Practiced in Africa as well as in certain countries in the Middle East and communities in Asia and Latin America, female genital mutilation is the internationally-acknowledged name for the practice of cutting women's genitalia. Girls are subjected to FGM for a variety of reasons, explained Christine Loudes, director of the EndFGM campaign at Amnesty International.
"FGM is performed for non-therapeutic reasons," Loudes said. "It's done in the name of tradition, in the name of aesthetics and sometimes in the name of religion."
FGM involves partially or completely removing the external female genitalia, and the practice is usually performed under unhygienic conditions and without anaesthesia on girls from their birth to 15 years of age. FGM represents a severe violation of human rights.
"It constitutes torture and degrading treatment; it violates women's rights, and it violates rights to physical integrity as well as to children's rights, to name a few," Loudes added.
FGM crosses borders
Africa is the most notable perpetrator regarding FGM, with some 30 countries subjecting girls to the practice. But girls are threatened by the practice on other continents as well. According to the European Parliament, roughly 500,000 girls and women in Europe have already been subjected to FGM or are in danger of becoming victims. That number includes 75,000 girls and women in the UK, 65,000 in France and 30,000 in Germany. As Loudes explains, it's difficult to prove that FGM is actually being carried out on the ground in Europe, but Amnesty International does not want to rule out the possibility.
"I cannot say that it's hard evidence. There's anecdotal evidence that this is done in Europe and that actually there is a cross-border dimension to it," Loudes said. "But mostly we know that it's happening when girls are going with their parents on holiday to their parents' country of origin, and that's where they are most at risk."
One FGM victim living in Europe is Aissatou Diallo, a native of Guinea who was mutilated in her home country at the age of 14. Fearing that her own daughters might meet the same fate, the family came to Belgium in 2007 as refugees. Diallo says she now lives with a sense of security.
"I've noticed that since coming to Belgium I've had peace of mind, because my children go to school and they are safe here," Diallo said. "I don't come home and ask, ‘Where are my girls? Did someone take them away to cut them?', which is what often happens in my country. So here I've been able to enjoy life again, and I've learned to rebuild myself psychologically."
Diallo may have found her footing in Belgium, but Christine Loudes says that the recovery process is long and demanding for FGM victims who arrive in Europe.
"They need a lot of healthcare support," she stressed. "In particular, some form of reparation is required for women whose vagina has been stitched together. These women will need to be unstitched and they will need psychological support because it's a practice that brings a lot of psychological and physical trauma."
Support for victims and health professionals
Run by Amnesty International in coordination with non-government organizations in 11 different European countries, the EndFGM campaign has set accessible healthcare for FGM victims living in Europe as a priority. In Germany, for example, there is still work to be done in achieving this goal.
"The treatment and the operations needed for FGM victims are not covered by health insurance here," explained Shewa Sium, director of the Cologne-based refugee support organization agisra. "The women have to pay for it themselves. Right now, we're collecting signatures for a petition so that medical treatment for victims of FGM can also be covered by insurance companies."
But it's not just the FGM victims who need support. Organizations like Amnesty International and agisra are calling on EU member states to give government workers the resources and training they need to tackle an issue they are unlikely to have encountered before.
"We hear a lot of health professionals, teachers and social workers are confronted with the practice, and they don't know how to deal with the situation," said Christine Loudes. "The most difficult moment is at the time of giving birth, during which there is a lot of risk for the mother and the baby. The fact that health professionals are not used to dealing with women who have undergone FGM means that there is often an emergency caesarean section. This leads to increased costs in the health system as well as a higher risk for the women."
Because FGM has a lifelong physical and psychological impact on its victims, organizations like Amnesty International also emphasize the need to protect girls and women at risk, often via asylum in Europe. The European Union, however, lacks unified procedures and legislation when it comes to FGM.
"What is problematic is that each member state has a very different approach in relation to FGM," explains Loudes. "In some cases it is recognized as persecution, and in other cases you get another status that is less protective and is only temporary. In some countries, the level of awareness is very low, in particular in the new countries that have joined the EU. We are trying to change this by providing some education to asylum officers."
EU countries must act, says Commisssion
In an effort to achieve a streamlined, forceful approach against FGM from EU member states, the European Commission is also taking steps. Viviane Reding, the justice and fundamental rights commissioner, has flagged FGM as an issue in a five-year strategy for equality between women and men, and the Commission may further target FGM in a new policy paper due out in February 2011.
"The Commission is going to come out with a strategy policy paper on violence in general and victims. FGM is one of the priorities for the commission," said Mathew Newman, spokesperson for Commissioner Reding.
"It's possible that we will include it in the victims' strategy. It's a horrible practice, and people need to know that. They also need to know that the European Union is working with member states to raise awareness and doing everything we can to stop it."
While the EU's efforts are welcome news for women like Aissatou Diallo, she cautions that European countries and their citizens must also treat the issue of FGM with sensitivity to avoid stigmatizing its victims.
"When we talk about terrible things that others don't understand, we simply need to tell them: it's as if you would take a child in Europe and cut off an ear, an arm, or an eye. The child has been mutilated; it's as simple as that," she explained.
"It's true that we're not seen as complete women. We're seen as handicapped, almost. But we are people like you, and as Africans, we are fighting for change. Our hope is to be the last women in the world who have suffered from this practice."
Author : Laura Schweiger
Editor: Greg Wiser