Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is internationally recognised as a violation of human rights. Being one of the cruellest forms of violence against girls and women, this practice has severe physical and psychological impacts on the victims. According to World Health Organisation (WHO), 140 million girls and women worldwide are currently suffering the consequences of FGM: in Africa 101 million girls of 10 years old or above have already undergone it.
On the occasion of the International Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM, the elimination of such a practice was on the agenda of European Parliament’s (EP) plenary session in Strasbourg. A Parliamentary question addressed by Mikael Gustafsson, Chair of the Committee on Women's Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM), to the European Commission (EC) looked into what actions are being taken on the issue in Europe, and as part of the EU external relations policy.
Parliamentary debate: MEPs raise their voice
Some months ago, the Commission issued a communication entitled ‘Towards the elimination of female genital mutilation’. It listed a series of actions towards the eradication of this practice in Europe and beyond, including a worldwide promotion together with the European External Action Service (EEAS). “The EU will continue to develop policies and implement measures, bearing in mind that FGM has multi-faceted aspects, requiring multi-disciplinary measures and close cooperation with communities in which it is practised,” the communication read.
Although MEPs recalled they welcome this communication, they highlighted an action plan was not put in place yet. On this note, Michael Cashman, MEP in the Development Committee, stated: “I cannot believe that we are still standing here calling for action. I welcome the commission’s communication involving 6 DGs, as this is a horizontal human rights issue, but we need an action plan before the end of this mandate. FGM is an internationally recognized abuse of human rights, children’s rights and women’s rights, and it can only be addressed if we recognize the holistic rights of women that include Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights […] I hope in the next mandate we address what our action plan is dealing with.”
MEPs' interventions addressed this problematic in and out of Europe, stressing the EU should play a key role regardless of the territory is operating in. “We’re talking about health problems, hygiene problems and sometimes leading to death and we can’t accept it - whether it is happening on our or outside EU’s territory. It’s not the fact that it’s outside the EU that it is not our job to stop it. It is. This is a gross violence of human rights. It runs counter to people’s right to safety, physical integrity and health and the right not to be tortured or suffer inhumane and cruel and degrading treatment,” stressed Elisabeth Morin-Chartier, Vice-Chair in the FEMM Committee.
“Tradition cannot be used to justify this barbarism”
MEPs also voiced criticism over the reasons that are usually given to justify carrying out this practice, as FGM is usually exercised on grounds of cultural, religious and social beliefs within families and communities. “We have to distance ourselves from the cultural argument by informing men and boys so that we can protect women and girls. Tradition cannot be used to justify this barbarism,” added the Vice-Chair in the FEMM Committee.
In most societies, FGM is considered a cultural tradition, despite being illegal in many countries. FGM is often motivated by beliefs about what is considered “proper social behaviour”, linking procedures to premarital virginity and marital fidelity. In addition, the FGM cultural ideals include the notion that girls are “clean” and “beautiful” after the removal of parts of the body that are considered “male” and “unclean”. Though no religious scripts prescribe the practice, practitioners - religious leaders, circumcisers, and even some medical personnel - often argue that this practice has religious support.
During the debate, MEPs also expressed their concerns over the short and long-term consequences of FGM, which include: over-bleeding, recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections; cysts; psychological damage, infertility; as well as complications at childbirth and new-born death.
Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, Štefan Füle, replied to the MEPs by saying that “the EU will continue to campaign for the rights and empowerment of women in all contexts, through fighting Gender-Based Violence and supporting relevant initiatives against”. More specifically in EU’s external relations, he stressed women and girls’ rights form an integral part of the Commission’s deliberation when assessing whether and what type of budget support is appropriate. One assumes, after what he went on to say, the EC will take into account suggestions made by MEPs.
For his part, Andris Piebalgs, Commissioner for Development and Cooperation, published a post on his blog, which said “EU's commitment will continue in the future with all the instruments we have at our disposal: political dialogue with our partner countries but also with local actors and local communities”. No further details were given, however, on how the EU will step up the progress towards the total abandonment of FGM.
The resolution adopted, following the debate, is fairly demanding. MEPs have called on the EC to designate 2016 as the European Year to End Violence against Women and Girls, and also emphasised the need to take a really firm stance on third countries which do not condemn FGM. The EU and Members States are also being urged to act, with the Parliament calling to ratify the Council of Europe’s ‘Istanbul Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women’, without delay, “so the EU’s commitment complies with international standards promoting a holistic approach to violence against women”.
This resolution will be forwarded to the Council, Member States’ governments and the UN Secretary General, among others. The coming months will tell us if progress by the EU is being made, and we can therefore better contribute towards the elimination of this harmful practice.