Female Genital Mutilation, not Europe’s problem. Or is it?

Sabine Clappaert – WNN Features

Caterina Dolcher and Bruna Zorzini of the STOP FGM campaign in Trieste, Italy, 2003
Caterina Dolcher and Bruna Zorzini work to stop FGM - Female Genital Mutilation in Italy at a 2003 STOP FGM (Mutilzasioni Genitali Femminili) conference in Trieste. Many other campaigns across Europe have reached out in an attempt to stop the practice. Image: Marco Gentili

(WNN) EUROPE: Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a topic that has been rarely associated with Western Europe, yet due to the arrival of immigrants and refugees from Africa, the Middle East and Asia, female circumcision has become a specific Western concern. It is estimated that in the European Union alone, 500,000 girls and women live with FGM and every year another 180,000 are at risk of being circumcised.

“The numbers on how bad the problem really is throughout European societies, are sketchy,” admits Dr Els Leye, a scientist at the International Centre for Reproductive Health at the university of Ghent (Belgium), who is specialized in FGM. “Various countries have done research and published estimates on the number of women living with FGM in their respective countries, but the real extent of the problem has certainly not been mapped in representative detail yet, as many of the studies to not take asylum seekers or undocumented cases of FMG into account.

While FMG is illegal in most European countries, “the practice is certainly still prevalent amongst communities originally from countries where FGM is practiced,” Leye adds. “Most often, the girls are taken back to their country of origin to be circumcised.”

But how can girls that have grown up in Western societies willingly submit to circumcision? Leye explains: “Firstly, we must remember that parents and family members will often tell the girl that there is going to be a feast to honor her becoming a woman. It is presented as a ‘coming of age’ celebration, not as a painful, traumatic procedure. Secondly, as is often the case in child abuse, children don’t willingly report their parents.”

Even so, why does nobody notice anything amiss when the girl returns from holiday – a teacher, for instance? “Because our teachers have not been trained to recognize the signs of FGM,” says Leye, “does a girl go to the bathroom more often, or does she seem to be in pain, for instance?”

Somali mother and child fleeing to safety as refugees
As severe famine and hunger hits the IDP camp for Somalis in Mogudishu in July 2011, Somali familes try desperately to leave the region. Those who make it out of the region often bring with them an acceptance of FGM. Image: UNphoto/Stuart Price

Therein lies one of the greatest challenges surrounding FGM in Europe, according to Leye: “Those people that are most likely to come in to contact with FGM victims – teachers, health care staff, police, childcare workers – are not aware that FGM is a real problem nor are they trained to recognize the symptoms.”

Ifrah Ahmed (23) was circumcised in Somalia when she was eight years old. “I don’t remember much. We were a whole group of girls being circumcised together.” Ifrah was circumcised a second time when she was thirteen. “I was circumcised by a doctor so I was one of the ‘lucky’ ones; I know of girls that were circumcised with broken glass. What I still don’t understand is how a doctor – an educated man – can do such things to young girls.”

Ifrah fled to Ireland five years ago, when she was just seventeen. Today, she is a vocal opponent of FGM and one of the main faces of the European ‘Ending Female Genital Mutilation’ campaign. “I don’t want other girls to go through what I went through, no matter where they were born or where they live,” she says.

Even in Ireland, the Somali community has ostracized Ifrah for her stand against FGM and the social pressure to conform to tradition, also abroad, cannot be ignored. “Somali men here have told me that I should stop attacking things which are part of our culture and Somali women tell me that it will be my fault if girls can’t find a husband because they have not been circumcised. I have received threats, yes. I have even gone to the police with certain voice-mails and have had to leave Dublin because I am so outspoken about FGM.”

Despite her personal ordeal and the opposition she faces from her own community, Ahmed continues her campaign and remains optimistic. Ireland recently passed legislation outlawing FGM. Will imposing a law provide the answer, I ask her? “Certainly imposing a law will help, but we still have a long way to go,” she admits. “What is more important is that the law is enforced. Without follow-up, any legislation becomes meaningless.”

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