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FGM (Female Genital Mutilation): Europe’s next rising predicament

Migration along with radical terrorists is boosting the numbers of FGM victims in Europe. Read to know more about FGM, a wider problem that remains stubbornly alive

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In this Nov. 5, 2014 photo, relatives of 13-year-old Soheir al-Batea who died undergoing the procedure of female genital mutilation walk in front of her home in Dierb Biqtaris village, some 120 kilometers (75 miles) northeast of Cairo. Image Source: VOA
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  • FGM-Female Genital Mutilation is a practice that affects some 200 million women and girls worldwide
  • It’s illegal across the EU where the cutters often come for a short period of time, they cut a load of girls and then they go back to their homelands
  • Sanctions against offenders include fines and prison sentences of up to 10 years – 20 if the victim is a minor – even if the cutting takes place abroad

The young women come in for contraception, or because it’s their first pregnancy. Many don’t even know they were victims of a painful and sometimes deadly practice that may have happened long before puberty.

“They find out during their first gynaecological examination,” says midwife Elodie Edmont about female genital mutilation, or FGM. “They’ll say it’s not possible, because they were born in France.”

Edmont is speaking from a new women’s center outside Paris, one of the few in France that offers a holistic treatment of FGM, a practice that affects some 200 million women and girls worldwide, according to the United Nations, including up to 60,000 or more in France.

Across the European Union, migration is boosting the numbers of FGM victims – which a European Parliament report estimates at about half-a-million – as it is in the United States.

Many of the victims arrived here already cut. Others are cut during vacations back in the ‘home’ country, or even in EU member states. But inadequate reporting, awareness and funds make it difficult to gauge the size of the problem, must less fight it, experts say.

“Many member states do have the political will, but they’re not putting their resources where their mouth is,” says Natalie Kontoulis, communications and advocacy officer for End FGM European Network, a Brussels-based umbrella group. “They’re not putting in place the funding and they’re cutting the services that are needed.”

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France offers one of Europe’s toughest responses to an ancient tradition that predates Islam and Christianity, and mostly affects its large African immigrant population.

Sanctions against offenders include fines and prison sentences of up to 10 years – 20 if the victim is a minor – even if the cutting takes place abroad. It is also considered one of Europe’s top places of refuge from FGM, which can be grounds for asylum claims.

FILE - A T-shirt warns against female genital mutilation. Its wearer attends an event, discouraging harmful practices such as FGM, at a girls high school in Imbirikani, Kenya, April 21, 2016.
FILE – A T-shirt warns against female genital mutilation. Its wearer attends an event, discouraging harmful practices such as FGM, at a girls high school in Imbirikani, Kenya, April 21, 2016. Image Source: VOA

But activists and medical practitioners say law-and-order is only part of the answer.

“We’re facing a practice that’s anchored by culture,” says midwife Edmont. “It’s very hard for a woman to go against something she’s been taught to believe in since she was born. It’s almost like betraying her origins.”

Located in Seine-Saint-Denis, one of the poorest and most ethnically mixed departments of France, the women’s center offers an array of specialists, including sexologists and psychologists, under one roof. It is tied to a local public hospital that is among the rare in France to specialize in FGM.

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Some 14 percent of mothers giving birth there have been cut, although the center, which opened in July, treats a range of women’s issues.

“Many of the women who come here are victims of domestic violence” including sexual abuse, says the center’s midwife coordinator Mathilde Delespine. Others come for mundane gynecological problems.

“There are also patients who have been cut or want to protect their children from being cut,” Delespine said.

On a recent afternoon, Delespine ushers Miriam and her two small children into an examination room. The young Malian immigrant, whose real name is being withheld for her safety, has arrived from Spain, directed to the center by a French NGO.

She still remembers when she was cut, bundled at the age of seven into a village toilet in her native Mali, while a woman performed the procedure. Now, she fears her five-month-old daughter will be next. Her husband cannot find work in Spain, and wants to return to Mali.

“All my sisters were cut,” she says. “The same with their children. It’s a practice in my village.”

