BRUSSELS, Belgium — As a young girl in Guinea, Aissatou Diallo couldn’t save herself. She was 14 and six people were holding her down while a seventh cut her.
Somalian Ifrah Ahmed couldn’t even comprehend what was happening to her. She was only 8 years old and there were people holding her arms and legs. She had no anesthesia of any kind before or after, just raw agony and then the 40 days of isolation imposed on newly circumcised girls. Five years later, inexplicably, they did it to her again.
Diallo and Ahmed are just two of the estimated 140 million women girls and women worldwide who have been subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM). But unlike the vast majority of girls unable to fight back either during the procedure or after, these women are defying it now — and demanding the rest of the world do the same.
They are some of the leading voices in the latest push in a long campaign spearheaded by Amnesty International against FGM. The new drive is specifically geared toward pressing the European Union to coordinate the laws, statistics and even foreign policy of its 27 member states into a united front to halt the practice.
Diallo is now in Belgium, one of the handful of countries that does grant asylum based on FGM claims. She claimed asylum on the basis that she could not protect her two young daughters from family and community members in Guinea determined to subject them to FGM. Ahmed, now 21, arrived as a war refugee in Ireland three years ago, unable to read or write as a result of never being sent to school in Somalia. Now fluent – and fearless – in English, she’s determined to change the culture of her own country, where almost 98 percent of adult women are believed to have been circumcised, the highest rate in the world.
But activists are working to make clear that while African countries are infamous for the practice, people in the West should not think it only affects women “somewhere else.” Figures compiled by the European Parliament indicate there are approximately half a million women living in the EU who have already undergone FGM. An estimated 180,000 more girls each year in Europe reach the age when the procedure is usually done, which ranges from birth up to age 15.
In the U.S., legislation has been in place since 1996 offering asylum to any woman fleeing the threat of FGM or who has already experienced it. But in Europe, though the majority of the 27 EU member states outlaw FGM under either specific or general criminal laws, only a handful officially recognize FGM as a form of persecution warranting protection and they do not apply the law in the same way. (This is also true among different courts in the U.S. where, for example, a Malian asylum seeker who had been subjected to FGM as a child was rejected by the state of Maryland because there was no reason for her to fear it happening again.) End FGM wants uniform laws adopted throughout the EU and the most generous possible interpretation of them.
But living in a country where there are laws against FGM by no means grants these girls automatic protection from the practice — it’s technically illegal in many of the African nations too. Sometimes the cutting is actually performed in Europe, but more frequently young girls are taken on “vacation” back to Africa, where it’s done in the traditional setting. The End FGM campaign wants data collected from across Europe to gauge the extent of the problem.
|Isabelle Durant and Aissatou Diallo at the End FGM campaign kick-off.
(Courtesy of GAMS-Belgique)
The European Parliament (EP) in March 2009 passed a strongly worded resolution condemning FGM as a “violation of fundamental human rights, as well as a savage breach of the integrity and personality of women and girls and therefore … a serious crime in the eyes of society.” The resolution called on the EU executive and member states to prepare plans “aimed at banishing FGM from the EU” and providing all means possible to protect and help vulnerable women. In short, it looks a lot like Amnesty’s wish list.
EP Vice President Isabelle Durant, attending the campaign's Belgian kick-off earlier this month, pledged her support for putting some teeth in the good intentions. “We’ve got the resolution, now we need the action,” Durant said. She promised to push for implementation of the parliamentary directive in addition to the possibility of linking trade and aid to countries’ willingness to give up the practice.
But there are also valid concerns about whether such pressure could be counter-productive, not just with foreign governments that may resent attempts to influence their traditions, but also with the people the policies are seeking to support. Women may be reluctant to seek medical care for themselves or their children if they worry they or other family members could be prosecuted.
Those concerns are far outweighed, says the campaign’s director Christine Loudes, by the need to protect innocent girls. “It’s a matter of her human rights, it’s a matter of her right not to be tortured, and her rights to access to health and her rights to physical integrity.”
Activists also want to promote sympathetic medical care so that when circumcised women see a doctor they do not have to answer embarrassing or ignorant questions about what kind of “accident” caused the deformity.
Ifrah Ahmed said she was at first very reluctant to go to the hospital for the very serious problems she suffers with each month’s menstrual period as a result of her double mutilation, including pain so bad she says “sometimes I fall down and I feel like I’m going to die.” And after having to explain time and time again to stupefied or even just curious attendants, she finally got an explanatory note from one sympathetic doctor that she could just hand over every time she needs care. It saves her from having to recount the excruciating details endlessly.
|Ifrah Ahmed recently came in second-runner-up in a Miss Africa-Ireland pageant.
(Courtesy of Ifrah Ahmed)
She said the doctors always ask her “why do they do this to you?” and she herself cannot explain. “I actually asked some old women why they are doing circumcision to a child, who is innocent, why are they hurting us?” she said. “But there is no answer.”
There wouldn’t be any answer that could satisfy Ahmed anyway. She is determined to see this practice stopped.
While she agrees laws need to be strengthened, Ahmed insists the true solution is prevention, not prosecution, and that’s why she’s working in African immigrant communities day in and day out, despite the resistance she meets there.
“They are following what mothers, grandmothers, grand-grandmothers used to do,” Ahmed sighed. “But we in Europe, we are fighting for change. They won’t change everything within a day or two days or a year or two years but with campaigning and work, it will come.”