Questions and Answers about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)

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This article is brought to you in association with the European Parliament.

The EU actively participates in international efforts to promote the elimination of female genital mutilation (FGM). Discussion on the elimination of FGM is included in human rights and political dialogues with partner countries and regional organisations, and in regular dialogues and consultation meetings with civil society and human rights organisations. To support the political and advocacy efforts, the EU finances and supports a number of projects worldwide contributing to the elimination of this harmful practice.

What is FGM?

FGM consists of the (partial or complete) removal of the external female genitalia, and the infliction of other injuries to the female genitalia for no medical reasons. There are several variations, including partial or complete removal of the clitoris, of the labia minora and majora, the narrowing of the vaginal opening by joining the two sides of the wound, leaving only a small opening for urine and menstrual fluids, and any other non-medical injury such as scraping, incising, pricking or burning. FGM causes pain, infection, problems with sexual intercourse, problems with urination, problems with childbirth, and death.

It is estimated that at least 600,000 women in Europe have undergone female genital mutilation and 200 million women worldwide. If the practice continues at the current pace, 68 million girls will be mutilated between 2015 and 2030 in 25 countries where FGM is routinely practiced and data is available.

FGM is also defined by the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention, which requires its criminalisation. Its victims have to be protected in accordance with the Convention’s support and protection measures in those Member States that have ratified the Convention.

What does the EU do?

As it is an issue of great concern, the EU tackles FGM in various ways in its internal and external action. This includes raising awareness, advocating for better legal protection and improved access to support for victims, instilling social change and capacity building of practitioners and dialogue with survivors and community-based activists. The actions are based on the focus areas set out in the Communication towards the elimination of FGM from 25 November 2013; on fighting harmful practices and violence of any kind against women and girls; as well as on the Gender Action Plan III for 2021-2025. Ending FGM is also mentioned as a priority action for EU external action in the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy for 2020-2024.

  1. Knowledge

Estimates show that there may be as many as 200 million victims of FGM worldwide, including at least 600,000 in the EU. These are estimates and there is no official data available on measuring the actual scale of the phenomenon.

It is difficult to estimate the number of victims and girls at risk, and there is little reliable information regarding how, by whom and where it is carried out. Therefore, improving data collection has been a priority.

 The European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) has carried out research on the prevalence of FGM in the EU, and plays a leading role in providing information and supporting EU Member States to prevent and combat this harmful practice. In November 2018, EIGE published a study on the prevalence of FGM in Belgium, Greece, France, Italy, Cyprus and Malta. In 2020 EIGE conducted a fourth study on the estimation of the number of girls at risk of FGM in Austria, Denmark, Luxembourg and Spain. These studies support the European institutions and EU Member States in providing more accurate qualitative and quantitative information on FGM and its risk among girls within the EU, taking into account new patterns of migration.

In 2016, a prevalence study funded under the Commission’s Daphne III programme, was carried out to develop a common definition and methodology on FGM prevalence. It showed that over half a million first-generation immigrant women and girls in the EU, Norway and Switzerland had undergone FGM before their arrival. EIGE has also developed a common methodology and indicators to estimate the number of girls at risk of FGM. This includes methodological recommendations for all EU Member States.

  1. Prevention

Prevention is essential and relies on sustainable societal change, as FGM is often deeply rooted in communities’ societal and social norms, causing social pressure on parents to have their daughters mutilated. Sometimes, it is claimed that undergoing FGM will be beneficial for the girl and that it preserves her honour.

To change these social norms, the EU funds grassroots activities focussing on health education, children’s rights and development and implementation of laws and regulation prohibiting FGM. The aim is to help counter the belief that girls need to be mutilated and to raise awareness among those in contact with victims of FGM and girls at risk of FGM.

In 2020, the 13th European Forum on the rights of the child, discussed violence against children as one of the main topics. Policy responses and good practices to prevent and respond to violence against children were presented, including for FGM.

