Search This Blog

Monday, January 11, 2010

Uniting Europe and Africa to Fight Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and Circumcision

November 25, 2009 From the International Conference on Prevention of Female Genital Cutting, speech by Minister Koenders

"I am convinced that community dialogue is one of the most effective ways to put an end to harmful traditional practices like FGM. Fathers want their daughters to marry, so they have to agree together that FGM is not a condition, to the contrary, it makes marriages impossible and unhappy."

Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

You have just seen a film by the Nike Foundation.This is where this conference is all about in a nutshell. I was in Addis Ababa just recently at a conference on MDG5, where I spoke to Maria Eitel, director of the Nike Foundation. I congratulated her on her views and ask her permission to use this movie.

Ladies and gentlemen, I wanted to show you this film because of its underlying theme. If girls and women get the rights and opportunities to develop, they can build their own futures. And ultimately, they will make a substantial contribution to the development of their countries. That is why we need to look at girls from a different angle, from oppression to opportunity.That is also where this conference is all about.

Today we are talking about an instrument of oppression: Female Genital Mutilation. A practice that condemns girls to a lifetime of pain and affliction. A practice that stunts girls' – and society's – development.

Invest in a girl and she will do the rest.

The practice of FGM makes this very difficult and that is taking place when effective development can make all the difference. A girl who has had seven years’ education marries four years later and has two children fewer. She is at less risk of dying in childbirth. A girl with an education invests 90% of her income in her family. A boy will invest just 35%. Each member of her family is healthier and better nourished, and the economy of both her community and her country grows.

That is implicitely where this conference is all about – about contributing to equal rights and opportunities for women and girls – MDG 3 – and to sexual and reproductive health and rights – MDG 5. That is a priority of my development cooperation policy and is also hampered by FGM.We know the statistics.

It is therefore not only a privilege but also a duty to be delivering the opening speech at this conference. Especially since today is the twenty-fifth of November, the day the United Nations has proclaimed the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Because the subject of this conference, Female Genital Mutilation, is all about violence against women, and it is one of my main concerns.

FGM destroys a young girl’s body and possibly her life. From the outset, she is denied the prospect of a healthy, successful, enjoyable life. The World Health Organisation estimates that in Africa, 92 million girls aged ten and over have undergone genital cutting, and that every year three million girls are at risk of it happening to them. And this is done for cultural, traditional or religious reasons, for the girl's ‘own sake’.

Ladies and gentlemen, I refuse to accept that FGM should be practised because of cultural and religious tradition. It has absolutely no health benefit, but puts the health of millions of girls at risk. FGM must be banned. I know that many people agree with me on this point. The question is, what is the best, most efficient way of working together to tackle this problem. Together we will achieve more. That is why we are here today to discuss freely openly and with respect.

A few weeks ago, I was in Egypt where I spoke to Ms Moushira Khattab, Minister of State for Family and Population. Ms Khattab wants to create employment opportunities for girls. She is working to control population growth, and is committed to children’s welfare. We talked about reproductive rights and female genital mutilation.

In 2005, 91% of all Egyptian women in the 15 to 49 age group had been cut. In 2000, that figure was 97%. There has been a decline, though it has been slow.

Ms Khattab and I discussed how religious and traditional values can determine and dominate a culture. They are the social norm, which is very difficult to change.

That is why eradication of FGM is a difficult, complex problem, not only in Egypt but in other countries too. And yet there have been some successes. It is very important for the government to assume its responsibility. A ban on FGM is a major step, but I am convinced that change must come from within the community. That is where it has to happen, where traditional values and norms have to change. And that transformation is taking place in Egypt at the moment.

Ms Khattab told me that for many years now, various NGOs have been active in Egypt in the fight against FGM. They are receiving increasing support and cooperation from the community. That means that the people themselves are questioning their traditional values and norms. And we want to help them do so in the future.

Fortunately, it is people themselves who are beginning to oppose the practice of female circumcision. Whenever I visit an African country where FGM is practised, the issue is always raised, even if it wasn’t the main focus of my visit. During my visit to Burkina Faso in September, I talked to the President’s wife about the subject. She is working for its abandonment in her country, but of course it was also raised with her husband. This ia also an issue for men and for political leaders.

I have told you about my experiences for a reason. What matters to me is that countries are not imposing changes on the norms and values of other countries where FGM occurs. Increasingly, there is a worldwide movement that wants to abandon this horrible practice.

Many developing countries are launching campaigns and setting up special programmes. I believe that there couldn’t be a better departure point for change. What is more, the western world can learn from these countries. That, ladies and gentlemen, is development cooperation in reverse, and that is what I am aiming for with my new-style policies reverse development cooperation. I will come back to that in a minute.

I saw a good example during a recent visit to a health centre in Mali, a country that still hasn’t banned female genital mutilation. Supported by Dutch development aid, this centre is running a highly effective campaign against female circumcision. During the same visit to Mali, I talked frankly about female genital mutilation with President Toure, and with members of the government. I also listened to people in the community. They explained how the practice of circumcision is taken for granted, how the tradition is passed on from mother to daughter. That circumcision is part of growing up. They also said that very few people dared to question the need for the ritual. The issue is totally off limits.

But the information and activities campaign run by volunteers and students breaks through the taboo. Using wooden models and plays, they inform people about the enormous health risks attached to circumcision. Risks many parents have never heard of – to their daughters' lives, their sense of enjoyment and future well-being.

