less seen as having just one function – to create new life -, and are increasingly seen as full people who should be able to decide for themselves what to do with their lives and whether or not to have children. Women’s new-found control over their sexuality and reproductive functions has enabled them to take on other roles than solely being a mother.

However, these advances do not mean that feminists’ work for women’s reproductive and sexual rights is finished. Countless women all over the world still face sexual abuse and violence, and struggle with a lack of control over their own bodies. In the US, for instance, 1 in 6 women has experienced rape (attempted and/or completed), and someone is sexually assaulted every 92 seconds. In Europe, where 1 in 20 women have been raped since the age of 15, all countries have laws that criminalise forcing someone to have sex, but only 8 countries have laws that define sex without consent as rape.

Moreover, there are still many places where women do not have access to birth control measures and abortions, and where motherhood is not so much a choice as just something that happens. For example, 214 million women of reproductive age in developing countries who want to avoid pregnancy do not use modern contraceptive methods because of limited choices and access, cultural and religious opposition, and gender-based barriers.

The challenge of being truly inclusive

While feminism has many accomplishments, it has been heavily criticised for failing to be inclusive, accounting only for around the white cis-gendered female perspective. It thereby neglected to account for the situation of women of colour, women in non-western countries, and less-abled, low-income, and LGBTI women. These women were often kept out of feminist protest movements and did not benefit from feminists’ accomplishments.  

For instance, while feminism has been successful in criminalising violence against women, it has failed to protect trans women. These women are still extremely likely to face violence and intimidation. A trans woman’s life expectancy is substantially lower because of the threat of being murdered. In the US, for instance, trans women of colour are expected to live for only 35 years, while their cis-gendered counterparts are expected to live to 78 years.

Moreover, while we are increasingly aware of the objectification of women’s bodies and promote body-positivity, black women’s bodies are still often seen as different or exotic. On the other side of the coin, the crusade on the sexualisation of women has included forcing Muslim women in Europe out of their hijab, without even asking or considering whether they want to wear it. 

More than gender alone

To be really inclusive, feminism has to acknowledge that gender is not the sole reason why women face discrimination. Instead, it is just one factor that interacts with other forms of discrimination, such as age, socioeconomic status, mental ability, physical ability, sexual identity, religion and ethnicity. For instance, a black woman in North-America or Europe likely faces discrimination based on sexism, as well as on racism.

Moreover, feminism should acknowledge that women’s experiences are not similar. A woman in India encounters different obstacles and forms of oppression than a woman in the Netherlands, just like black women in the USA have different experiences than white woman, even if they live in the same country. Different age groups also have different experiences. Basically, different forms of discrimination together shape how women experience inequality, and it is crucial or any equality movement to acknowledge this.

While women are probably the largest discriminated group in the world, we should also acknowledge that they are not the only group that faces discrimination. For instance, while women in the USA got the right to vote in 1920, it was not until 1965 until all racial minorities, regardless of gender, received this right. And while Canada granted women voting rights in 1917, Canadian Indian women received the same right only in 1960. The same goes for Australia and South-Africa, where Aboriginals and black citizens received voting rights only decades after the white population did.

Clearly, gender is just one of many factors based on which people experience discrimination. True feminism strives for inclusive societies in which everyone has equal rights and opportunities, regardless of factors such as gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. 

It’s not a contest

Different social groups clearly have different experiences that deserve to be acknowledged. However, feminism should be careful not to turn into a contest of who is worst off. Instead, it is about the acknowledgement that we all have different experiences, and working together to increase equality for all. True equality leaves no one behind.

Posted by Chantal Verdonschot in Current Affairs, Feminism
Female genital mutilation; stats, obstacles and solutions in 2019

Female genital mutilation; stats, obstacles and solutions in 2019

Last week marked a milestone for the fight against female genital mutilation (FGM). A mother of a three-year-old girl became the first person to be convicted of FGM in the United Kingdom. The cutting of the little girl took place during the summer of 2017. 

While this practice had been outlawed for more than three decades, the UK had never had a conviction for it. The crime carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years. Campaigners hope that the new conviction will encourage other victims to come forward and report the crime. 

Female genital mutilation, also called female genital cutting or female circumcision, is the ritual putting or removal of some all of the external female genitalia. There are a few different types of FGM, which all typically includes the partial or total removal of the clitoris. 

