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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
  • 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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Analysts Claim, China’s New Silk Road May Raise Concerns Of Italian Workers

U.S. and Europe most impacted by trade with China are the ones which in recent elections and plebiscites have backed populist candidates and nationalist causes like Brexit, support fueled by anger at the effects of globalization.

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Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte shake their hands following the signing of a memorandum in support of Beijing's "Belt and Road" initiative, at Rome's Villa Madama, March 23, 2019. VOA

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte signed up his country Saturday to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an ambitious trillion-dollar transcontinental trade and infrastructure project. The memorandum signing in Rome was the centerpiece of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s three-stop visit to Europe and it will make Italy the first G-7 nation to participate in China’s so-called New Silk Road.

Italy’s endorsement of the BRI, which spans Eurasia as well as the Middle East and parts of Africa, has prompted the disquiet not only of the United States, but also of European Union leaders, who have voiced concern about Beijing’s growing political clout in Europe and its use of commerce as a tool of statecraft. The U.S. has been critical of the trillion-dollar project and warned about the risks of “debt-trap diplomacy.” Members of the EU are worried the plan could add to fissures in an already strained coalition.

They aren’t alone in worrying about what the longer-term consequences on Italy might be if signing up for BRI moves from symbolism into full participation. Matteo Salvini, head of the populist Lega party, which represents one-half of Italy’s coalition government, is indicating his opposition by staying away from the signing ceremony and won’t be present at a scheduled gala dinner afterward.

Salvini, an ideological bedfellow of Donald Trump and friend of the U.S. president’s former adviser, Steve Bannon, frets the BRI risks turning Italy into a Chinese colony and will saddle it with more debt. He also has publicly indicated his security concerns about allowing the Chinese control of critical infrastructure, including major ports.

“Before allowing someone to invest in the ports of Trieste or Genoa, I would think about it not once but a hundred times,” Salvini said earlier this month.

Some Italian officials in the economy and finance ministry have also offered behind-the-scenes warnings. They argue that while engaging with Beijing in this manner may help boost Italian exports to China, a prospect highlighted by Xi in marketing BRI, it will likely result in a bigger boost for cheap Chinese exports to Italy.

FILE - A map illustrating China's so-called "One Belt, One Road" megaproject, is displayed at the Asian Financial Forum in Hong Kong, China, Jan. 18, 2016.
A map illustrating China’s so-called “One Belt, One Road” megaproject, is displayed at the Asian Financial Forum in Hong Kong, China, Jan. 18, 2016. VOA

Such a scenario, they caution, could have a ruinous impact on domestic Italian producers and workers.

“If trade does take off significantly, it might be a matter of short-term gain, but long-term pain,” one official told VOA.

Despite the warnings, as well as U.S. and EU disapproval of Italy’s BRI endorsement, Conte and Luigi Di Maio, leader of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which makes up half of the country’s populist coalition government, says Chinese investment could kick-start Italy’s sputtering economy.

Several of the EU’s smaller cash-strapped nations have also signed up in the past two years to China’s BRI, hoping that by doing so their economies will be boosted.

Italy slipped into recession last year and its debt levels are among the highest in Europe. The populist coalition government came to power in June 2018 with high-spending plans, promising expensive pension reforms and a living wage for all Italians.

Italian ministers favoring BRI accuse other large EU countries, including France, which is critical of the BRI, of hypocrisy, saying they conduct multi-million-dollar deals anyway with China albeit outside the framework of the New Silk Road initiative.

“The way we see it, it is an opportunity for our companies to take the opportunity of China’s growing importance in the world,” Italy’s under secretary of state for trade and investment, Michele Geraci, told foreign reporters.

FILE - Journalist take pictures outside the venue of a summit at the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, China, May 15, 2017.
Journalist take pictures outside the venue of a summit at the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, China, May 15, 2017. VOA

But some Italian officials worry that view might be short-sighted.

They say while the BRI may offer Italy new funding sources — the country is still lagging well behind the foreign investment levels it enjoyed before the 2008 global financial crash — it could trigger a significant wave of Chinese imports, which would have long-term detrimental consequences for Italian industry, employment and politics.

The officials in the country’s finance ministry, who declined to be identified for this article, have been scrutinizing recent academic studies on the impact of Chinese imports on local labor markets. A series of studies, including those by economists David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson, suggests that Western countries and regions exposed to rising Chinese import competition see a major jump in unemployment, lower labor force participation and lower wages. Unskilled and manual workers are especially adversely affected.

The impacts “are most visible in the local labor markets in which the industries exposed to foreign competition are concentrated. Adjustment in local labor markets is remarkably slow, with wages and labor force participation rates remaining depressed and unemployment rates remaining elevated for at least a full decade after the China trade shock commences. Exposed workers experience greater job churning and reduced lifetime income,” noted Autor, Dorn and Hanson in a paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, an influential U.S.-based nonprofit.

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Other recent academic studies have noted that the regions of the U.S. and Europe most impacted by trade with China are the ones which in recent elections and plebiscites have backed populist candidates and nationalist causes like Brexit, support fueled by anger at the effects of globalization. Brexit is Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.

“Ironically, looking to Beijing for an economic boost and to alleviate economic deprivation could well hurt the workers and businesses who backed populists in the first place and who the populists want to help — Salvini gets that, but the rest of the coalition doesn’t,” observed an Italian official. (VOA)