Delespine probes gently. Does she love her husband? She shows sketches of the female anatomy and suggests how Miriam might still get sexual pleasure.

“By better understanding their bodies, these women can diminish their shame that they’re not complete, not sufficiently capable of having a sexuality that’s harmonious and satisfying,” she says later.

A small number of FGM victims are cut inside the European Union, activist Kontoulis says, although evidence is often anecdotal.

“The cutters often come for a short period of time, they cut a load of girls and then they go back to their homelands,” she says. “So they’re hard to find, and the community closes ranks and won’t disclose them.”

FGM is illegal across the EU, where the European Parliament estimates 180,000 women and girls are at risk each year. Yet few countries strictly enforce national laws or put in place measures to turn back the tide, activists say.

In some cases, however, that is changing. Judges in Britain, which has among the highest cutting rates, are beginning to issue FGM protection orders. In Belgium, grassroots organizations are creating tools to help health care and other professionals detect risks and take preventative action, End FGM’s Kontoulis says.

France has jailed roughly 100 people under a broader penal code that also addresses mutilation and the abuse of minors.

“It’s a good law, but it’s not enough,” says Marguerite Bannwarth, of French NGO Equipop. “There has to be a behavioral change within practicing communities for real change.”

Equipop trains community activists in France’s immigrant community, and works with local NGOs to change mindsets in Mali’s western Kayes region, which has a sizeable diaspora in France.

In some cases, experts say, home communities have abandoned cutting, while the diaspora holds on to old practices.

“It may be because of lack of information that the practice is illegal, or the sense of feeling fragile,” Kontoulis says. “They see cutting as part of their identity and cultural tradition.”

At the women’s home, Delespine examines Miriam’s tiny daughter and writes out a certificate attesting she has not been cut. The document aims to protect the girl from leaving French territory to a country where FGM is practiced.

It is one solution for the toddler, but not for a wider problem that remains stubbornly alive.

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The Attention Shifts To The U.S. As It Strikes Down FGM Law

Looking beyond the Michigan case, Jones said the key to stopping FGM isn’t just legislation but also education.

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FILE - A T-shirt warns against female genital mutilation. Its wearer attends an event, discouraging harmful practices such as FGM, at a girls high school in Imbirikani, Kenya, April 21, 2016.Image source: VOA

When a U.S. district judge last month ruled a federal ban on female genital mutilation unconstitutional, he undercut the federal government and alarmed anti-FGM activists, who hope to eradicate the practice.

The World Health Organization calls FGM, also known as female circumcision, a human rights violation of women and girls, with no health benefits.

Some 200 million women and girls around the world, mainly in Africa, have experienced FGM, the WHO says.

In his opinion, Judge Bernard Friedman called FGM “despicable,” but also “a local criminal activity” that must be addressed at the state level. In enacting a federal law, he said, Congress overstepped.

Now, local lawmakers, advocates and newspapers are calling for state bans that equal or surpass the scope of the federal law that was struck down.

Female Genital Mutilation, FGM, judge
A badge reads “The power of labor against FGM” is seen on a volunteer during a conference on International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Cairo, Egypt, Feb. 6, 2018. (VOA)

‘Never again’

The case Friedman ruled on centers around Dr. Jumana Nagarwala, an emergency room physician accused of performing FGM on at least 100 girls in Michigan for more than a decade.

Prosecutors have focused their case on nine girls, aged 7 to 12, from three states. The girls allegedly were subjected to FGM with the aid of Nagarwala and seven others, including the girls’ mothers.

Defense attorneys say the procedure amounted to only a “nick” on the girls performed as part of a religious ritual — not FGM. But they also argued in July that the federal law banning FGM is unconstitutional.

State Senator Rick Jones, who represents Michigan’s 24th district, told VOA by phone that he was shocked to learn about Nagarwala’s case and strongly disagrees with Friedman’s ruling.

Last year, Jones became the spokesperson for a package of bills outlawing FGM statewide. The legislation passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.

Female Circumcision, FGM
The barbaric practice of genitalia mutilation has been banned in developed nations. Wikimedia

Now, Michigan has some of the toughest FGM laws in the country.

