Female genital mutilation (FGM), otherwise known as female circumcision or female genital cutting, is a prevalent, grotesque, and often ignored phenomenon that is afflicting many minority communities in the European Union, including the UK.  This was the primary message put forth by the experts speaking at the “Ending Female Genital Mutilation: Exploring policies, approaches, and lessons” conference, which was hosted at Amnesty International’s London office.  Organized by the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organization (IKWRO) and the Foundation for Women’s Health Research and Development (FORWARD) and as a part of Amnesty’s “End FGM” European campaign, the conference brought together a diverse field of experts to provide insight into an array of FGM’s general aspects and the nuances of the European context.

FGM describes the partial or complete removal of the external female genitalia.  According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 100 to 140 million females currently living today have undergone FGM and an additional two million girls face the risk of FGM each year.  FGM is predominantly carried out on girls from infancy until 15 years of age.  The majority of these girls and women live in either 28 specific African countries, a few in the Middle East and Asia, and in immigrant communities throughout Europe, the United States, Australia and New Zealand.  Many girls and women enter Europe already having experienced FGM, while many others endure FGM within Europe itself or while travelling home to their “country of origin.”  It is estimated that there are over 500,000 victims of FGM currently residing in Europe and some 20,000 women from FGM-practising countries seek asylum in EU countries each year.  FORWARD estimates that some 20,000 girls under the age of 16 could be at risk of FGM in England and Wales.

Unfortunately, Quilliam was only able to attend a one section of the day-long conference, but nonetheless we were privy to several informative lectures.  Efua Dorkenoo of Equality Now gave an interesting lecture on data collection on FGM.  After wryly admitting that data is rather “boring”, Dorkenoo put the importance of data in perspective for the audience by explaining that without data, governmental policies cannot be affected and improved.  In her words, “If you don’t have the data then there isn’t a problem.”  And there is undoubtedly a problem, so data must be collected to present to policymakers.  However, despite the importance of data on FGM, it has proven rather difficult to acquire in European countries.  Unlike Africa, for which solid data is available because of its countries’ openness about FGM, the picture in Europe is rather different.  This is largely because of the general “sensitivity” of the subject and the fact that FGM only affects minority communities in EU countries.  Questions pertaining to FGM on national surveys or censuses might be “offensive” for the mainstream population and thus are left out of such information-gathering devices.  Additionally, even if questions pertaining to FGM were added to national surveys, there is a high likelihood that they would be left unanswered by women subjected to FGM.  Because of these impediments to sound data collection, Dorkenoo suggested an alternative; all females giving birth in European hospitals who are observed to have FGM should be documented over a fixed period of time.  At least then, there would be robust data on females of child-bearing age who have been subjected to FGM.

Fadela Novak of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) gave a statistical overview of FGM and female asylum seekers in the EU.  She provided an array of data on the topic, some of which is listed in the second paragraph.  However, the most striking part of her lecture was not the statistical data, but rather an anecdote about a woman seeking asylum in Belgium who had experienced FGM.  This woman began telling her assigned social worker that she had experienced FGM prior to her arrival to Belgium.  Her social worker stopped her and told her that she didn’t know what female genital mutilation was.  The anecdote continued on with the FGM victim expressing her frustration and dismay that the person sent to help her did not even know about the widespread injustice that she, along millions of other women like her, have suffered.  This account perhaps encapsulates the message put forth at the during Quilliam’s time at the conference: that FGM is an often ignored or unknown problem that must be acknowledged, explained, and confronted.

In summary, the conference was an excellent experience and provided great insight into one of the major social problems that many societies face today.  Tens of millions of young girls and women are affected by FGM, an experience that carries potentially severe physical and psychological repercussions.  Conferences such as the End Female Genital Mutilation are crucial for raising the awareness necessary for bringing about systemic change in our communities.  This awareness can and, we hope, will help shape policies that can curb FGM both in the UK and abroad.

For a Muslim women’s initiative against FGM, please see: http://www.wisemuslimwomen.org/images/uploads/WISE-Digest.pdf

Hayden Pirkle, Research Intern