Saturday

28th Nov 2020

Opinion

Ending female genital mutilation: Will future Europe take up the mantle?

  • The Senegal government voted to outlaw FGM in 1999 (Photo: DFID - UK Department for International Development)

Every day 8,000 girls in the world are subjected to the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). Entrenched in a number of African, Asian and Middle Eastern societies, this intimate act of controlling women’s and girls’ bodies is a human rights violation.

Illegal yet still practiced in number of countries, including in Europe, FGM impacts on women’s health, well being and our ability to achieve our full potential. A global movement has been launched to tackle this violation with the adoption of an UN resolution on FGM in December 2012.

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Now the European Commission has added to this energy by releasing its action plan “Towards the elimination of female genital mutilation” on the International Day of Elimination of Violence against Women. The plan is definitely progressive, but how will the European institutional changes affect this momentum?

In Europe an estimated 500,000 girls and women have been subjected to FGM; an additional 180,000 are at risk each year. The largest numbers of women and girls originating from countries where FGM is practised live in the UK, Italy, France, Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, Sweden and Belgium.

So far, EU countries have been struggling in the absence of a strategic approach to tackle the practice and discussions have ranged from well meaning words of condemnation without action and appeals for narrow-minded legal solutions.

After a number of commitments voiced in the Women’s Charter in 2010, the European Commission has finally released an action plan with a visionary set of recommendations aimed to prevent FGM and protect women and girls living with, or at risk of, FGM.

Six divisions of the commission have come together to offer a multidisciplinary response - in the areas of justice and fundamental rights, asylum, health, external relations, development and education.

The plan calls for more data in Europe, better training of health and legal professionals, funding for civil society, exchange of good practices within the EU and much more. In its external relations, the EU is urged to raise the issue of FGM in annual dialogues and in its work with the African Union.

What is equally commendable is the focus on preventing the practice of FGM. Behavioural change activities targeted at and developed with the affected communities will ensure more impact rather than the focus on prosecution, which has recently been at the centre of heated debates in the UK. Daily media attention in the UK solely on the absence of prosecutions could potentially endanger the child we hope to protect.

In the case of FGM, the perpetrator is most often the parents or close family members and as a result, prosecution could also result in double victimisation of the child who could lose her parents. Have the interests of the child been considered before rushing to consign parents to prison? And what about the mother who was once a victim; will she be regarded as a perpetrator of the same crime?

Assessing the impact of prosecutions in countries like France, Spain and Sweden would be crucial to clarify the potential deterrent effect and risks. Ultimately, the race to the first prosecution should not be the endgame.

The EU with its new plan has raised expectations of local and regional civil society organisations and those of the 500,000 women and girls living with FGM in Europe. But will these measures be implemented in the face of upcoming EU institutional changes and will the new leaders of Europe fight for these women and girls? Sustained action that will root out this violence will only be possible if all EU institutions and countries hold each other to account.

The practice of FGM is part of a continuum of violence faced by women and girls starting from female infanticide, child marriage, rape, domestic violence, trafficking and more. The EU in its fight against FGM cannot ignore the broader framework offered by the Council of Europe Convention on combating violence against women, which is one step away from entering into force.

The EU and member states ought to show their broader commitment towards gender equality and ending all forms of violence against women by adopting this comprehensive treaty. It is possible to offer all women and girls a route out of the continuum of violence, as long as our leaders continue to add to the global momentum.

The writer is a director at Amnesty International

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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