AT THE END OF FEBRUARY, Amnesty International's Human Rights Action Centre in central London was filled to capacity by delegates from across the world, representing UN agencies, European governments, non-governmental organisations, campaigners, specialists in women's health and victims of female genital mutilation (FGM) converged on London to find ways to defeat FGM in Europe and beyond, while protecting victims who flee to Western countries in search of refuge and protection.
Under the theme: "Ending female genital mutilation in Europe: Exploring policies, approaches and lessons", the pan-European conference was convened in collaboration with the Foundation for Women's Health, Research and Development (FORWARD) and the Iranian Kurdish Women's Rights Organisation (IKWRO).
The conference was set in motion by the Sudanese-born Dr Soheir Elneil, a surgeon and consultant at the WHO specialising in the treatment of urinary incontinence and female pelvic floor disorders. WHO statistics show that FGM affects 140 million women and girls worldwide, with a further two million girls at risk each year.
Though FGM cases happen also in Asia and the Middle East, the vast majority of cases occur in 28 African countries, affecting girls aged between 4 and 15. A good 98% of the worldwide cases happen in countries such as Egypt, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan, and in some African and Asian diasporan communities in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Kenya and Senegal are among the countries trying to eradicate the practice.
According to activists, "FGM involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia for non-therapeutic reasons. It is an excruciatingly painful practice, which has a devastating impact on the victims' physical and mental health, as well as their well-being and their life opportunities. Some girls die as a result of the practice and women who have undergone it are significantly more likely to suffer serious complications in childbirth. Other problems include infections and difficulty in passing urine and menstruation."
Believers in FGM, which is mainly tied to tradition, insist that it is not purposed to harm, but to shield girls from promiscuity and enhance their fertility. But the "Stop FGM" campaigners have used FGM's harmful effects to justify their fight against the practice.
To buttress the point, the London conference featured a real life story, with film footage, of a i6-year-old Somali girl, Nura, who said: "Every day, I have to expose my private part to my mother and grannies to prove I am still stitched up."
It was harrowing to listen to Nura, which made the stand of the British home secretary 'Theresa May against FGM so poignant. "I was shocked to discover that some teachers in London refuse point-blank to tell their classes that the awful practice of female genital mutilation is a crime. They said it would infringe some people's cultural values," the home secretary revealed in a newspaper article in early March. "[But] female genital mutilation is not a value of any kind. It is violence against women, pure and simple. It is illegal in Britain and we should all be determined to ensure that the practice is eradicated. As home secretary, and as a woman, I certainly am," Theresa May added, strongly.
Official statistics show that Britain has 65,000 FGM victims within African, Asian, and other diasporan communities living in the country, with another 30,000 at risk. The UK government says it is currently working on guidelines for teachers, social workers and National Health Service (NHS) workers to stamp down on the practice, while the police are working at airports to prevent children from being taken abroad for FGM.
In March, the UK government launched a [pounds sterling]35m campaign aimed at eradicating FGM in the country and abroad. The European Union added its own bit, with a [pounds sterling]13m campaign to assist the fight against FGM in the EU countries. …