D. European Union

1. The Importation of FGM to Europe

There are no hard statistics on the practice of FGM in the European Union; however, there are some estimates based upon the countries of origins from which many immigrants come.

France has seen an increase of immigration since the 1960s with the bulk of the new immigrants being women. In France alone, there are an estimated 4500 girls at risk. In 2001, there were a total of 10,501 women living in Switzerland from practicing countries, such as Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea--countries that not only have a high prevalence of FGM, but also have a high percentage of the most severe form of FGM. Other countries, such as Belgium, Germany, Italy, and Sweden, have also experienced an increase in immigrant [p811] populations from practicing countries. The women and girls within this immigrant population are at risk for FGM in the European Union.

2. Europe Reacts: Enacted Legislation

The growing awareness of the status of women worldwide, the increases in immigrant populations to Europe from countries that practice FGM, and the resolutions passed at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing prompted European officials to act. The European Union took up the mantel and urged the passage of laws that would criminalize FGM and thus fulfill the spirit of the resolutions from the Beijing Conference. Both the European Parliament and the Council of Europe urged its member [p812] nations to implement better laws to serve the immigrant women within their borders.

Scandinavia seems to have been ahead of the curve and enacted legislation long before the call came from the Parliament or the Council. Sweden, Norway, and Denmark all enacted legislation prohibiting FGM in 1982, 1995, and 2003 respectively. Scandinavian leaders have refused to succumb to the pleas of their immigrant population, who insist that what they are doing is best for their daughters, and are “doggedly pursuing perpetrators of FGM” --the immigrant mothers of the young girls who have been subjected to FGM. These countries have utilized “jail sentences, record damages, and controversial immigration laws” to end FGM.

In Sweden, the first western nation to legislate against female genital mutilation, it is illegal “even if it happens in another country and even if the practice is legal in that country. It does not matter if the victim said yes, it is still illegal.”

[p813] Likewise, in Norway, extreme measures have been taken to end FGM. The Ministry of Children and Equality developed an action plan against FGM. One step taken by the country has been to deny passports to any girl under eighteen for fear that she will return to her native country to undergo FGM. Norway has also allocated specific funds to be used solely to combat the problem of FGM and is also debating a plan to have mandatory regular check-ups of the genitals of these high-risk girls.

In addition to the Scandinavian countries mentioned above, Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Italy, Portugal, and Spain have enacted specific criminal provisions dealing with FGM. For example, Austrian law provides that one cannot “consent to a mutilation or other injury of the genitals that may cause a lasting impairment of sexual sensitivity.” Austria also requires doctors to report any indication of FGM from patients they examine. Although the law addresses the issue of FGM, it does not appear to be as strong as the laws in other countries. Notwithstanding this attempt at punishing FGM, there are no published convictions for this crime.

Belgium's law has been bolstered to exact harsh penalties if FGM is discovered and prosecuted. It provides for three to five years of imprisonment [p814] for anyone who promotes or facilitates FGM and increases that to five to seven years if done on a minor. If the FGM causes a “lasting incapacity for work, the punishment is confinement of five to ten years.” Finally, if “the mutilation results in death, even though there was no intent to kill, the punishment is confinement of ten to fifteen years.” Belgium also provides for a right to report which gives doctors the ability to report cases of FGM, without compromising their doctor-patient privilege. In addition, there are general child protection procedures in place along with a legislated duty to help a person in great danger.

In Finland, France, Germany, Switzerland, and Luxembourg, FGM is forbidden under general criminal law. France has prosecuted more cases of FGM than any other country. As recent as June 2009, thirty-seven cases had been prosecuted at the highest court in France under general criminal statutes. France boasts the work of a prominent women's group that has been fighting to end FGM in France. France also lays out aggravating factors that will enhance the crime of FGM and increase the penalty for the crime up to twenty years.

In addition to the statutes that have been enacted, both general and specific, most European countries have laws that require doctors to report cases of FGM; laws that prosecute for the unlawful practice of medicine; laws that require the public to report abuse; and some even have laws that impose a duty upon the public to help a person in danger.

[p815] Moreover, because FGM is considered child abuse in Europe, laws that deal specifically with the protection of children from abuse can be used. This is especially important because these laws can be utilized for girls at risk for FGM.

In addition to enacting legislation to criminalize FGM, European countries have launched education initiatives aimed at the prevention of FGM. The problem of FGM has reached magnitude proportions in Europe. This might appear to be hyperbole but, in just a few years, FGM has gone from being an African/Middle Eastern problem to a serious problem that requires large financial and human resources to combat it.

3. Results of the Legislation

The most reliable information on the prevalence of FGM comes from the actual court cases that have been adjudicated in a few countries. A Denmark court handed down a two-year jail sentence to a mother from Eritrea who sent her two daughters, ages ten and twelve, to Sudan in 2003 to undergo FGM. Authorities discovered this fact when the two daughters alerted them before their six-year-old sister could be sent to Sudan for the same purpose. Notably, the father was acquitted in this case; he claimed that he had no knowledge of what his wife had done, and the court apparently believed him.

In June 2008, Norway charged a couple under the law against FGM for sending five of their daughters to Gambia to undergo FGM. This case is of interest because all of the daughters were born in Norway and are Norwegian citizens.

In 2000, Kadra, a young Somali girl living in Norway, caused a firestorm when she wore a hidden camera while talking with a local [p816] Imam about FGM. The camera caught the Imam trying to convince Kadra to have the procedure performed. As a result of Kadra's actions, she was threatened and eventually beaten senseless.

In Italy, Gertrude Obaseki, a Nigerian woman, was arrested for having allegedly performed FGM on a three-month-old girl. This was problematic for more than the obvious reason. The law in Italy addressed the actions of the cutter but did not specifically address the actions of the parents who delivered their three-month-old infant daughter to this woman to be cut. This case has not yet been resolved.

These cases illustrate that FGM has made its way to Europe. The limited numbers of countries discussed above indicate that what was once thought of as an “African” problem has become a world problem. Throughout the years, European nations have been signatories on various declarations and conventions condemning FGM; thus, it must be difficult to acknowledge that these previous attempts did not stem the practice because it is now being done within their own borders. It is both the right thing and a good thing to have enacted legislation to prevent female genital mutilation. However, it appears that the most effective way to stop FGM in Europe is to stop it in the nations where it originated. So, although the legislation is necessary and welcomed, it is not enough to stop FGM. Women around the world, once educated, must collectively say no to FGM. As Alice Walker said in her novel Possessing the Secret of Joy, “resistance is the secret of joy!”