Female genital mutilation (FGM) is estimated to affect up to 680,000 women and girls in Europe but yet just a handful of people have been prosecuted, Euronews can reveal.
The failure of authorities to respond has “likely resulted in the preventable mutilation of thousands of girls”, according to a UK parliament report.
Here, to mark International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation, we take a look at why FGM is carried out, its impact in Europe and the reasons behind why there’s been so few prosecutions.
WHAT IS FGM?
FGM includes procedures that “intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons”, according to the World Health Organisation.
WHO says the practice can include: the removal of the clitoris or labia; the narrowing of the vaginal opening; or piercing, scraping and burning of the genital area.
FGM is mostly carried out on girls between infancy and 15 years. Sometimes adult women are subjected to the procedure after childbirth or marriage.
The procedures are often carried out without anaesthetics, using knives, scissors, razor blades and, in some instances, shards of glass.
It is generally done by traditional practitioners, but, according to WHO, there is a trend towards the “medicalisation” of FGM. It says 18 per cent of all FGM is performed by “healthcare providers”.
“Often the girl is pinned down by a number of adults,” according to a report by Equality Now. “In other instances, girls are expected to bear the pain stoically by not moving or crying during the procedure.”
WHY IS FGM CARRIED OUT?
There is a mix of cultural, religious and social factors behind why FGM is inflicted upon girls, according to WHO.
FGM can simply be a social convention, with people following the practice of others believing it is part of bringing up a girl properly.
Practitioners often believe FGM has religious support, despite it not being mentioned in religious scripts, including the Koran. “In communities where FGM is a social norm, it is practised by Muslims, Christians and followers of indigenous religions,” says Equality Now.
Others believe FGM will reduce a woman’s libido, thereby helping to reduce the chances of her taking part in illegal sexual acts.
FGM survivor Leyla Hussein told the Independent: “I was pinned onto the table by four women. They said ‘it’s not going to be painful, silly girl’. Apparently they gave me an injection to numb it, but I felt everything, I felt my flesh being cut off.
“After you’re cut you’re given presents, chocolates, sweets – me and my sister actually got gold watches. You’re abused, but you’re rewarded for it. It leaves you with a massive sense of confusion about people you trust.”
IS FGM JUST A PROBLEM FOR AFRICA?
UNICEF estimates that more than 125 million girls and women worldwide have undergone FGM. It adds that 3 million girls in Africa are at risk each year.
It is thought to have affected 500,000 women in Europe, while 180,000 emigrants to the continent undergo, or are at risk of undergoing, FGM.
However one of the challenges of tackling FGM is getting reliable figures of how many people it affects. This is well illustrated by the chart below, which shows the number of women estimated to be affected by FGM in Europe. The UK’s figures are from a 2014 report, but data for other countries are less recent: the Netherlands (2013); Hungary (2012); Belgium, Ireland (2011); Italy (2009); Germany, France (2007); Greece (2006); Austria (2000).
“IT’S NO LONGER AN AFRICAN ISSUE, IT’S A EUROPEAN ISSUE”
Leyla Hussein, co-Founder of Daughters of Eve, a FGM awareness-raising group, said: “What we are trying to highlight to the British people – especially to the government and policy makers – is that FGM affects British girls.
“People have the idea that FGM happens out there to these people out there in Africa.
“But it’s happening out there right now as we speak.
“With the support groups that we run we have seen many young women who have had it done here in the UK, in London.
“It’s no longer an African issue, it’s now a European issue.”
HOW MANY HAVE BEEN PROSECUTED FOR FGM?
British doctor Dhanuson Dharmasena was this week acquitted of carrying out FGM on a new mother in London.
It was the UK’s first FGM trial.
Elsewhere in Europe, the picture is little better. France is the leader in terms of FGM criminal cases with 40. European Commission figures to January 2012 show Spain had six; Italy and Sweden two; the Netherlands and Denmark one each.
Campaigners said the trial in the UK, despite the acquittal, sent a strong message that FGM was against the law.
Dharmasena, reported Reuters, said FGM was an “abhorrent practice”. His family, weeping with relief, said he had been made a scapegoat.
It came after a doctor in Egypt was convicted of manslaughter after a 13-year-old girl died in a botched FGM procedure.
Equality Now called the verdict a “monumental victory”. It was the first FGM trial in Egypt, a country with one of the world’s highest prevalence rates of FGM.
Over 90 percent of women and girls between 15 and 49 in Egypt have undergone FGM, according to UN estimates.
WHY SO FEW PROSECUTIONS?
A report by the UK parliament’s home affairs committee says the reason for so few prosecutions is down to the police not investigating FGM.
It added: “The police and others told us two factors contributed to the small number of investigations — a reliance on victims or witnesses to report to the police, which they are unlikely to do, and the failure of health, education and social care professionals to refer cases to the police where they suspect FGM to have taken place.”
The report draws a comparison with France, which it says has secured 40 prosecutions.
It reads: “A key feature of the French system is the use of regular medical check-ups on children up to the age of six, which includes examination of the genitals. The system is not mandatory, though receipt of social security is dependent on participation. Furthermore, girls identified as being at risk of FGM are required to have medical examinations every year, and whenever they return from abroad.”
WHAT IS BEING DONE TO TACKLE FGM?
FGM is recognised internationally as a violation of girls’ and women’s human rights, while the UN has adopted a resolution to eradicate the practice. The European Commission has also made similar commitments.
Some individual countries are also making progress.
Tanya Sukhija, programme officer at Equality Now, told Euronews: “Kenya is a really good example. They have a law against FGM and they have been taking a lot of steps to implement the law, such as having a specialist prosecution unit.
“The UK has had a law on the book against FGM for many years. They had their first trial last week. This is a key sign that they are going to implement the law.”
WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE?
Ms Sukhija said: “FGM has been identified as a human rights violation but there’s more of a need for that to be implemented at a national level and the European Union can help with that.”
She added that the court case in the UK – in which a doctor was acquitted of FGM (see above) – illustrates the need for better education of FGM among healthcare staff. She also called for more awareness raising among frontline staff – including social workers and teachers – to help prevent the practice and identify victims.
The UK parliament’s home affairs committee has echoed Ms Sukhija’s words on awareness raising among healthcare professionals. It also recommended stronger laws, more prosecutions and more work with communities.