The Defection of the Sierra Leone Athletes
At first Australians were bemused by over half of the Sierra Leone Commonwealth games team “doing a runner”. However, the chortles were silenced when their stories of privation and despair came to light, along with the very real threats these young men and women face on their return to their homeland.
But there was another silence that will continue to prove difficult to broach, surrounding the fate of the young women in particular. It has its origins in the inherent conflict between universal human rights and cultural difference. It has proved divisive and irreconcilable for feminists around the globe.
The three young women seeking refugee status, Isha Conteh, Sarah Turay and Marion Bangura, alleged they would be subject to genital cutting if forcibly repatriated by our immigration department. Two of them have lost sisters who haemorrhaged to death after the procedure, allegedly performed by their aunts without medical anaesthetic, as is usually the case.
Female genital cutting occurs in more than 40 countries, 26 in Africa. About 5,500 procedures are carried out each day. They vary from removal of the clitoral hood, to excision of the clitoris, labia minora and majora, which are then stitched together and the girl’s legs bound for several weeks while the wound heals. For further explanations as to how FGM has become economically and culturally entrenched in women's lives in Sierra Leone visit
For western women, instilled in the values of sexual consent and agency, along with reproductive and therefore bodily self-determination, genital cutting is profoundly confronting and distressing, an unimaginable horror inflicted mostly on girls of three to ten years.
While this practice has been associated with Islam, authors such as Ronald Niezen have argued it is in fact an indigenous practice more than 6,000 years old that has assumed secondary religious justification.
For women around the world, it is a complex issue mired in ethical and political ambiguity.
It throws into doubt the universality of human rights. When states, historically the oppressors of indigenous peoples, intervene legally to suppress this practice they invoke the long shadow of colonial assimilation, wherein initiatory and ceremonial practices which identified a people as distinct were repressed. And how can states require their indigenous peoples to cease female genital cutting, where they are themselves frequently engaged in their ongoing violent abuse, including the sexual misappropriation and trafficking of Indigenous women and girls. How can states, which grant their indigenous peoples none of the rights of sovereignty, require that they assume responsibility in applying an imposed state law to end female genital mutilation?
Human rights, as developed in response to the the state oppression of minorities exemplified by the holocaust by the newly formed UN, enshrine the rights of individuals and are as such in many ways incompatible with the collective-based rights of traditional cultures. Human rights have a deeper origin in universalising modes of thought emanating out of the Enlightment Scientific Revolution. For the 'philosophes', social laws could be as universal Newtonian physics. The Lockean ideal of equality before the law required abolishing distinctions of either privilege or, in theory at least, of disadvantage. Another stumbling block in the application of univeral human rights is the entrenched perception of settler colonial descendents that minority peoples are victims of human rights violations and certainly not perpetrators.
In this complex and contradictory scene the insistence of white feminists, most of us the beneficiaries of colonialism and its destruction of Indigenous peoples, to put an end to female genital cutting harbours the ring of paternalism, especially while indigenous peoples make claims to cultural preservation through traditional practices.
Should we not ask about the Western medical intervention on children born of ‘indeterminate’ sex? What of plastic surgery and labioplasty, not to mention psychiatric operations ranging from lobotomy to removal of ovaries? What of unnecessary birth interventions such as episiotomy and some caesarian sections? And speaking of the violations of indigenous children, should we not be focused on our country men travelling to third world countries to rape trafficked children? How can these practices be reconciled against any demand to end female genital mutilation? Are there any politically tendentious feminist claims that are global, and when it comes to violation of children's human rights - girls between three and ten years - is it a question of who is better placed to speak, or of whether anyone should be silent?
I’m acutely aware that I risk the charge of paternalism by saying I am one of the Australian women, identified early on in the defection of the Sierra Leone women by a Sydney refugee advocate, that supports their application for asylum on the grounds that they seek protection from female genital mutilation. I’m also aware that within Howard’s culture wars multiculturalism and expressions of cultural difference are under direct attack by prominent commentators and politicians, indeed they can barely be thought about outside an assimilatory framework. In addition gender equality has been cynically appropriated to justify the illegal invasion of Iraq, ‘border protection’ and Howard’s attempted amendments to the immigration act. This is surely the worst of all times to raise this complex and unresolved issue. However, I feel more ethically compromised being silent in the face of the Sierra Leone women’s claims for asylum.