FGM is a way to control women’s sexuality and to ensure virginity before marriage and fidelity afterwards. It is also meant to increase male sexual pleasure. It is internationally recognised as a human rights violation. FGM is practised in households at all educational levels and social classes. Moreover, it occurs among many religious groups, including Muslims, Christians and animists. 

The physical and emotional pain of FGM

“The pain inflicted by FGM does not stop with the initial procedure, but often continues as ongoing torture throughout a woman’s life.”

Manfred Nowak, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture.

After girls have been cut, they might experience health problems, discomfort and pain for the rest of their lives. Examples are difficulty urinating, frequent pain and infections, menstrual problems, kidney damage and failure, cysts and abscesses, pain during sex and infertility. The more immediate effects include severe pain, infections such as hepatitis B and C, and organ damage.

Moreover, when women who have undergone FGM give birth, they face higher health risks. They are at higher risk for adverse effects during childbirth, and genital mutilation in mothers also has adverse effects on their newborn babies. One to two babies per 100 deliveries dies as a result of FGM. Moreover, when giving birth, scar tissue might tear and afterwards the vagina is often “ sewn up” again, causing additional pain for women. 

Moreover, FGM also leaves its mark on the mental wellbeing of girls and women. Studies have found that girls can experience immediate psychological trauma caused by the pain, shock and the use of physical force by those performing FGM. In the long-term, girls can experience post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and memory loss. About 80% of women who have been cut suffer from mood or anxiety disorders. Because of the continuous pain caused by FGM, there is a higher risk of depressed mood, with reduced functioning, feelings of worthlessness and guilt, and even suicidal tendencies. 

What is the scale?

FGM is practised in 42 countries in Africa, the Middle East and in Asia. Moreover, it is also prevalent in communities from those countries in for example the UK, USA, and Europe. 200 million women and girls worldwide live with the consequences of FGM. Research has shown that 44 million of these survivors are younger than 15 years old. Every year, about 3 million girls are estimated to be at risk of FGM.

FGM in Africa, the Middle East and Asia

In the four countries where FGM is most common, Sierra Leone, Djibouti, Guinea and Somalia, nearly every girl between the ages of 15 and 49 has been cut. But things seem to be slowly changing. In the 10 countries with the highest rates of FGM, its prevalence is declining. Whereas in 1985, 51 per cent of women aged 15 to 19 had undergone FGM, in 2000 this was 46 per cent, and in 2016 it was 37 per cent. 

Moreover, 63 per cent of men and 67 per cent of women in countries where FGM is common think that this practice should be history. However, because of population growth in the most affected countries, the actual number of girls could actually be increasing despite a decline in the practice. But while FGM practices are decreasing in practising countries, its prevalence outside of practising countries is growing because of migration.

FGM in Europe

Each year, 180,000 girls and women in FGM practising communities in Europe are at risk of FGM. In France, for example, between 24,000 and 43,000 girls face the possibility to be cut. It is estimated that about 500,000 women in Europe have experienced FGM.

The EU made a plan to tackle FGM in Europe with actions to increase understanding of the status of FGM in the EU, promote social change to prevent FGM, and support Member States in prosecuting FGM more effectively. Moreover, in 2015, the EU supported 17 projects that address FGM in 18 countries, spending 8 million Euros of EU funding.   

FGM in the USA

FGM is on the risk in the US. Since the 1990s, the number of girls and women who either had undergone FGM or were at risk of it has more than tripled. In 2012, The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that there were more than 500,000 women and girls at risk of being a victim of this procedure. It seems that this increase is caused by the growing number of migrants from countries where FGM is most common. These girls and women mostly live in California, New York and Minnesota.

In 1996, a federal law was passed to make it illegal to perform FGM in the US. In 2013, this law was amended to also outlaw taking a girl out of the US to inflict FGM abroad. However, on 20 November, a federal judge in the USA declared a federal law banning female genital mutilation unconstitutional. He dismissed several charges doctors and others in the first US criminal case against FGM. According to the judge, the practice is a criminal assault, which means it can only be regulated at state level. 

While 27 states have laws prohibiting FGM, this could turn the 23 states that do not have such laws into ‘destination states’ for cutting. This is a realistic scenario, as the dismissed cases showed that victims were often taken across state lines to undergo this mutilation. Anti-FGM state laws often include clauses criminalising “vacation cutting”, which is the practice of taking girls out of the country to have FGM performed.

