September 23, 2011
Women News Network (WNN)
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a topic that has been rarely associated with Western Europe, yet due to the arrival of immigrants and refugees from Africa, the Middle East and Asia, female circumcision has become a specific Western concern. It is estimated that in the European Union alone, 500,000 girls and women live with FGM and every year another 180,000 are at risk of being circumcised.
“The numbers on how bad the problem really is throughout European societies, are sketchy,” admits Dr Els Leye, a scientist at the International Centre for Reproductive Health at the university of Ghent (Belgium), who is specialized in FGM. “Various countries have done research and published estimates on the number of women living with FGM in their respective countries, but the real extent of the problem has certainly not been mapped in representative detail yet, as many of the studies to not take asylum seekers or undocumented cases of FMG into account.
While FMG is illegal in most European countries, “the practice is certainly still prevalent amongst communities originally from countries where FGM is practiced,” Leye adds. “Most often, the girls are taken back to their country of origin to be circumcised.”
But how can girls that have grown up in Western societies willingly submit to circumcision? Leye explains: “Firstly, we must remember that parents and family members will often tell the girl that there is going to be a feast to honor her becoming a woman. It is presented as a ‘coming of age’ celebration, not as a painful, traumatic procedure. Secondly, as is often the case in child abuse, children don’t willingly report their parents.”
Even so, why does nobody notice anything amiss when the girl returns from holiday – a teacher, for instance? “Because our teachers have not been trained to recognize the signs of FGM,” says Leye, “does a girl go to the bathroom more often, or does she seem to be in pain, for instance?”
Therein lies one of the greatest challenges surrounding FGM in Europe, according to Leye: “Those people that are most likely to come in to contact with FGM victims – teachers, health care staff, police, childcare workers – are not aware that FGM is a real problem nor are they trained to recognize the symptoms.”
Ifrah Ahmed (23) was circumcised in Somalia when she was eight years old. “I don’t remember much. We were a whole group of girls being circumcised together.” Ifrah was circumcised a second time when she was thirteen. “I was circumcised by a doctor so I was one of the ‘lucky’ ones; I know of girls that were circumcised with broken glass. What I still don’t understand is how a doctor – an educated man – can do such things to young girls.”
Ifrah fled to Ireland five years ago, when she was just seventeen. Today, she is a vocal opponent of FGM and one of the main faces of the European ‘Ending Female Genital Mutilation’ campaign. “I don’t want other girls to go through what I went through, no matter where they were born or where they live,” she says.
Even in Ireland, the Somali community has ostracized Ifrah for her stand against FGM and the social pressure to conform to tradition, also abroad, cannot be ignored. “Somali men here have told me that I should stop attacking things which are part of our culture and Somali women tell me that it will be my fault if girls can’t find a husband because they have not been circumcised. I have received threats, yes. I have even gone to the police with certain voice-mails and have had to leave Dublin because I am so outspoken about FGM.”
Despite her personal ordeal and the opposition she faces from her own community, Ahmed continues her campaign and remains optimistic. Ireland recently passed legislation outlawing FGM. Will imposing a law provide the answer, I ask her? “Certainly imposing a law will help, but we still have a long way to go,” she admits. “What is more important is that the law is enforced. Without follow-up, any legislation becomes meaningless.”
Leye agrees: “Legislation is only a part of the solution. Yes, we need legislation but we also need to make sure the system acts upon these laws.” To date, France is the only EU country that has prosecuted people for committing FGM. To date, it has had 30 court cases related to FGM.
Thirty court cases and more than 500,000 women at risk; a dismal track record.
One of the most important reasons for the limited number of court cases can be found in the difficulty of finding adequate proof to bring a FGM case to court. “Add to that the limited knowledge of FGM – amongst police, health personal and other authorities, as well as the personal attitudes of these professionals toward migrant populations or FGM and you can see how many unseen barriers there are in addressing this problem,” says Leye.
“We often hear the argument that FGM is part of certain cultures and traditions and that we as westerners shouldn’t meddle in the customs of other cultures. This is a complex debate, with many grey areas, but when it comes to FGM I base my view that it is unacceptable on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” says Leye.
While the battle against FGM, also in Europe, is far from won, things are moving. Various EU institutions have committed to contributing in various ways to mapping the prevalence of FGM throughout Europe, to help raise awareness and educate key authorities on dealing with FGM in their communities
“We’re beginning to see a coordinated approach that tackles the problem on an European level. Now FGM is on the European agenda, that a major step forward,” concludes Leye.
Gender communications expert and WNN Brussels based journalist Sabine Clappaert has published her work also in De Morgen and Flanders Today (Belgium), Pink Ribbon magazine, The Bulletin, IPS News (UK/International) and Destiny Magazine (South Africa). Clappaert is dedicated to covering human rights issues and development as they intersect with women inside and outside Europe.
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