The campaign in Mali aims to persuade both individual men and women and communities as a whole to decide collectively to abandon the practice of circumcision. I am convinced that community dialogue is one of the most effective ways to put an end to harmful traditional practices like FGM.Fathers were really taking a stand for their daughters and women who had made FGM their profession were now part of the campaign against it. Fathers want their daughters to marry, so they have to agree together that FGM is not a condition, to the contrary, it makes mariages impossible and unhappy.

In addition to community dialogue, it is essential that traditional and religious leaders play their part in bringing about this change of mentality. If they condemn harmful traditional practices, the community listens to them. It is important that they tell the community that the Koran does not require female circumcision at all. I am glad to see so many participants from Sudan here today. Because despite all its international problems, Sudan is devoting quite a lot of attention to the abandonment of FGM.

A good example here is the Sudanese Sheikh Ali al Hashim al Siraj. He has campaigned for the past twenty years against female circumcision. He has even written a book about it – Circumcision: Killing Girls Alive. And he has sparked discussion on the issue. We are working closely with him and other religious leaders.

Ladies and gentlemen, genuine change is only possible if the entire community takes part. If we are to tackle FGM, we will have to take account of social pressure from the community. And we will have to make use of the fact that parents want the best for their children. We will need to focus not on abandoning bad old traditions but on giving their daughters a better future. We will need to convince parents that their daughters can have the opportunity to build their own future, that abandoning FGM will give their daughters the prospect of a prosperous, happy and healthy life.

To eradicate FGM forever, we have to invest in the futures of girls and women, and adopt a multisectoral approach. Apart from effective legislation, we need to invest in decent health care services and education and in information on sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Only then will girls and women get the opportunities they need to develop. Only then will they be able to develop into fully-fledged members of society, and find a route out of poverty. Only then will they be able to contribute to society, and will others benefit.

Invest in a girl and she will do the rest.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have said it before: more and more often, I am reaching the conclusion that African countries themselves want to eradicate FGM. And that for them too existing cultural norms and values are an obstacle to this.

In the west, we are also being confronted with these norms and values, brought here by African immigrants. FGM is migrating with them, literally and figuratively. The practice was outlawed in this country in the 1990s. But because African immigrants send their daughters home to be circumcised, Europe is nonetheless being confronted with FGM and its consequences.

The point I am making here is that Africa, the Netherlands, Europe and the rest of the world have a shared problem, and that is FGM. We regard FGM as a violent act, we must promote the abandonment together.

And this is the moment to do it.

In the past decades, the Netherlands has contributed to eradicating FGM in various countries. Years of experience have taught us that it is an extremely persistent problem.

I want to thank the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport for taking the initiative to organise today’s conference. It gives everyone here the opportunity to exchange experience and take concrete steps together. My aim to is bring together African and European experience of combating FGM, pool our knowledge and take some big steps forward.

Studies by WHO and UNICEF have shown us the most effective strategy in Africa. UNICEF’s Francesca Moneti will no doubt be telling us all about it in a moment.

What we want to hear from you is how can we adapt this strategy to our own country. As I mentioned earlier, we are talking about development cooperation in reverse. African countries can advise us, the western world, on the most effective strategies to eradicate FGM.

At the International Girl Child Conference last March, recommendations were formulated, including the need to build bridges between communities in countries of origin and immigrant organisations in Europe.

Today, at this conference, we are going to build those bridges. During the workshops we will exchange knowledge and experience. Today, Africa will advise Europe. Today African delegates can tell their European counterparts which strategy worked in their country.

Ladies and gentlemen, you were welcomed here this morning by Jet Bussemaker, our State Secretary for Health, Welfare and Sport. She too has made FGM a policy priority. She too has gender equality high on her agenda. We have to work together to fight FGM in both Africa and Europe.

Let me tell you what the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is doing.

This spring I promised to support the European network Euronet-FGM in organising a conference for members of the European Parliament.

I have set aside €1.5 million from the MDG 3 fund for the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices. The Committee is active in 28 countries. Thanks to its efforts, legislation against female genital mutilation has now been enacted in 16 African countries. Later today, Berhane Ras-Work, President of the IAC, will tell you more about the Committee's work. For the past 25 years, she has been trying to convince authorities and communities in all of those 28 African countries of the damaging, irreversible impact of FGM on women's lives.

What is more, Dutch embassies in Burkina Faso, Benin, Mali, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda, Egypt, Sudan, Yemen and Iraq are supporting organisations that combat female genital mutilation.

I am delighted to hear that Plan International’s African and European offices are now discussing ways of adapting the strategies used in Africa to combat FGM in Europe. While money and expertise flow from Europe to Africa, we are now receiving advice from countries like Sierra Leone and Mali. Community agreements to stop FGM are hihly effective. Now they can be made more operational in the Netherlands.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Netherlands is doing everything it can to put gender equality on the global agenda. But we are a small country. To tackle FGM effectively, we need you all. That is why I am delighted that you have come to this conference today. We now have the momentum to launch a joint, international strategy to tackle this joint problem.

I hope and expect that today, at this International Conference on Uniting Europe and Africa to fight FGM, we will take a number of concrete steps.

Ladies and gentlemen, everyone here today is convinced that not one girl or woman should be exposed to genital mutilation. Whether we are talking about a Muslim woman, a girl from Sub-Saharan Africa or a Dutch woman. FGM is unacceptable. It prevents girls and women from developing. It means that they have fewer chances in society, and fewer opportunities to contribute to the development of their countries. And so we all miss out.

So let us invest in girls. They will do the rest.

I wish you a very inspiring and productive conference.

Thank you.