SEATTLE, Washington — The Caucasus is a mountainous region located between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. It is divided into the Russian-occupied North Caucasus while Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia create the South Caucasus. While Armenia and Georgia are predominantly Christian, the majority of the region is Muslim. Caucasus region, especially the Northern area, is also known for human rights abuses and oppression of freedom. One of the examples of the human rights violation of girls and women is a practice of Female Genital Mutilation or FGM in the Caucasus region.
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is defined by the WHO as “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injuries to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” The organization lists severe bleeding, problems urinating, cysts, infections, complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths as consequences of this practice.
FGM Practice in Russia
In August 2016, Project Stichting Justice Initiative (SJI) published a study titled “Female Genital Mutilation Carried out on Girls,” which shed a light on FGM taking place in Dagestan. The study reported that three types of FGM were carried out on the girls usually before the age of three. Procedures include Incision and bloodletting, removal of a piece of the clitoris or the removal of the clitoris and the labia minora. The report estimates that around 1,240 girls each year are victims of FGM.
The findings garnered international attention when two Russian religious leaders defended FGM in the Caucasus region. Both Mr. Berdiyev, chairman of the Coordination Centre of North Caucasus Muslims, and Vsevolod Chaplin have said that this procedure should be done to all women to minimize their sexuality.
Russian authorities conducted two checks initiated by the prosecutor’s office of the Republic of Dagestan with the goal of verifying the information contained in the report. The checks concluded “no grounds for prosecution” because of insufficient evidence. In June 2018, SJI released a second report on the practice of FGM, this time examining the origin of the practice, attitude of men, women and religious leaders and presenting potential solutions. The Kremlin has not yet taken steps towards illuminating the practice, and currently, there are no organizations working to address the issue of FGM in the Caucasus region.
FGM Practice in Azerbajdzan
The Republic of Azerbaijan is also rumored to practice FGM practices, but there is no official data on it. On January 30, 2016, Eldar Zeynalov, freelance journalist, human rights activist and a founder of Human Rights Center of Azerbaijan, vocalized concerns about FGM being practiced in the region among some mountain tribes.
On the website of the newspaper “ECHO,” he stated that, though there was little discussion on the topic and no data, what concerned him most was the that the Ministry of Health and The State Committee on Religious Associations of the Republic of Azerbaijan have not looked into the matter. “The practice is not directly prohibited in Azerbaijan, and our country is not in a rush to comply with the Istanbul Convention…” No actions have followed, and Zeynalov’s statement has not been evaluated.
FGM Practice in Georgia
In Eastern Georgia in the Caucasus mountains, there are three villages in the Kvareli district where an ethnic Avar community lives. Even though they are isolated from the rest of the ethnic groups, they preserved their cultural traditions and religious customs, one of which is supposedly FGM. The practice was first addressed in a 2016 Institute for War and Peace report, which quoted a member of the Avar community stating: “We are Muslims. We fast during Ramadan. We observe our Islamic customs. Circumcision is also our custom. We cannot do without it.”
IWPR also discovered that villages had different FGM customs. While in Saruso, incision and bloodletting were performed while in Tivi and Chantliskure, the tip of the clitoris was cut off. In those villages, girls have been subjected to FGM practices for more than 20 years and the exact number of victims is unknown. Along with with Dagestan, FGM practice in the Avar community of Georgia was also justified by socio-cultural values, but it was not backed up by the religious leaders.
Attempting to End FGM
Georgian authorities stated they were unaware of FGM practice in the country, but they were quick to take action. The ministry of justice developed a package of legislative amendments to bring Georgian law into compliance with the Council of Europe Istanbul Convention, which bans FGM. Already by January 2017, less than a year after the publication of the report, a new Georgian law made FGM a criminal act.
The legislative side went hand in hand with the other initiatives aimed to raise awareness. Steps were taken to educate faith leaders and families about the subsequent complications of the practice in the three villages affected both from its medical and legal perspectives. Additionally, the state ministry on equality and civic integration met with students and teachers in the local schools aiming to raise awareness about the practice as a form of violence. The ministry of labor, health and social affairs published a brochure about the health risks associated with FGM.
Looking Towards a Brighter Future
While the origins of the practice are unclear in the communities discussed, it is often connected with Islamic religious traditions. Yet, the main indicator of whether FGM is practiced in a given community tends to be based on ethnicity and not religion. The SJI report claims that, while the religious views might have influenced the practice of FGM, it is a practice that predates Islam, and to categorize FGM as an Islamic practice is incorrect.
According to SJI researchers, it is important to treat FGM is a social issue in communities where it is practiced and understand that eradicating FGM in the region might take decades of educational and outreach work. It will require the coordination and a wide range of involvement from national and local authorities, civil society, community and religious organizations, medical personnel, educational institutions and the media.
Georgia can be a good example of how to address FGM in the Caucasus region and ensure that it is illuminated rather than go underground. Legal prosecution of FGM went hand in hand with educational initiatives aimed to spread awareness and bust myths. But, there is still a long way to go to ensure that FGM is ended. It is crucial to address the issue, protect girls who are currently at risk and ensure that those to be born will not be subject to this practice.
– Tatiana Nadyseva