Claims that female circumcision is rising in practice in the Maldives have triggered alarm across the government and NGO sector.
“We are beginning to hear reports of this occurring, and I have heard on radio and television people justifying the practice. It is quite disheartening,” said Vice President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan, speaking at a UN event last week.
Then-Attorney General Husnu Suood raised concern in December 2009 that female circumcision in the name of Islam had been revived in Addu Atoll, claiming that religious scholars “are going around to midwives giving fatwas that girls have to be circumcised. They’re giving fatwas saying it is religiously compulsory. According to my information, the circumcising of girls has started and is going on with a new spirit.”
Minivan News subsequently traveled to Addu to investigate the matter and meet with sources, but was unable to determine if the practice was indeed occurring.
Speaking last week, Dr Waheed did not pinpoint a specific area where female circumcision was taking place, but attributed the “general trend” to “rising conservatism and traditional values imported from other parts of the world.”
“Mostly this is a failure of education – there are not enough opportunities for higher education and many students receive free offers to go to madrassas in places like Pakistan, where they learn very traditional values,” Dr Waheed said.
A source from the Health Ministry’s Department of Gender and Family Protection told Minivan News that while female circumcision was widely known to have occurred in the Maldives, it stopped in the 80s and 90s but “now we are hearing media reports that it is happening again.”
The Ministry was not aware where the practice was occurring, but said it intended to investigate.
“There is no formal reporting happening in the islands,” she said. “We have been trying to get reports but health facilities are not aware of the situation.”
Deputy Health Minister Fathimath Afiya meanwhile confirmed that the Ministry was sufficiently concerned to launch a study seeking to identify where female circumcision was occuring.
“There are no reports but NGOs have been talking about it,” she said, stating the Ministry had held a series of meetings on the subject after it received a letter voicing concern from NGO ‘Hope for Women’.
Interim President of that NGO, former Gender Minister Aneesa Ahmed, confirmed to Minivan News today that “some Islamic organisations are advocating this and people are having girls circumcised. I don’t know where and when, but I have heard people say on various programs including Raajje radio.
“I heard two Islamic scholars speaking, and this woman called the radio station and asked two Islamic scholars on the program what Islam said about [female circumcision], and the scholar said yes, that the Prophet Mohamed advocated that girls be circumcised. My concern is that scholars are advocating this has to be done according to Islam, people will not question it and start circumcising girls.”
Aneesa said a representative from the NGO had met with State Minister for Islamic Affairs, Sheikh Hussein Rasheed, who said there was “no question about it: that girls had to be circumcised.”
When Minivan News spoke to Sheikh Rasheed today, he said he did not wish to comment on the matter as he had a meeting scheduled with the Health Ministry regarding the issue.
”If I say anything people might assume it was said on behalf of the Islamic Ministry, or that it was the ruling of the Ministry, so I will not say anything for the time being,” he said.
According to Aneesa, the concern was not whether female circumcision was indeed Islamic.
“I am not a scholar, I am not arguing whether it is right under Islam. If that is the case, we should not stop talking about it. We must undo conventions to which the Maldives is party.
“I don’t want girls to go through the negative complications such as infections and bleeding. I am not questioning whether it is Islamic, but if it is, then people need to be properly trained to do it. Some people are asking if boys are circumcised, why not girls? I am not questioning Islam, my concern is the negative [health] impact.”
According to information from the World Health Organisation (WHO), female genital mutilation is divided into four types: “clitoridectomy, the partial or total removal of the clitoris; excision, partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora; infibulation, the narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal by cutting and repositioning the inner or outer labia, with or without removal of the clitoris; and all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes.”
Dr Akjemal Magtymova of the WHO’s Maldives country office told Minivan News that from her limited research into the practice in the Maldives, “it looks like this is not a very intrusive form practiced here. It is more just a following of tradition, a show to a higher power that something has been done about it and the responsibility has been fulfilled.”
Unlike male circumcision there was, she said, “no health benefit to female circumcision.”
“There are risks including infection, infertility, and complications during pregnancy and birth when the wounds are not healed or where there is scar tissue,” she explained.
According to the WHO, girls undergoing the procedure also risk cysts and recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections, as well as more immediate complications including severe pain, shock, haemorrhage, tetanus or sepsis, urine retention, open sores in the genital region and injury to nearby genital tissue.
It was, observed Dr Akjemal, an ethical dilemma around whether to train doctors to perform the operation safely.
“I am not sure about it – if you train doctors to perform the operation, you open it up to business and supply-induced demand. Rather than a practice isolated to traditional healers, it becomes a lucrative business,” she suggested.
Female genital mutilation is widely practiced in Africa with an estimated three million girls undergoing the proceedure each year, the WHO reports. Across Asia only Indonesia reports the practice although it is also believed to be performed in Malaysia.
In 1997, the World Health Organisation (WHO) issued a joint statement with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) against the practice, and in February 2008 received wider UN support to increase advocacy against it.
“Female genital mutilation is recognised internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women,” the WHO advises. “It reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women. It is nearly always carried out on minors and is a violation of the rights of children. The practice also violates a person’s rights to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death.”
Former State Islamic Minister Sheikh Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed, now the Dean of Villa College’s Faculty of Islamic Sharia, said he had studied the issue and determined that there was no valid hadith demanding females be circumcised.
”All scholars who say it is something that Muslim females should do are citing invalid hadiths,” Sheikh Shaheem said, calling for the practice to be stopped.
”Currently it is uncommon in the Maldives. When I was young I used to hear that it was something done, but now it is very uncommon and I think it was carried to this generation more as a cultural thing,” he said.