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VIENNA, Feb 16 2010 (IPS) - With hundreds of thousands of girls and women believed to be at risk of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Europe, rights groups have mounted a campaign to get EU leaders to stop what they see as a barbaric and dangerous procedure.
FGM – an umbrella term for procedures involving partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons – has been condemned by governments, rights groups and health organisations across the world.
But while many European governments have introduced laws to ban the practice, campaigners have warned that far from dying out it continues in communities across the continent and those same governments must do more to stamp it out.
"We need action. Political commitments are encouraging but the time has come for concrete action at national and European level," Dr. Christine Loudes, who is heading an Amnesty International-led European campaign on FGM, told IPS.
As many as 140 million women and girls worldwide have been subjected to FGM, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). It also estimates that as many as 8,000 women per day are at risk of mutilation.
The practice varies in its form according to factors such as the ethnic background of the victim and the location of her community. Girls less than a year old are victims of the procedure and it is most commonly practiced on girls up to the age of 15.
There has been some evidence too that doctors and medical staff are also involved in some cases.
Four types of FGM have been classified by the WHO. Type I or clitoridectomy consists of partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or its prepuce. Type II, also known as excision, is where the clitoris and labia minora are partially or totally removed, with or without excision of the labia majora. Type III is also known as infibulation and consists of narrowing the vaginal orifice with creation of a covering seal by cutting and appositioning the labia minora and/or labia majora, with or without removal of the clitoris.
A small opening is left for urine and menstrual blood to escape. An infibulation must be opened either through penetrative sexual intercourse or surgically. Type IV consists of all other procedures to the genitalia of women for non-medical purposes, such as pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterisation.
The practice is justified in communities on grounds like local tradition, religion and culture. Some argue that it is carried out to protect girls from illicit sexual desires or because female genitals are considered to be unhygienic. In some FGM-practicing societies, unmutilated women are regarded as unclean and are not allowed to handle food and water.
But health organisations say that FGM has no medical benefits and instead carries life-threatening health risks. The short-term risks of the procedure include severe bleeding, chronic pain, infection and death through shock, haemorrhaging or septicaemia. The long-term effects include infections, genital ulcers, damage to the reproductive system as well as psychological conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
A multi-country study by the WHO in six African countries showed that women who had undergone FGM had significantly increased risks for adverse events during childbirth, and that genital mutilation in mothers has negative effects on their newborn babies. According to the study, an additional one to two babies per 100 deliveries die as a result of FGM.
FGM has been largely documented in African and Middle Eastern states and among ethnic communities in central and south America – creating a false impression that the problem is confined to poorer, less developed parts of the world, say rights groups.
But migration has spread the practice to Europe and groups like Amnesty International as well as WHO say that up to 500,000 women in Europe are living with FGM and 180,000 are at risk of mutilation every year.
Waris Dirie, a Somalian former supermodel who is also a victim of FGM and who heads her own foundation campaigning against FGM headquartered in Vienna, Austria, said that although legislation has been passed in Europe to try and stop FGM the practice is thriving illicitly in communities.
She told IPS: "FGM is a social taboo in many countries. In Europe it is practiced by different immigrant communities from African or Asian countries where FGM is practiced. It is estimated that 500,000 victims of FGM live in Europe, but most estimates are based only on the number of women from African countries although FGM is also practiced in many Asian countries, as well as in Iraq and Iran (by the Kurds) where many refugees in Europe come from.’’
"We know that many girls in Europe are taken abroad during school holidays to be mutilated in their parents’ home countries. But there are also cases of FGM being performed here in Europe.’’
"Since this happens in secret and illegally, it is impossible to say precisely how it is done. There have been cases where doctors have illegally performed FGM, but usually it is done by African circumcisers who sometimes come especially to perform FGM."
The WHO has said that the true scale of the problem in Europe could be much larger than current estimates suggest.
Elise Johansen, WHO spokeswoman on FGM issues, told IPS: "There have only been small-scale studies carried out in Europe on FGM so a lot of what we know of the problem in Europe is guesswork and estimates. As it is illegal it is very hard to find out the scale of the problem because so few people would admit to planning to have it carried out. The situation could be much worse than we think."
Legislation specifically banning FGM has been passed by some European states, including Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and Britain. It is also illegal under existing criminal legislation in countries such as France where prison sentences have been handed down in more than 30 court cases involving FGM practices.
Rights groups claim the legislation is only partially effective. They warn that problems in detection and reporting of cases, as well as frequent lack of sufficient evidence to take a case to court prevents effective protection of girls at risk.
"Some European states have included the term FGM explicitly in their legal code. Enforcement is very difficult, however, and rarely happens," Dirie told IPS.
Groups also point to unclear asylum rules in cases of female refugees who have fled their home countries for fear of becoming victims of FGM.
"FGM is grounds for asylum under EU directives, but not all EU countries have implemented the directives properly into their laws and some women refugees are not getting the protection they should," Prerna Humpel, spokeswoman for Amnesty’s campaign against FGM, told IPS.
Amnesty International has now launched a campaign with 12 partner organisations across Europe calling on European politicians to do more to stop the practice.
The ‘END FGM’ campaign involves events in Lisbon, Vienna, Nicosia, Brussels and London this month and next, aimed at raising awareness of the issue and also to press EU officials into creating a definitive strategy on FGM.
The campaign is urging EU officials to adopt measures to protect women and children from FGM, including access to healthcare for women living with FGM in Europe, better protection mechanisms for women and children against violence, clear asylum guidelines for those threatened by FGM, as well as data collection on FGM prevalence in Europe and mainstreaming of FGM in EU dialogues with third countries where FGM is prevalent.
"Women and girls need protection from FGM. Governments have a responsibility to inform immigrant communities about FGM and its effects on women and girls.
"EU governments also have a duty to put in place measures to protect women and girls against FGM, to prosecute those who carry it out and to prevent and stop the practice. Awareness has to be raised at a community level," said Loudes.
Meanwhile, other groups are also urging governments to act, arguing that only comprehensive information campaigns can help stop the practice.
Johansen of WHO said: "Systematic and repeated discussion of FGM is needed in communities where it is practiced. This has been shown to be the most effective method of reducing it. People involved in it need to be educated and fully informed about it. This is happening in Africa but something like this is lacking in Europe’’.
"It is down to governments to put this in place. It is their responsibility."
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