The specific context presented to Australian women by the plight of these young women requires that we voice our support, and advocate that genital mutilation be considered a gross violation of their human rights by our immigration department and considered foremost in their application for refugee status.
I think we are called to respond particularly by the proven record of our immigration department in disregarding the human rights of refugee applicants and repatriating asylum seekers regardless of their safety.
In 1998 a pregnant Chinese woman seeking protection from forced abortion was repatriated at 38 weeks. She begged to be either induced or to wait 2 weeks so that she could carry her baby back in her arms. The immigration department refused but guaranteed that she would be met at the airport and remain safe. Instead she was taken from her home by Chinese officials and the baby was carved out of her. Knowing our immigration departments complicity in human rights violations compels us to speak out in support of the Sierra Leone young women.
The fact that these women are claiming asylum status on the grounds of their exposure to genital cutting makes it unavoidable to take a position on genital cutting. It seems to me that the silence that surrounded their grounds for refugee status illustrates that when it comes to female genital cutting western feminists have either taken a position against it, and been roundly condemned, or made use of the privilege of distance to not take a position by being silent.
We could employ a lot of careful and disingenuous language to step around this incontrovertible fact: in the instance of female genital cutting, the values enshrined by human rights affords girls better protection against a traditional practice that is forced; causes severe pain, trauma and shock, risks exposure to HIV and blood borne diseases; risks death by infection and haemorrhaging; causes ongoing trauma when urinating, menstruating, having intercourse and giving birth; and increases infertility and infant mortality.
It needs to argued just how western this value is given firstly, the medical interventions practiced on western women and girls in the name of beauty and efficient birthing and given secondly, that there are many peoples, indigenous and otherwise, who do not practice female genital mutilation and given thirdly, that many women have left their communities and countries to spare their daughters the ordeal of effectively having their genitals removed without medical anaesthetic.
The wishes of the Sierra Leone teenagers simply take precedence over the complex moral and legal ambiguity that this issue entails. Of course we need to continue the discussion about that ambiguity, and be clear about how being white and western positions us in the debate. But to put that discussion before the needs of these young women, to the extent that we are unwilling to voice our support to them and respond to their appliction for asylum here with silence is to mistake analysis for taking a position.
In looking at the harm caused by infibulation scholar Catherine Annas speaks with unscholarly fervour, “When the effects of female genital mutilation are honestly faced, nothing can justify it. Not culture. Not tradition. Not parental rights. Nothing.” I would add another qualification, one that strips ambiguity from the issue.
They are children.
Children all over the world are individuals unaware of their rights and unable to organize around the advocacy of those rights. While we ought to know from globally recurring policies of child removal from indigenous communities that children are not the property of the state, in the instance of their being abused they are neither the property of either their parents or their cultures to the extent that the violation of their human rights can be justified. They are entitled to protection from the physical pain and shock, trauma, medical harm and suffering caused by female genital cutting.
No mother or father or community, no religion or traditions, no state or law, nothing and no one owns a child to the extent that the violation of their human rights are justified. The suffering of these children is a stand alone ethical instance into which no other consideration or qualification should intervene. No one should conscionably discourage those who want to advocate for their protection from this procedure. Speaking positions are not a priority, the children's protection is and everyone should participate in that advocacy, first and foremost by assisting the women in those communities where female genital cutting occurs already fighting this practice.
to follow up on activism by Rugiatu Turay who was forcibly circumcised at 11 and who formed the Amazonian Initiative Movement (AIM), in 2002 with other women she met in refugee camps in Guinea during Sierra Leone's 1991–2001 civil war. AIM is one of several nongovernmental organizations that campaign in West Africa against the harmful traditional practice of female genital mutilation.