FGM: Zero Tolerance Day in Prague
Female genital mutilation is now a reality in Western Europe, Australasia and the Americas. But does it also happen in Eastern Europe? Here’s some of a piece I wrote to mark Zero Tolerance to FGM Day for the Prague-based Opinions Post. I fear a few in-coming diasporas to Eastern Europe have brought FGM and other harmful traditional practices with them; and I know we Europeans, all of us, still tolerate other forms of violence against women and girls, whether indigenous, or from places as varied as Somalia and Romania.
Today is International Zero Tolerance Day, the day every year on which people across the world acknowledge the date, 6 February 2003, when Stella Obasanjo (then First Lady of Nigeria and spokesperson for the Campaign Against Female Genital Mutilation) officially declared “Zero Tolerance to FGM” in Africa, during a conference organized by the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (IAC).
Since that time the UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights has adopted this day as a way to raise international awareness of FGM, which the World Health Organisation estimates is done to around 30 million girls and women every year. Some 125 or 130 million girls and women alive today have experienced FGM.
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is an abhorrent harmful traditional practice with roots back thousands of years. It involved various degrees of cutting away, and even sealing up, a girl’s or woman’s genitals, and is even sometimes performed on babies. The child is usually held down by an older woman with high prestige but no medical training, in unsanitary conditions, often without pain relief – between 10% and 30% of victims will die because of it, either shortly after the damage is inflicted or later from long-term effects.
FGM is therefore a form of sometimes lethal kidnap and torture, undertaken in the tragically mistaken belief that it will make a girl ‘pure’ and ‘clean’, so that she becomes marriageable. Once the ‘cutting’ and perhaps the infibulation (sewing up) has been done, the girl or woman, even a small child, will be sold to her husband, who will pay bride price and may also be responsible in default of any pension for her parents in their old age.
FGM is in its fundamentals an economic transaction in which the girl child, suitably prepared, is an object to be sold for best price.
The practice of FGM began well before any of the religions we know came about, and was (is) also carried out by animists and others with no formal religion. Nonetheless, a spurious link with, eg, Islam, Coptic Christianity and some forms of Judaism has been made, because FGM is largely practiced in the African and Arab countries where these faiths are found.
Given its origins, it might be thought that people in Mid- and Eastern Europe have little cause to be directly concerned about FGM. Sadly, this is not the case.
Evidence suggests that FGM has migrated to much of Europe along with the African and other diaspora. Many European countries are now home to people from places such as Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Egypt, Kenya, parts of Pakistan and India, and other similar nations – all of which still mutilate large numbers of girls and women (in some cases almost all of them), despite the illegality of what they do.
One of the most affected European countries is, in fact, Britain, where estimates suggest that well over 20,000 girls and young women are at risk of FGM every year. Many thousands have already had it done.
Britain has plenty of legislation, both directly against FGM and also other laws which could be applied, but, unbelievably, not one prosecution has yet been undertaken – though it is hoped this will change soon. France, however, has secured over 100 convictions, and several other European countries are beginning to prosecute as well.
Even strong legal sanctions, however, are not enough to stop this abuse of girl children. Also required is vigorous work within diaspora communities, to ensure that ancient ideas of ‘purity’ and the ownership of females by men, are brought into the open and challenged. It may be women who inflict the ‘surgery’, but it is men who benefit most from it – as long as they don’t mind their (several?) wives experiencing nothing but pain when they make ‘love’.
Secrecy – nobody in the communities discusses FGM, especially not men and women together, and it often comes as a nightmare surprise to its victims – is the mode for this harmful traditional practice; and patriarchy is its fundamental, undiscussed motivator.
So what can those in the more eastern parts of Europe learn from the miserable lessons of their western cousins?
Firstly: be aware; and know that FGM cannot be eradicated by force alone. Openness, genuine care for migrant and dispossessed children, and effective radar, are required, along with legal sanction. To stop FGM requires coordinated action from the top (policy makers) seamlessly knitted also into the fabric of communities outside the mainstream. This might seem a tall order when times are hard; but how else will a nation maintain the safety of all its children? And how else can the catastrophic costs of mutilation, human and economic, be avoided? Today’s children are tomorrow’s citizens, and the people who in due course will themselves take care of us.
An secondly: do not imagine your own nation — western European, eastern European or any other — is innocent of the ideas which are causing so much harm to some little girls. Each of our countries has a history of grim misogyny. We have burned witches, committed awful crimes against women, treated females as inferior, even sometimes in effect the property of, males. We all have our own traditional incoming diaspora peoples who have been treated appallingly, whether from Somalia or Romania.
Perhaps Zero Tolerance Day can be a wake up call to us all, to remember that child cruelty of any kind is never acceptable; and that we are all global neighbors, with a duty of care to one another, wherever our original home.
What are YOU going to do to make FGM and other cruelties to children a thing of the past?
** The Guardian newspaper www.guardian.co.uk is today (6 February) beginning a major campaign against FGM in the UK and world-wide. You can also update on reports across the globe for free, here: http://paper.li/NoFGM1/1347915392