APRIL 2009

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Zero tolerance for FGM

“Political will at the centre of achieving zero tolerance to FGM”

The IPU, the IAC, IOM and the Geneva Department of Institutions (DI) launched a joint publication on how to put an end to female genital mutilation.How to put an end to female genital mutilation (FGM)? With political will, which is at the centre of achieving zero tolerance to FGM, say the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (IAC), the IPU, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Geneva Department of Institutions (DI). To follow up on the event organized last year, the four organizations held an interactive panel discussion on Friday, 6 February 2009, in Geneva, on the occasion of the International Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM. It was moderated by journalist Catherine Fiankan.

“The panel discussion is an expression of political will to continue and accelerate efforts to put an end to this intolerable form of violence against women and girls”, said the IPU Secretary General, Anders B. Johnsson. Legislation is the first step in ending FGM. It is a public statement to say that this practice is illegal and prohibited. It allows girls to say no and to claim the right to protection by the State. The first objective is to ensure that all countries concerned pass legislation against FGM and that there is no difference in treatment from one country to another.

Ms. Maria Roth-Bernasconi, a member of the Swiss Parliament, recalled that FGM is practised primarily in North-East and West Africa as well as in some regions of the Middle East. However, migration flows have caused these practices to spread beyond the countries of origin. “FGM constitutes a grave violation of human rights. It is an expression of the gender inequality which is deeply rooted in the social, economic and political structures of the countries where they are practised”. In the case of her country, FGM is considered under the Swiss Criminal Code as “bodily harm”. “The legal situation in Switzerland was examined in the light of two legal opinions commissioned by UNICEF Switzerland. They concluded that it was preferable to include in the law a specific reference to this criminal act. “This is why I brought a parliamentary motion”, she said Ms. Sylvia Ekra, Gender Officer at IOM, underlined that FGM has become a reality in Europe. “We know that there is no simple causal relationship between migration and the abandonment of FGM. It is not because these populations now live in Europe that they will abandon the practice”.

As a concrete example, the Director of the Human Right Office at the Geneva Department of Institutions, Ms. Fabienne Bugnon, explained that Switzerland has to do all it can to provide people who find refuge in its territory with protection, information and care. “There are approximately 7,000 women from countries with a high FGM prevalence living in our country, approximately 1,200 in Geneva alone. This is a sufficient number for us to carry out prevention programmes”.

Ms. Berhane Ras-Work, Executive Director of the IAC, played a significant role in having 6 February proclaimed as International Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM seven years ago. Changing social attitudes and practices and political will go hand in hand. “Negative attitudes and practices towards women are so internalized that they manifest themselves in different forms and degrees of violence without much or any challenge from the community. Women have submitted to this social dictate, sacrificing their well-being and that of their daughters just to conform to social dictates”. For lack of knowledge and alternatives in life women themselves tend to be strong guardians of the practice. “The cruelty and the consequences of FGM are tolerated in the name of tradition”, she added.

This is a tradition that can be traced as far back as the time of the pharaohs of Egypt. Contrary to popular belief, FGM it is not encouraged by any religion. To put an end to this tragedy which affects three million girls every year, the IAC is calling for the full involvement of government leaders, legislators, local and traditional chiefs, religious leaders and civil society.

Quotable quotes:

Norwegian action plan: a living tool
“The Norwegian action plan has been a living tool. The first one was launched in 2000, and the third and current plan will run until 2011. Its main objective is prevention. The focus is on changing attitudes through dialogue and dissemination of information with the involvement of the groups concerned. Changing perceptions and attitudes takes time, but there is evidence that this will produce sustainable change. The action plan contains 41 measures that can be grouped into six main categories: capacity-building and transfer of knowledge; prevention and opinion-building; available relevant health services; intensified efforts during holiday periods; effective enforcement of legislation; and strengthened international action. FGM has been outlawed since 1995 for Norwegians. Effective enforcement of legislation is necessary. It is both a duty and a right for schools, health services and other relevant institutions to disclose information to the child welfare service”.
Ms. Bente Angell-Hansen, Ambassador of Norway in Geneva

Burkina Faso: a forerunner in the fight against FGM
Burkina Faso is one of the pioneering African States engaged in the fight against FGM. For 18 years it has put in place several institutional and normative measures to sensitize, dissuade and sanction potential or actual perpetrators of FGM. Several ministries have been entrusted with coordinating their efforts in order to put an end to this practice. From a legal perspective, the Constitution of Burkina Faso upholds the right to physical integrity of persons and the fundamental principle of equal rights. In application thereof, the principal deterrent is the Criminal Act of 1996, which facilitated a review of the Criminal Code and led to the introduction of provisions that punish by way of fine or imprisonment the perpetrators and accomplices of persons found guilty of acts that violate the physical integrity of the female genital organs.
Ms. Clarisse Merindol Ouoba, Legal Adviser, Mission of Burkina Faso in Geneva

Egyptian effort to eradicate FGM
”A significant ministerial decree issued by the Minister of Health and Population in June 2007 not only fully criminalized FGM and filled legal loopholes that now prohibit health professionals and others from performing the practice in both government-run and private hospitals, but also prohibited every doctor and member of the medical profession, in public or private establishments, from carrying out a clitoridectomy, as any circumcision will be viewed as a violation of the law and will be punished”.
Mr. Khalid Emara, Minister at the Egyptian Mission in Geneva

“The economic cost of FGM”

Findings from a WHO multicountry study in which more than 28,000 women participated confirm that women who had undergone genital mutilation had significantly increased risks of adverse events during childbirth. A striking new finding of the study is that FGM has negative effects on the newborn babies of some women who had undergone FGM. Most seriously, death rates among babies during and immediately after birth were higher for those born to mothers who had undergone genital mutilation compared to those who had not. The consequences of genital mutilation for most women who deliver outside the hospital setting are expected to be even more severe. The high incidence of post-partum haemorrhage, a life-threatening condition, is of particular concern where health services are weak or women cannot easily access them. As a follow-up to this study, WHO wants to focus on developing training materials for medical personnel using electronic media. The Organization is also continuing research on the economic cost of FGM, because that is sometimes the only argument that governments understand.
Dr. Heli Bathija, Area Manager for the African and Eastern Mediterranean Regions, Department of Reproductive Health and Research, World Health Organization