20 Dec 2014

Tackling FGM in New Zealand

2:14 pm on 20 December 2014

When does a cultural practice become a crime? Female genital mutilation (FGM) is illegal in NZ but many women living here may regard this practice as part of their culture.

Radio New Zealand spoke to one woman about her FGM experience as a five-year-old - and to health practitioners helping communities understand when a cultural practice can become an abuse of human rights.

Syerina Syahrin is a PHD candidate at Victoria University in Wellington, and Muslim.

She's not afraid to speak out about her FGM experience, because (countering all expectations), she regards her experience as special.

It was part of a celebratory age-old ritual performed by her grandmother back in her country of origin, Malaysia. Culturally embedded, Syerina remembers the occasion as warm and loving.

Perhaps that's because what Syerina describes is Type 1 FGM - the least "invasive" of the FGM types. Arguably, Type 1 FGM is similar to male circumcision, a long accepted Judeo-Christian practice - though it has recently garnered its own disagreements within the world's major medical organisations.

The Ministry of Health's FGM Education Programme lists the types of FGM like this:

Dr Rose Elder is a gynaecologist with Wellington Hospital. She deals with women who need to have Type 2 or 3 FGM surgically corrected to help with pregnancy and childbirth, or to deal with serious complications such as urinary and pelvic infections.

She says the FGM Education Programme - which was developed in the mid-1990s to service the influx of Somalian refugees at the time - is vital to aid health professionals like herself.

Since its establishment, health practitioners have worked alongside a dynamic team of Somalian community leaders deeply opposed to FGM.

This team worked to empower their own community to uphold important cultural practices without the need to involve FGM. It had to be "strength-based education" - Somalian people telling each other about alternatives and that their girls didn't need FGM to be considered "pure" or "marriageable".

The programme has achieved positive results, with almost 100 percent of the New Zealand Somalian community no longer keen to perform FGM on their daughters or granddaughters.

Listen to more from Insight and Radio New Zealand's Voices