Following the publication of a survey that says many migrant girls are circumcised in Germany, UNICEF and other groups are pushing for measures to counter the problem. The emphasis is on information rather than bans.
UN envoy and model Waris Dirie has criticized Germany on the subject
The United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF estimates that around two million girls worldwide are forced to undergo genital mutilation each year. The practice, that involves the cutting off the clitoris and other parts of the genitalia, is a tradition in 28 African countries and in some parts of Asia and the Middle East.
But, what's largely been ignored until now is the fact that the practice -- imported by immigrants from those countries -- is also carried out covertly in Europe.
That point was driven home when a study, surveying 493 gynecologists across Germany, was released in Berlin this week. It found that 43 percent of the doctors admitted that they had treated circumcised women in their clinics. Every tenth gynecologist said he had heard of the practice being performed in Germany.
Women in Somalia demonstrate against female circumcision in August 2004.
The results have provided groups like UNICEF and the human rights group Terre des Femmes with new ammunition to draw attention to the problem and demand more information campaigns and counseling offers to protect girls from circumcision and help the affected women.
"In Germany there are some 59,000 African women who originate from countries where female circumcision is practiced," said Eva Köhler, wife of the German president and patron of UNICEF. "That's why we can assume that more than 20,000 circumcised girls and women are living in Germany. Little is known about their situation."
A grey legal zone
Though genital mutilation is forbidden in Germany and can be pursued by the law as "bodily harm," many questions over the legality of the practice still remain unanswered. For instance, doctors are allowed to break the confidentiality law in the case of a potential female circumcision. But it's not mandatory for them to report a case to the authorities, as it is in France.
The fuzzy legal zone surrounding female circumcision in Germany has drawn much criticism. Waris Dirie (photo), a model of Somali origin who was circumcised as a girl and is the UN's special envoy against genital mutilation, bemoaned the loopholes in German law.
In an interview with German daily Der Tagesspiegel, the 39-year-old pointed out that when girls who were born in Germany were circumcised in the home countries of their parents, the parents couldn't be prosecuted in Germany. Such "circumcision holidays" have long been forbidden in France and England, Dirie added.
A recent judgment by the Federal Administrative Court did try to clarify certain points of the legal situation: it ruled that parents could partly lose their right to custody if they planned on sending their daughters for a circumcision to their home countries. However, the UNICEF survey proves that the practice continues unabated despite the court ruling.
More information needed
Instruments of torture -- a knife and blades in Kenya that are used for female circumcision.
The brutal tradition has also thrown up medical and ethical questions for doctors in Germany. "Circumcision is a major health risk," said Manfred Steiner, president of the Professional Association of Gynecologists in Germany. "It's not just against medical ethics and the medical association's professional code of conduct but also violates the law," he said. Steiner added that the survey made it clear that doctors in Germany too were in need of more information on the practice.
More information is what all groups fighting the problem agree on. Eva Köhler said that the "gruesome tradition" couldn't be countered by bans alone. "Sensitized information and counseling is of great importance," she, adding that the survey had shown that information and clarification about female circumcision were urgently needed. "Not only in the countries where the practice originates, but also here in Germany," she said.
A more sensitive approach
At the same time, experts in the field agree that more clarification has to be accompanied with encouraging immigrants to break the silence and taboo surrounding the topic.
Fana Asefaw, a doctor from Ethiopia who works in Munich for the German chapter of the international organization "Forward," said there had to be a well-thought-out approach when it came to reaching out to the affected, keeping in mind the cultural differences.
An African man in Germany hold up his young daughter during an intercultural festival.
"Our aim is to seek out the communities of the affected women and inform them. In the beginning we had many problems -- they wouldn't take us seriously, wouldn't open the door to us and discuss about the topic," she said.
Asefaw added that for African women to feel understood it would help if women's groups in Germany dealt with female circumcision in the context of other problems such as poverty, suppression and lack of access to medical care and not in a sensational manner.