Female genital mutilation may not rank high on European gender equality agendas but Amnesty International has warned that it is a growing problem requiring a common EU response.

The family don’t do it to hurt their daughter – they genuinely believe it will allow their child to find a husband

“At the moment, different countries have opted to tackle the issue in different ways, with some doing much more than others,” said the director of Amnesty International’s End FGM campaign Christine Loudes.

In March 2009, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling for an EU-wide overall FGM strategy and action plan in March 2009. But progress has been slow.

The resolution estimated that approximately 500,000 women across Europe had suffered FGM, with a further 180,000 female emigrants at risk of undergoing the procedure every year.

“This is a growing issue which we need to address now, before it becomes harder to do so,” said Dr Loudes. “We may think it’s a fringe concern, but 500,000 is a lot of women – it’s more than Malta’s entire population.”

FGM, which essentially involves the cutting or mutilating of a female’s genitals, is a cultural ritual practised in several African countries as well as parts of Asia and the Middle East.

The World Health Organisation estimates that between 100 and 140 million women and girls worldwide have undergone the procedure, which has been condemned by several international bodies as amounting to violence against women and even torture.

“In some countries, such as Somalia or Egypt, FGM prevalence is over 90 per cent. The problem is that in some cultures the practice is intrinsically tied to marriage – a woman cannot get married unless she has been cut,” Dr Loudes said.

She explained how its cultural acceptance made it harder for its victims to speak out against the practice.

“Often the victim’s family is heavily involved in the procedure. They don’t do it to hurt their daughter – they genuinely believe it is beneficial, that it will allow their child to find a husband.”

These familial ties meant that prosecuting against FGM was difficult, Dr Loudes said. “Simply criminalising FGM doesn’t work in practice. Once FGM has taken place, it’s very hard for a girl to go to a court and face her own relatives.”

The UK, she explained, had introduced FGM-specific legislation but was yet to prosecute a single case under the new law.

“Preventive measures are perhaps more important than criminalisation. There are already preventive programmes in a number of African countries, aimed at changing the social dynamic and eliminating FGM there. We need to see similar programmes here in Europe.”

FGM prevention involves changing attitudes and cultural norms. “Education, awareness raising and engaging communities where FGM is practiced in dialogue can all help reduce the practice.”

There were several examples of good practice across the EU, Dr Loudes added.

“Belgium has several good practices when it comes to general asylum procedures, and both France and the Netherlands have a number of gender-sensitive aspects to their migration policy. Italy has gone as far as allocating a small budget to FGM prevention activities.” She had praise for Malta’s migrant health unit. The unit, run by Marika Podda Connor, provides cultural mediators who act as a bridge between migrants and health professionals (see box).

Dr Loudes also pointed out that such initiatives made economic sense too. “The quicker you can diagnose and treat medical issues, the cheaper it works out in the long run. It’s not simply a human rights issue; it’s a matter of keeping costs down too.”

But there is genuine concern that such examples of good practice are not being shared among EU states.

“Women already get little attention at public policy level – migrant women get even less.” Although member states often spoke of a common asylum system across the EU, “there are significant discrepancies in the way FGM is dealt with from one country to another,” she said.

“It all depends on which country a migrant woman arrives in first. If you arrive in certain countries, then your predicament will be recognised. If you arrive in others, bad luck. And that is not fair.”

Malta has only faced a handful of FGM-related cases over the years, although the Refugee Commissioner has made it clear that Malta does not consider FGM to be adequate grounds for granting refugee status.

Amnesty’s End FGM campaign, which urges the EU to implement a coherent strategy aimed at ending the practice, gathered over 42,000 signatures over a 16-day period last year. It has received little prominence in Malta but there was a lot Maltese people could do to contribute, Dr Loudes said.

“Every citizen can be a human rights activist in their own right. The Maltese government has yet to sign and ratify the Council of Europe’s convention on preventing and combating violence against women. I would urge Maltese citizens to encourage the government to do so.”

One of the most important aspects to the campaign was educating the European public to avoid stigmatising FGM victims.

“Many migrant women who pluck up the courage to visit a doctor or gynaecologist end up getting even more stigmatised simply because doctors have never come across FGM,” she said.

“As a woman, it’s hard enough to go to the gynaecologist as it is. Imagine going and seeing a doctor recoil in shock and horror!”

The important thing was to approach the brutal practice positively rather than simply condemning it. “We need to talk about FGM in a positive way. It’s a practice that harms women and girls and causes a lot of pain, but it is also a practice which we can avoid and change.”

Good practice at home

Malta’s migrant health unit, which is run by Marika Podda Connor, received high praise from Amnesty.

“The unit provides health education to migrants, trains doctors and nurses to be culturally sensitive and also trains cultural mediators to be able to link migrants and healthcare professionals,” Mrs Podda Connor said.

Migrants and health professionals often face both language and cultural barriers in understanding each other.

Cultural mediators bridge that gap and play what Mrs Podda Connor described as “a very important role” in Malta’s health sector.

“They’ve been extremely successful in helping to overcome difficulties faced by both sides – so much so that Mater Dei Hospital has now adopted the system and employed its own cultural mediators,” Mrs Podda Connor explained.

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