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Fighting FGM

Naomi Conrad, Berlin / sadJuly 24, 2014

Thousands of babies and young girls worldwide undergo genital mutilation every day. Its devastating effects can include infection, incontinence and trauma. Even in Europe, 180,000 children are at risk.

A young Senegalese girl under cover in her mother's traditional clothes, while they attend the official renouncement ceremony of Female Genital Cutting (FGC) at a ceremony in Kidira, eastern Senegal (Photo: EPA/PIERRE HOLTZ)
Image: picture alliance/dpa

Her mother warned her, said Zahra Naleie. Again and again. "If you do this work, they will see you as an enemy," her mother had told her. But Naleie didn't listen as she started battling against female genital mutilation in Europe in the early 1990s - and with it went against "tradition, religion and custom." At least that's how Nalerie said her mother put it back home in Somalia where she had hoped her daughter should use her recently gained master's degree from the Netherlands for something more practical.

But Naleie believed that it made sense to fight against female genital mutilation, also known as FGM. "I told her, this comes from my heart and that's why I will continue," Naleie said.

Damaging procedure

In female genital mutilation, the external portion of the clitoris and often parts of the labia are removed. The wound is often sewn up so tightly that only a tiny hole is left, out of which urine and menstrual blood flows.

Consequences include infection, incontinence, chronic pain and trauma. Many babies and girls bleed to death as a result of the procedure, which continues to be widespread in many African countries and in the Middle East.

A gynecologist cooperating with the Coptic Center for Training and Development gives a lecture to Christian and Muslim women on Female Genital Mutilation near Cairo (Photo: CRIS BOURONCLE/AFP/Getty Images)
Thanks largely to educational campaigns, areas that once practiced near-universal FGM have seen a turnaroundImage: CRIS BOURONCLE/AFP/Getty Images

But FGM is also continues among certain migrant communities in Europe. Including in the Netherlands, where Naleie chose to stay after completing her studies, as war broke out in her home country of Somalia.

Proponents of FGM cite health and hygiene benefits - but mostly the practice goes back to religious beliefs and tradition. It's perceived as a ritual that increases the likelihood of finding a husband and status for a girl within her community.

"Helping" their children

Naleie's work was difficult from the beginning: She experienced threats and hostility from people among who view FGM was an integral part of their culture. Also from women who themselves had undergone the trauma of "female circumcision," but were still prepared to subject their daughters to the debilitating process - out of fear that without it, they would not be able to find husbands.

"They weren't intending to abuse their children, rather ensure a future for them," Naleie said, adding that some people consider uncut women "unclean."

Naleie is currently in Berlin, participating in an exchange with other FGM activists from Sweden, Great Britain and Germany. They all agreed that progress has been made: while a few years ago, it would have been unimaginable to get women and men to even come to the table and discuss the topic, today some groups - from Eritrea and Ethiopia, specifically - have all but given up the practice.

Billboard warning of dangers of FGM in Uganda (Photo: imago/McPHOTO/Zandbergen)
Many African countries have also banned FGMImage: imago

Naleie traced the success back to an integrated approach that sees activists working together with religious leaders, teachers and doctors. FGM, which the United Nations defines as a severe human rights violation, has also been made illegal in many countries. In Germany, it carries a prison sentence of 15 years.

Mostly done in Africa

Yet FGM continues. In Europe, 180,000 girls are at risk of becoming victims, according to a 2009 European Parliament study that still reflects the reality of FGM in Europe. It's estimated that about half a million women living in Europe have undergone FGM.

Cornelia Strunz of the center for victims of FGM at Berlin's Waldfriede Hospital told of a mother who came to the clinic with her five-year-old girl a few months ago. The center carries out surgery to reconstruct the clitoris.

The mother had feared that her daughter, who had spent the summer vacation with her father in Somalia, had been circumcised while she was there. "Luckily, we were able to rule that out," the senior physician said.

Strunz treats three to four patients every month. They have almost exclusively been cut in African countries. "But I also know that people have been flown to Germany, in order to carry out the procedure here," she added.

'We will win'

Strunz opens the door to a room where a petite woman sits in a white hospital bed. There are flowers on the table. The woman, who wished to remain anonymous, had recently received a reconstructive operation.

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She's doing well. She still remembers the day her parents took her to the hospital to be cut. She was just a baby "when that was done." She doesn't say the word mutilation. It's still a taboo topic in her family.

Perhaps this is because her family is in a bit of a crisis on the subject. "So many girls die that way, you'd have to really justify that," the woman said. But there is no justification, she believes, because the mutilation is carried out to make sex pleasureless for women and "to make them decent."

But her family has started to rethink the topic, "Most say they would not do it with their daughters."

Naleie proudly said that in the end, even her mother changed her mind, despite having been so vehement against her daughter's work. Someday, Naleie is sure, female genital mutilation will be conquered. "We will win."