Oumou Toure from Guinea did not want her two year old daughter Fanta to suffer the same treatment she experienced herself at the age of 19: Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), also known as Female Genital Cutting (FGC). For several months she was facing deportation from Canada to her home country Guinea. But finally in July 2007 she and her daughter were granted permanent residence in Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.

Protecting women from FGM is still not seen as self evident in many Western countries including Canada. It took Toure three times to finally get granted permanent residence. Nevertheless, Oumou is one of a growing number of women seeking asylum in Western countries to escape FGM. And while most Western countries, including the US, Canada, Belgium, Spain, Austria, Sweden, Germany and Italy regard FGM as criminal act, there is also an increasing number of states that regard FGM as reason for granting refugee status.

In the United States, FGM is regarded as a reason for granting asylum since 1996 when the Board of Immigration Appeals granted asylum for Fauziya Kassindja, a teenager from Togo. But the case of Oumou Toure in Canada shows, there is a gap between claim and reality. As in Guinea (like in many other countries) FGM is formally outlawed it had to be proven to the Canadian authorities that the law is actually not enforced. 99 % of girls and women between the age of 15 and 49 in Guinea had to undergo the treatment of FGM.

In a recently issued report by the Secretary General of the United Nations it is stated that although in many countries such as Ghana, Uganda, Morocco and Eritrea FGM is officially criminalized “enforcement of these laws remains a major challenge as the practice continues to be seen as an issue at the private or family level that should not be brought into the public domain for discussion and action.”

Indeed, it is hard to rule out FGM as it is deeply rooted in the cultural traditions. Many reasons are given to “justify” FGM ranging from local custom to reduction of women’s sexual desire, cleanliness and initiation rite. Even many women do not want to abstain from this brutal ritual as they are told to only be a real women if they are circumcised.

In fact FGM causes serious health and mental problems, such as severe pain, shock, hemorrhage, tetanus or sepsis, urine retention, ulceration of the genital region and injury to adjacent tissue, wound infection, urinary infection, fever and septicaemia. According to a WHO study including 28,000 women in six African countries, there is also a strong link between FGM and obstetric complications: “These results show that deliveries to women who have undergone FGM are significantly more likely to be complicated by caesarean section, postpartum haemor-rhage, episiotomy, extended maternal hospital stay, resuscitation of the infant, and inpatient perinatal death, than deliveries to women who have not had FGM” the study noted.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has estimated between 100 and 140 million girls and women have undergone some form of FGM in more than 28 countries, mostly in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Every year, about 3.0 million girls and women are subjected to genital mutilation, the report by the Secrtary General says.

But there are signs for hope. After 30 years of intense campaigning, FGM is meanwhile explicitly regarded as a violation of human rights by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The report of the Secretary General also states that “the Human Rights Committee encouraged States parties to increase efforts to combat the practice of female genital mutilation and the granting of residence permits, where appropriate, on the basis of humanitarian concerns. In recent years, the Committee against Torture increasingly urged authorities to take measures to eradicate female genital mutilation.”

Many states have banned FGM but some have only banned it to be performed by health-care professionals (Egypt, Yemen), in some parts of the country (Nigeria) or only for children (Uganda). And laws only make sense if they are accompanied by programs on the ground trhat start from a very basic level. “For many people it is something new that women, and even children, have rights,” points out Houléye Tall, from Lutheran World Federation (LWF), which set up an awareness program in Mauretania. And as FGM is so deeply rooted in culture measures undertaken to eliminate FGM have to be done in very sensitive way. Alternatives for rites des Passages have to be found. In Kenya, for example, UNFPA supported the local Tsaru Ntomonik Initiative that promoted new ways for Massai girls to be initiated into adulthood. Former circumsissors are employed to ensure alternative sources of income for them.

UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid says that cultural sensitive education and public awareness work are “leading to increased disapproval of the practice among women and men” “However”, she says, “despite some of these successes, the overall rate of decline is slow. We must speed it up.”

Religion plays a crucial role in abandoning FGM. Therefore the report of the General-Secretary argues that “Religious leaders should be involved in community-wide campaigns to promote the understanding that FGM has no basis in religious beliefs”. At a conference in Cairo in 2006, Muslim scholars from many nations stated that Islam prohibits “inflicting harm on any human being”. But FGM is not only practiced among Muslims but also within Christianity as a report of the US Department of State on FGM in Eritrea points out.

At the 52nd session of the Commission on the Status of Women which will convene at the United Nations in New York on February 25 there will be a joint dialogue on indicators to measure violence against women on Thursday, Feb 28 at 1:15. FGM is considered one of five international indicators for measuring violence against women.

A lot has been done on FGM so far. Oumou Toure’s daughter Fanta does not have to undergo this cruel treatment and can feel save in Canada. But still there are too many girls and women still facing FGM. UNICEF and UNFPA have launched a joint initiative to reduce the practice by 40 per cent by 2015, with the goal of ending female genital mutilation in one generation.
More information about this issue can be found on these websites:
News reports by UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA):

AFRICA: Rejecting FGM not an affront to tradition

AFRICA: When culture harms the girls – the globalisation of female genital mutilation

Interview with former Somali model Waris Dirie on her own experience and her campaign against FGM on AlJazeera

–Christian Albers