FGM Canada and Australia

In Canada, FGM is forbidden under the Criminal Code since 1997. This law prohibits FGM practices in the country, as well as taking girls out of the country to be cut. Any person guilty of the assault can be imprisoned for up to 14 years.  In Australia, FGM is a criminal offence as well.

While it is clear that FGM is practised in Canada and Australia, there is little to no data on the practice. It is unclear how prevalent FGM is, and prosecutions are rare.

Obstacles and solution to end FGM

Unfortunately, there is a global lack of data and research about FGM. In many countries and regions, it is unclear how often and how it is practised, how many girls are at risk, and how many people live with the consequences. Moreover, while research most often focuses on the physical harm of FGM, there is much less information available on the physiological and emotional harm. 

This lack of knowledge prevents the creation of effective policies to fight FGM. Moreover, whereas there are grassroots organisations who aim to stop FGM practices, these often do not have enough funding to have a big reach and impact. More research about FGM is needed to create an incentive to develop proper policies and to fund anti-FGM organisations. 

Another factor that stands in the way of ending this horrendous practice is the lack of knowledge in the professional community. Many medical and social workers are not aware of what the practice entails, how to recognise its signs, and what to do in case they come across women and girls at risk or who live with the consequences of FGM. This lack of knowledge prevents victims from getting the help they need, and offenders from being prosecuted. FGM should be a standard part of the education of healthcare and social workers, to identify victims. 

The most critical factor in the fight against FGM, however, is awareness within practising communities. Many women who have undergone FGM as girls and who are surrounded by women who have as well do not realise that these practices are harmful and not needed. For them, it is just normal for girls to be cut. Only when they learn about the physical and emotional harm and the abnormality of the practice, they realise the horrendous nature of it. 

There are many stories of women who were cut and participated in this practice until they realised how harmful and necessary FGM is and became anti-FGM activists. As FGM is a highly culturally-sensitive topic, the power to eradicate this practice lies in the hands of these women. These women are familiar with the culture and customs, which gives them the tools to change minds in their own communities. 

Are you interested in women’s rights? Be sure to check out this article about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, and this article about contraceptives as a tool to fight poverty!

Posted by Chantal Verdonschot in Current Affairs, Feminism
The struggle for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia

The struggle for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia

A Saudi teenager named Rahaf Mohamed al-Qunun has made international headlines recently. She tried to flee to Australia after she renounced Islam and was threatened to be ‘slaughtered’ by her cousins. Denouncing Islam is a crime punishable by death in Saudi Arabia. Rahaf also reported that she was physically and mentally abused by her family and that she was being forced in an arranged marriage.

After she managed to make it to Thailand, her passport was taken by Saudi diplomats during her layover. She then locked herself up in an airport hotel room. From there, she tweeted about her situation to attract the attention of international media and the United Nations.

Wait! Weren’t women rights approving in Saudi Arabia?

This might all come as a bit of a surprise. Recently, Saudi Arabia made headlines because of its improvements in women’s rights. In June, women got the right to drive, and last week it was announced that women will now be notified by text if their husband divorces them. Under Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s regime, women’s rights seem to be advancing. 

But critics say that these improvements are mainly superficial. Women’s rights are severely restricted by the country’s guardian system in which each woman is set under the control of her husband or a male relative. While this system is not embedded in the law, most Saudi institutions comply with. Women need their guardian’s approval for all major decisions, such as getting a passport, travelling, and signing a contract. 

Not only does the guardian system severely restrict freedom of choice on a daily basis, but it also puts women in a dangerous position of dependence and possible violence. Women need their guardian’s approval to seek justice if they faced sexual abuse or violence, even if the violence is of the hands of their guardian. This effectively forces women to stay in violent marriages and family situations. 

To be fair, the guardian system has loosened up a bit recently, and women can now access health care and education without a guardian’s permission. Since these law reforms, women are also allowed to open a business.

However, as women are still financially and socially dependent on their husband and male relatives, the effectiveness of these new rights are questionable. What happens when a woman starts a business against her husbands’ wishes? If doing so makes her face the risk of abuse or divorce, she might not want to carry through with it.

