Editor’s note: This story contains sensitive details concerning FGM and a recent case related to two young Australian girls.
Australia’s most powerful court ruled Wednesday that female genital mutilation (FGM) is illegal in all its “various forms.”
In a huge victory for women’s rights, the judgment by Australia’s High Court has alleviated the uncertainty and debate around the words ‘mutilation’ and ‘clitoris’ — which has previously allowed convicted individuals to be acquitted of their crimes.
The ruling will now negate the release of three people who, in 2015, were found guilty of performing FGM on two young girls, but later had their convictions set aside because Australia’s Criminal Court of Appeal claimed the trial judge had misinterpreted the two terms.
Former nurse Kubra Magennis, spiritual leader Shabbir Mohammedbhai Vaziri, and the young girls’ mother allegedly performed “khatna” with the children — which sees the cutting or nicking of a clitoris.
The trio claimed the girls did not have their clitoris’ cut. They argued the ceremony was purely symbolic and simply involved "touching the edge of the genital area … allowing the skin to sniff the steel,” according to the ABC.
Regardless, the three individuals were sentenced to 15 months in jail.
However, Australia’s Criminal Court of Appeal overturned their conviction after finding that the word ‘mutilate’ means some “imperfection or irreparable damage” had to have occurred.
A further medical exam presented to the court revealed the tip of the clitoral head was apparent for both girls, meaning it could be argued that the clitoris was not mutilated.
On Wednesday, the High Court confirmed that the phrase ‘mutilates’ must cover the cutting of the clitoral hood. The clitoral hood, the court ruled, must also be considered a part of the ‘clitoris’.
"This broader construction ... would best promote the purpose or object of prohibiting such procedures generally," Chief Justice Susan Kiefel and Justice Patrick Keane said in a joint judgment, according to the Canberra Times. "On the Court of Criminal Appeal's construction, it may be taken as intended that even if a child might suffer a painful and distressing experience, no offence is committed unless some defect of damage is apparent."
FGM is practiced around the world.
Often thought of as a cultural tradition that helps girls become adults, the practice in reality causes significant health issues.
Earlier this year, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare released a report which revealed 53,000 Australian girls and women who were born overseas have been subjected to the procedure. Around 200 million girls and women alive today have expierenced some type of FGM, according to the World Health Organization.
All Australian states have laws prohibiting the practice — which all include legislation that makes it illegal to perform the procedure on an Australian overseas. Penalties differ largely among states.
With the trio’s actions in 2015 now reconsidered illegal, their case will go back to the New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal next week to determine whether the original 15-month sentencing was fair.