When I try to remember the day I was ‘, only a few scattered, traumatic moments come back to me. I remember the taxi ride with my mum and other girls from my neighbourhood. The painful memory of being held down by three or four women. Then it was my sister’s turn, I was crying, silently hoping she would escape. But no.
I was seven or eight then, and my family has since abandoned female genital mutilation (FGM). I am now a 25-year old ambassador for the End FGM European Network, part of its ‘Building Bridges’ campaign to end the practice both in Africa and amongst the diaspora in Europe.
As with my family, female genital mutilation is often a reason for parents to flee to Europe with their children.
As a survivor of FGM – having since studied medicine in Belgium, specialising in gynaecology, and living in London – I work to raise awareness, most recently in Burkina Faso. It helps me to overcome the physical and emotional pain I lived through, by reaching out and speaking on behalf of the estimated 200 million victims of this harmful practice.
Gag rule disaster
And the battle has just gotten harder. In January, US President Donald Trump reinstated a ‘global gag rule’, potentially blocking billions of dollars of funding from groups that have anything to do with abortion, family planning and reproductive health services, including those affected by gender-based violence.
European governments recently pledged €181 million to make up for the funding cut and joined an effort to raise much more, but that will likely still fall short of what is required.
This will affect the millions of lives touched by a whole spectrum of gender-based violence, including FGM. As a taboo subject, campaigners like myself as well as health and social work professionals have to broach FGM through other topics, such as maternity, sexual health or discussions about child care, which can be a good way to start the conversation about FGM.
Building this trust takes time; prevention cannot be achieved overnight. Cutting these vital services has real consequences on the lives of women and girls. But these approaches alone are not enough to end such a deeply rooted harmful practice.
Fatima Awil, an End FGM activist and recent ambassador for the End FGM European Network, knows this only too well, coming from an FGM-practising community.
Studying for a degree in law and human rights, she has made time to campaign on ending FGM with several different organisations since she was a teenager.
“Though I grew up in Europe, I still feel very personally committed to playing a role in ending this harmful practice, because it is a global issue,’’ Fatima says. “I believe one of the main reasons why female genital mutilation is still taking place, is due to the lack of awareness surrounding the effects of the practice.
‘’It is essential to prevent new generations from accepting the same fate. Community mobilisation can create a permanent change, but it won’t happen without the support of our governments and care providers,” she tells me.
End FGM Network director, Liuska Sanna, agrees, “We need our voices – and those of the health, campaigning, educational and legal professions – to be heard by those who are supposed to be representing all of us.
“Not enough is being said or done to end gender-based violence and FGM in Europe and worldwide, with large, influential countries such as the US and Russia enforcing reduced support both in health and safety for women.”
Liuska refers to both the US global gag rule and the recent vote by Russian MPs on a controversial bill reducing the punishment for some forms of domestic violence. With one of the highest rates for domestic abuse in the world, the bill has raised large concerns for many human rights organisations including Amnesty International, who have pleaded with Russia to drop the bill.
SDGs in crisis
It would appear women’s rights are reaching a global crisis point. If governments are truly committed to ending FGM by 2030 as stated in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), much more action will need to be taken.
“We need member states to act; to support us in our activities and properly commit to ending FGM. Sign and implement the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women, which is the first treaty to refer to FGM existing in Europe as a form of violence against women and help with funding our projects that aim to mobilise change,” says Liuska.
The End FGM Network is an umbrella organisation of 18 members across Europe and based in Brussels. In addition to Building Bridges, we have recently been involved in ’Change Plus’, a project aimed at promoting behaviour change towards the abandonment of female genital mutilation in practising communities across the EU.
FGM is recognised internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. It reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women. It is nearly always carried out on minors and is a violation of the rights of children.
The practice also violates a person’s rights to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death.
Community mindset change
There have been international efforts to persuade practitioners to abandon FGM and as a result it has been outlawed or restricted in most of the countries in which it occurs, although the laws are poorly enforced and the harmful practice still continues globally.
As Fatima says, “legislation alone cannot end such a deep rooted practice, without community engagement.”
But community engagement takes time and sustained resources.
Governments across the world have committed to ending FGM and other forms of gender-based violence and achieving equality. But right now, with millions withdrawn from services offered to women and girls, these promises are sounding pretty hollow.
Over the course of the coming year, the Building Bridges project will develop, share and coordinate actions, policies and legal frameworks to end FGM in countries of residence and of origin.
The End FGM Network sees such coordination as essential in ending FGM and also sees the role that the EU can be playing in ending FGM globally. Given that the practice has a cross-border element, measures for the prevention, protection and prosecution of FGM need to take this into account.
At End FGM we really do believe, with the right communication, that FGM can end within a generation. But the effort must intensify.