Symposium Free from Fear, Free from Pain in Brussels

January 20, 2015

On 20 January 2015, a symposium about Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) in Europe was held in Brussels. The symposium was organized by Public Policy Exchange and proved to be a unique opportunity to gain an understanding of the current EU legal framework in relation to FGM/C. The symposium also provided some insights in what more needs to be done in Europe to eliminate FGM/C. The exact number of women and girls who have underwent FGM/C or are at risk of undergoing FGM/C in Europe remains unknown, but according to estimations of the European Parliament, 500,000 girls and women living in Europe have been subjected to FGM/C, while further 180,000 girls and women are at risk every year. It is believed that the majority of girls are taken to their parent’s country of origin (often during the summer holidays) to have the procedure performed. However, there are some studies reporting that FGM/C takes place in European countries as well.

The seminar started with an interesting presentation of Johanna Nelles (Council of Europe) about the Istanbul Convention. This treaty entered into force in August 2014 and is the first legally binding instrument that specifically addressed FGM/C (Article 38). Johanna explained how the Istanbul Convention requires state parties to offer protection, support and prevention measures for women and girls. This presentation was followed by a presentation of Elise Petitpas (End FGM European Campaign) who described their strategy of the End FGM European Campaign. She explained that there is more political will at the European level for the issue compared to a couple of years ago, since there is growing awareness of the problems related to FGM/C. In the upcoming years, they will lobby for a sustainable implementation of Member States’ commitments. Afterwards,Assita Kanko, author of the book ‘Because you are a girl’, gave powerful speech. She was born in Burkina Faso and underwent FGM/C at age 5. She shared with us her heart-breaking testimony and focused especially on the relationship and problems she encountered with her mother after the cutting while living in Europe.

After the lunch break, a few presentations followed of NGOs working in the field of FGM/C in Belgium. They shared with us their experiences from the field as well as the challenges they face when helping girls and women who underwent FGM/C. They explained for example how they try to improve the support chain by offering psychological support/counselling services and by organizing empowerment activities. They also explained how they have set up specific FGM/C medical units. In addition, they explained how legal support is given to individuals with FGM/C. Andrea Vonkeman (UNHCR), who focused on FGM/C and asylum in the EU, gave the last presentation of the day. She started with a short movie summarizing the report ‘Too Much Pain’ that the UNHCR published in 2013. Afterwards, she explained that FGM/C could be considered a form of persecution. During her presentation, Andrea further elaborated further on the risk profiles, risk countries of origin, the amount of claims of the past years that relate to FGM/C and the EU asylum trends.

The seminar was closed with a round of questions, although there were – unfortunately – more questions than there was time. Nevertheless, it was a very interesting symposium, especially because a wide range of professionals from a variety of EU Member States attended the symposium and shared their experiences in relation to the elimination of FGM/C in Europe. During the drinks after the symposium, we (Julie Fraser, Stacey Links, Henrike Prudon – all from Utrecht University and I) concluded that still much needs to be done in order to achieve the elimination of FGM/C in Europe, but that important steps have been taken in the right direction.

My colleagues of Utrecht University!

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