In order to support the preventive work of health professionals, training packages have been developed, which address FGM as a specific topic in the training modules among the wider aim of improving the quality of and access to health services for migrant and ethnic minorities. Further, training packages for health professionals have been developed, to improve the quality of and access to health services for migrant and ethnic minorities. FGM is a specific topic in the online training modules.

  1. Prosecution

FGM is a crime in all EU Member States. In many EU countries it is also possible to prosecute for conducting FGM abroad, following the principle of extra-territoriality. This prevents families from taking their daughters to their country of origin to have them mutilated there.

  • Criminalisation of FGM is also required under the Istanbul Convention and its victims therefore also fall under the scope of the Convention’s prevention, support and protection measures, in those Member States that have ratified the Convention (the criminalisation of FGM is a Member State competence). On 13 June 2017, the Istanbul Convention was co-signed by the European Commission and Council Presidency on behalf of the EU. Since then, the Commission has been working together with the Council towards EU accession to the Convention.
  • A correct implementation of the Victims’ Rights Directive ensures that victims of FGM are able to access free confidential specialist support services, including trauma support and counselling, as well as shelters in emergency situations. It also puts in place measures to protect victims against threats of physical or emotional harm during criminal investigations and trial. In addition, children are subject to specific protection measures taking into account their age and maturity. The Victims’ Rights Directive applies to all victims of crimes without discrimination and regardless of their residence status, ensuring that it also applies to individuals such as undocumented migrants.
  • In June 2020, the European Commission adopted the first EU Strategy on victims’ rights (2020 – 2025). The main objective of the Strategy is to ensure that all victims of all crime, no matter where in the EU or in what circumstances the crime takes place, can fully rely on their rights. The strategy deals with all victims of crime, but it pays special attention to the most vulnerable victims, such as victims of gender-based violence and child victims. It promotes integrated support to victims of gender-based violence and child victims that will favour all kinds of cooperation between the national authorities, including police and civil society. Under this strategy, the Commission will also assess legal and practical tools at EU level to improve reporting of crime and access to support services for migrant victims, independently of their residence status.
  • The Commission also disseminates training materials on FGM for legal practitioners, through the European e-Justice Portal. The e-learning course ‘United against female genital mutilation’ addresses the issue of FGM in the context of health and asylum services. It is aimed at legal practitioners and provides an introduction to understanding FGM as a human rights issue and as a specific form of gender based violence, and its implications in the area of asylum.
  • An analysis of European court cases related to FGM was published in 2016, in an effort to identify what has allowed states to effectively prosecute.
  1. Protection

Girls and women who are at risk or victims of FGM need particular support when they arrive on EU territory. EU legislation is in place: a woman or a girl at risk of suffering FGM is eligible for international protection and her specific needs should be taken into account.

