''Aissatou Diallo was 14 years old when she was held down forcibly by six people while the seventh person cut her in her home in Guinea. She was made to believe that this was how she could become a woman and get married. Today, Aissatou lives in Belgium with her two daughters and is determined to protect them from being subjected to the same practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). The Belgian state is assisting Aissatou by giving her and her daughters asylum in Belgium. There are many other girls at risk in the EU and beyond. What can the EU and the Belgian Presidency do to end FGM and protect those at risk?
Female genital mutilation is a practice in which the genitals of girls, often as young as three years, are pricked, cut or removed and sometimes stitched up. Often done without anaesthesia, the young girl bleeds for days and after the initial pain, she can continue to suffer chronic pain, infections, decreased sexual enjoyment and psychological problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder for the rest of her adult life.
A pregnant woman who has been cut will have added risk of complications during childbirth and her newborn baby is also subjected to additional dangers. It is no surprise that Manfred Nowak, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, said that FGM is like ongoing torture throughout a woman's life.
FGM is recognised internationally as a human rights violation; it is a discriminatory practice that subjects women to violence because they are women. Furthermore, the practice violates the rights of women and girls to physical and mental integrity, right to health and right to life. All EU member states have signed up to international treaties such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention Against Torture (CAT), which protect these rights and therefore make it obligatory for states to protect women and girls affected by or at risk of FGM.
Despite the international and regional standards, the practice continues, not just in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, but also among the diaspora communities in Europe, USA and Australia. In Europe, it is estimated that 500,000 women and girls are living with the harmful consequences of FGM. But this is only an estimate. The exact scale of the problem is unknown in Europe.
We have found that it is most likely that girls living in Europe are taken to their countries of origin during the holidays to be mutilated. Sometimes the girls stay behind in their countries of origin when parents fear prosecution upon their return to Europe.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that in some cases an excisor is brought to Europe and girls are taken from one European country to another where the protection measures are less stringent or non-existent.
The cross-border nature of the practice makes it essential for the EU to develop and adopt a comprehensive structure to prevent FGM, protect those at risk and provide adequate services for those women and girls who have survived it. There are a number of opportunities in the next few months for the EU to stand together and combat this practice.
The European Commission is developing a proposal for a strategy to combat violence against women. This includes female genital mutilation as well as domestic violence. While it is laudable that the proposal will address FGM, it would be counter-productive if it only deals with criminalisation of the practice, as has been suggested in a number of EU platforms.
FGM is a child-specific violence and the perpetrator is most often the parent or a close relative. In most cases, the parents are under pressure from their communities to continue the practice. Therefore, a collective, community-based approach would be more effective than simply prosecuting individuals.
A number of EU member states have developed specific legislation against FGM; although only a handful have initiated prosecutions. There is no evidence to suggest that legislation has led to a reduction in the practice of FGM. Protection measures against FGM must be comprehensive and criminalisation of the practice must be complemented with training and community involvement.
Community pressure to conform plays a large part in continuing this practice. Awareness campaigns amongst practising communities are crucial and must go hand in hand with any criminal measures.
The EU's strategy on FGM must address all aspects of prevention, protection and provision of adequate services. For instance, we need to train health and education professionals to identify girls at risk as well as deal with health complications of girls who have already been subjected to FGM.
The European Commission will be releasing the results of two studies in the next few months, the first being a study on harmful traditional practices and the second being a feasibility study on whether legislation on violence against women across the EU can be harmonised.
Both studies have the potential to make concrete recommendations that will be incorporated into the EU strategy. The studies should be widely disseminated and debated by EU officials and the civil society to make sure that women from the practising community and women directly affected by FGM have the opportunity to raise key issues that may help in creating effective and feasible recommendations.
The Belgian Presidency will hold the seat of the EU during these upcoming developments. It must support the European Commission in developing a strong, comprehensive and rights-based strategy to combat FGM and protect the women and girls affected by this practice.
Belgium's asylum system has protected Aissatou's daughters. Now it is time for the Belgian Presidency of the EU to ensure that other daughters living in the EU are equally protected.''