Yay, women can finally drive.. right?

Recently, Saudi Arabia had the dubious honour of being the last country in the world to give women the right to drive. But while women’s newly won right to drive seemed like a significant step forward, women still depend on their guardian’s permission to obtain a driver’s license. 

The new right to drive is a part of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s programme called Vision 2030. This plan sets out economic and social reforms to reduce Saudi Arabia’s economic reliance on oil. One of the plan’s components is to get more women to enter employment to increase economic growth, and the right to drive is a way to do so.

At least nine women’s rights activists who protested the female driver’s ban are still stuck in prison. According to Amnesty International, these women are being tortured and sexually harassed. Last December, Twitter suspended the account of activist Loujain al-Hathloul’s father. He had been tweeting about the alleged sexual harassment and torture that his daughter faces in a Saudi government prison. 

In reality, the ‘right’ to drive, is more of a gift than an actual right. All of this begs the question whether women can now drive because of a Saudi wish for a more equal society, or just because it might be economically beneficial.

Other so-called improvements

This week, it was announced that women are now informed by text if their husbands are divorcing them. Before, husbands could divorce their wives even without ever letting them know. While this seems to be a big step forward, this law is superficial and hollow. It does not guarantee the right to alimony after the divorce or the right to custody of a woman’s children. 

Furthermore, there are still many things that women flat out cannot do in Saudi Arabia. One of these things is to ‘show their beauty’ in public. Saudi Arabia uses a dress code based on a strict interpretation of Islamic law. Women are expected to wear an abaya – a long cloak- and a headscarf. If women expose too much skin or wear make-up, they are often harassed for it. 

Women’s interaction with men who they are not related to is restricted as well. Most public buildings have separate entrances for men and women, and public places such as transportation, and parks, are mostly segregated. Interacting with unrelated men can lead to criminal charges against both parties, but women usually face harsher punishment.  

Shallow improvements meant to mask a fundamentally patriarchal system

While recently it seemed as is women’s rights were advancing in Saudi Arabia, these improvements are in fact pretty shallow. Newly won rights, such as the right to drive, are ultimately meant to mask a system in which men have ownership of women. And while this ‘progress’ is made in the name of equality and human rights, the motivating factor behind it seems to be mainly economical.

The power of social media

Fortunately, al-Qunun’s situation worked out so far. Because of her tweets, she was noticed by the U.N. Refugee Agency, and granted asylum in Canada. While this does not entirely guarantee her safety, at least she has the chance to build a new life in another country. 

Other women who managed to flee Saudi Arabia were not so lucky. In 2017, for instance, 24 years old Dina Ali Lasloom managed to reach the Philippines before she was returned to Saudi Arabia against her will. She was trying to escape a forced marriage. No one heard from her after she arrived in Saudi Arabia. 

Social media might have been the key to success in al-Qunun’s escape. Since she managed to attract international attention, Saudi Arabia’s options to take her back to the country were limited. In fact, in a video that al-Qunun posted, a Saudi Arabian official is heard saying that he wished they had taken her phone, instead of her passport. Would al-Qunun have managed to find asylum and to stay out of the hand of her family if it had not been for her tweets?

A growing number of Saudi Arabian women realise the potential of social media as well. Ever since al-Qunun managed to escape Saudi Arabia, women started tweeting. Under an Arabic hashtag that translates as ‘remove the guardian system, or we will all migrate’, women share their experiences living in Saudi Arabia. As the hashtag says, they threaten to leave the country if the guardian system is not removed. Let’s hope their protests are being heard.

What can you do?

Unfortunately, the restriction of women’s rights is not the only problem in Saudi Arabia. Other issues include the general lack of respect for human rights, the ongoing war in Yemen, and the murder on journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But hey, this does not mean we should sit and wait until human rights magically improve in Saudi Arabia. There is plenty that you can do.

For instance, you can use social media to raise attention for women’s and human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, and to put pressure on its government by sharing posts and articles! And you can help human rights organisations with their Saudi Arabia campaigns. To get you started, here is an e-mail campaign by Amnesty International UK to free Saudi female activists. Be sure to sign it!

Interested in women’s rights? Check out articles about the relationship between contraceptives and poverty and about the re-appropiation of the word ‘bitch‘. 

Posted by Chantal Verdonschot in Current Affairs, Feminism