  • The current Qualification Directive lists a number of acts, including acts of sexual violence and acts of a gender-specific or child-specific nature, as acts of persecution giving ground to obtaining international protection. This principle is even more explicitly spelled out in the 2016 proposal for a recast Qualifications Directive
  • Under the Asylum Procedures Directive and the Reception Conditions Directive, Member States have an obligation to identify applicants with special procedural and reception needs, due to their gender or as consequence of serious forms of sexual violence. If such needs are identified, Member States need to provide adequate procedural and reception support to these vulnerable applicants.
  • Relevant provisions of the Asylum Procedures Directive provide, for instance, that personal interviews shall be conducted by persons competent to take into account, among other things, the applicant’s cultural origin, gender and vulnerability. In addition, Member States should, wherever possible, select an interviewer and interpreter of the same sex of the applicant if the latter requests it.
  • Relevant provisions of the Reception Conditions Directive also provide that victims of FGM should receive the necessary medical and psychological treatment, and staff working with victims of FGM should have appropriate training.
  • The European Asylum Support Office (EASO) has developed an online training platform for immigration and asylum officials in Member States on gender-specific issues related to asylum and the application of EU law in this area.
  • The New Pact on Migration and Asylum put forward by the Commission in September 2020 aims to reinforce the protection safeguards available to persons with specific needs, including unaccompanied children seeking asylum in Europe. In particular, specific needs of female applicants who have experienced gender-based harm should be taken into account. This includes ensuring access to medical care, legal support, appropriate trauma counselling and psycho-social care at different stages of the asylum procedure.
  • Pending revision of the legislation, guidelines are to be developed with the support of the EASO in order to support Member States to specifically take into consideration the fact that vulnerable persons, including victims of gender based violence, are more likely to have special reception needs, regarding reception facilities, as well as ensuring necessary medical and psychological treatment and care.
  • The Commission will continue to monitor the transposition and application of EU asylum legislation by the Member States on the reception and referral of vulnerable applicants, including victims of gender-based violence. The Commission will also continue to support the Member States’ capacity building, by facilitating exchanges of best practices, developing tools and specialised trainings on identifying and assessing the special needs of asylum applicants.
  • The EASO has set up a Vulnerable Experts Network (VEN), which aims to address cross-cutting issues and support measures for various types of vulnerable applicants, including victims of gender-based violence, in a holistic manner. In 2019, the VEN worked further on the development of the EASO’s Practical Tool on Vulnerability Assessment. In 2020, the EASO Vulnerabilities Network devoted a series of four webinars to discussing child marriage and FGM in the context of asylum procedures.
  1. External actions

Ending harmful practices including FGM is a priority for EU external action as recognised both under the EU Action Plan for Human Rights and Democracy 2020-2024 and the Gender Action Plan III “An Ambitious Agenda for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in EU External Action 2021-2025”.

The 2008 EU Guidelines on violence against women and girls and combating all forms of discrimination against them, as well as the 2017 revised Guidelines on the promotion and protection of the rights of the child in external actions, clearly set the fight against all forms of violence and discrimination against women and girls as a key objective of the EU’s external human rights policy. Both documents provide guidance to EU delegations and the embassies of the EU Member States in partner countries on actions they can carry out to address these issues.

The EU contributes to international efforts to eliminate FGM globally.  Fighting harmful norms and practices, including FGM, are also discussed with partner countries and regional organisations in the framework of human rights and political dialogues. The EU also engages on this subject with civil society and human rights organisations.

To support the political and advocacy efforts, the EU finances and supports a number of projects contributing to the elimination of this harmful practice worldwide.

The EU is part of the Donor Working Group on FGM, which brings together key governmental and intergovernmental organizations, and foundations committed to supporting the abandonment of the practice. The EU participates in each of its annual gatherings and hosted its meeting in Brussels in December 2017; preceded by the European Forum to build bridges on FGM, which was organised by The End FGM European Network with EU support.

The joint European Union-United Nations Spotlight Initiative to end violence against women and girls launched in September 2017 is a partnership bringing together the EU, the United Nations, the civil society and government partners (€500 million). The thematic focus of the Spotlight Initiative in Africa is on gender-based violence and harmful practices. The Initiative is now up and running in 26 countries and 6 different regions. In Africa, 8 countries have been selected (Liberia, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Nigeria, Niger, Uganda, and Zimbabwe) where the EU is investing substantive amounts to end FGM and child marriage through comprehensive and integrated approaches, tackling those issues at multiple levels as well as a regional programme where we closely cooperate with the African Union since July 2020.

In 2021, the EU will finalize the second phase of a Global Programme to prevent son preference and gender-biased sex-selection (€2 million).  During 2020, the EU continued its efforts to eliminate and prevent all forms of violence against children. The EU, through the EU-UN Spotlight Initiative Africa regional programme, continued its support to Global Programmes to accelerate action to end child, early and forced marriage (€10 million) and on the abandonment of FGM (€10 million). Support to these two programmes were already provided in the past years.