Health-care providers convicted of performing FGM face up to 15 years in prison, along with the permanent loss of their medical licenses. Parents who take their daughters to doctors to be cut can lose custody.

The 1996 federal law, meanwhile, stipulated up to five years in prison and fines for medical providers who perform FGM.

“We wanted to send a strong message around the world: Never again bring your girls to Michigan for this horrible procedure,” Jones said.

Across the U.S., 27 states have passed laws banning FGM, many of which have been written in recent years and include penalties that go beyond the federal law, which also criminalizes so-called “vacation cutting,” the practice of taking girls out of the United States to have FGM performed overseas.

News organizations are among those pushing for an expansion of state laws. Last month, the Seattle Times editorial board called for a ban in Washington, one of 23 states yet to outlaw FGM.

FGM
A doctor checks her phone as she poses for a photograph in Mumbai, India, June 8, 2016. The 50-year-old woman defends what is widely considered female genital mutilation within her small, prosperous Dawoodi Bohra community in India. VOA

Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times editorial board said all 50 states should ban the “barbaric” practice, in light of Friedman’s ruling.

Religious ritual?

The health-care providers and families involved in the Michigan case belong to Dawoodi Bohra, a Shi’ite Muslim sect based in India with about 2 million followers worldwide.

According to a study published earlier this year, FGM, called khafd in Dawoodi Bohra communities, is widespread in the sect and involves cutting the clitoral hood or part of the clitoris, without an anesthetic, when girls turn seven.

The study, commissioned by WeSpeakOut, an advocacy group focused on eradicating khafd, also found that three-quarters of Dawoodi Bohra women have experienced FGM.

The severity and nature of FGM can vary.

Health-care providers have identified four types of FGM. Khafd involves Type 1 FGM. Other types involve removing all of the external genitalia and narrowing the vaginal opening.

Jones rejects the idea that there’s a religious basis for the procedure, however it’s performed.

FGM
FILE – A counselor holds up cards used to educate women about female genital mutilation (FGM). VOA

“Across the world, this has been practiced by Christians, pagans, Muslims, even a small Jewish sect in Ethiopia,” he said.

“This is not about a religion,” he added. “This is about men attempting to control women’s behavior by this horrible procedure.”

The WHO identifies both short-term and permanent harms associated with the practice. Immediate concerns include severe pain, infections and, in some cases, death. Long term, women and girls subjected to FGM face a range of physiological and psychological complications that can affect menstruation, childbirth and sexual health.

The United States has been unequivocal in condemning the practice, saying “the U.S. government considers FGM/C to be a serious human rights abuse, and a form of gender-based violence and child abuse” on a fact sheet posted to the Citizenship & Immigration Services website.

Education and legislation

Friedman’s November decision is the latest in a series of setbacks for prosecutors.

Nagarwala spent seven months in 2017 in jail before 16 friends posted a $4.5 million unsecured bond, against the pleas of prosecutors, who argued Nagarwala could silence potential witnesses or even flee the country if released.

FGM
KAMELI, KENYA – AUGUST 12: A Masaai villager displays the traditional blade used to circumcise young girls August 12, 2007 in Kameli, Kenya. Maasai are a pastoral group mostly clustered in the Rift Valley. They practice circumcision on both boys and girls during puberty years as a rite of passage to adulthood. VOA

And in January, the judge dismissed charges that Nagarwala and a second doctor, Fakhruddin Attar, transported minors with the intent to engage in criminal sexual activity, an offense that carries a lifetime sentence.

Nagarwala still faces conspiracy and obstruction charges that could result in decades in prison.

The trial is now set to begin next April, the Detroit Free Press reported last month. However, the prosecution could appeal last month’s decision, drawing the case out further.

Also Read: Somalia Calls To Outlaw Female Genital Mutilation

Looking beyond the Michigan case, Jones said the key to stopping FGM isn’t just legislation but also education.

“What we have to do is continue to fight this worldwide. This is a global problem,” Jones said.

“It is a violation of human rights,” he said. “And I’m going to continue speaking out worldwide against this horrible, horrible practice that must end.” (VOA)