The programme specifically targeting the abandonment of FGM:

  • supports 18 countries to enact legal and policy frameworks with appropriate resources and implementation for eliminating FGM;
  • providing timely, appropriate and quality services to girls and women at risk of or having experienced FGM in select districts in programmes countries, and;
  • supporting activities so that a majority of individuals, families and communities in programme areas accept the norm of keeping the girls intact.

Among the main results, under the previous support phase, 16 countries have national coordination and action plans to end FGM in place and 10 have national budget. In 2017, three additional countries (Sudan, Mali and Somalia) introduced legislation to stop FGM. Cross-border collaboration has been initiated in East Africa. The database “Data For All” allows all partner organisations to measure progress and capture data. 3.3 million women and girls benefited from an access to prevention, protection and care services, and 21,176 communities involving 11,431,220 individuals made public declarations on FGM abandonment. New partnerships have been established with health workers to address the medicalization of FGM. It also includes the EU’s effort towards the elimination of the FGM practice in particular in the Southern Neighbourhood. This experience has shown that regional as well as bilateral projects and strategies should encompass a multi-level, multi-thematic and coordinated approach. Some pillars can contribute to a change of attitudes: engaging with justice, health, religious and political authorities and practitioners, from communities at grassroots level to national level, and to change social norms by engaging with women, men girls and boys.

The European External Action Service also provides specialised training on FGM as part of its training on human rights and gender. Participants are representatives of the External Action Service headquarters in Brussels and from the EU Delegations all over the world, as well as from the European Parliament, the European Commission and Member States. The EU also works closely with the African Union and African group in the UN Human Rights Council and with the Council of Europe and the OSCE to end FGM.

What happens next?

President von der Leyen has put the prevention of violence against women and the protection of victims at the heart of the Union’s equality policy. The first key milestone was the launch of the Gender Equality Strategy in March 2020. The Strategy sets out an ambitious framework to promote gender equality and to combat gender-based violence. The Strategy reiterates that he finalisation of the EU’s accession to the Istanbul Convention remains a key priority to the Commission, as it is the benchmark for international legislation on tackling gender-based violence. Some of the upcoming initiatives include:

  • Under the EU Strategy on victims’ rights (2020 – 2025) presented in June 2020, the Commission committed to assessing the introduction of minimum standards on victims’ physical protection and where necessary it will present a legislative proposals by 2022.
  • The Commission will also launching a public consultation on best ways to tackle gender-based and domestic violence. The views gathered in the consultation will feed into a legislative initiative, announced in the Gender Equality Strategy.
  • If the the Istanbul Convention remains blocked in Council, the Commission will put forward a new proposal to prevent and combat gender-based violence in 2021. The Commission will also launch an EU network on the prevention of gender-based violence and domestic violence, bringing together Member States and stakeholders to exchange good practices.
  • In 2021, the Commission will propose to extend the list of euro-crimes to include all forms of hate crime and hate speech.
  • In addition, the Commission intends to propose a Recommendation on the prevention of harmful practices, which will address the strengthening of public services, prevention and support measures, capacity-building of professionals and victim-centred access to justice.
  • The Commission is currently preparing an EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child, scheduled for the first quarter of 2021, which will cover both internal and external EU actions. The strategy will include actions to prevent and protect children from violence against children.
  • The Commission will also continue implementation of measures set out in the Communication Towards the elimination of female genital mutilation and use appropriate instruments to eradicate FGM and build on this experience to tackle other harmful practices.
  • Under the Citizens, Equality, Rights and Values Programme (CERV), funding will continue for Member States’ and civil society-led projects tackling gender-based violence, including FGM. In 2020, the Commission selected 34 projects for a total budget of 14 million euros through the last call for proposals of the Rights, Equality and Citizenship Programme. The Commission will publish a new call for proposals under the CERV programme during the spring of 2021.

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