According to WHO, over 200 million women and girls in the world have had their genitals mutilated. The procedure is a violation of the basic human rights and the rights of children. Efforts to end the practice are underway in many parts of the world. The resistance offered by women, health workers and civil society organisations in countries where the practice is common has made a difference. Several countries, including Burkina Faso, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, have adopted laws prohibiting the procedure. The possibility of eliminating the most harmful elements of traditional rites of passage is gaining increasing acceptance in many places.
Several initiatives have been taken at the international level. One example is the umbrella organisation IAC (The Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children) formed in 1984 by women from a number of African countries. IAC works actively to end genital mutilation and is a consultative body to the UN. The organisation has adopted action plans that are supported by several other organisations, including UNICEF and WHO.
All Nordic countries have some sort of laws against the practice of genital mutilation. However, the number of court cases where a perpetrator has been convicted is very limited, and so is the knowledge about the scope of the problem.
– I’ve worked with Somalis in Finland since the 1990s and I have never heard of any parents mutilating their children’s genitals here. Since it’s illegal in Finland, some parents instead do it before they get here, says Saido Mohamed from the Finnish League for Human Rights.
The Finnish League for Human Rights is an expert NGO that has worked against genital mutilation for 15 years. The organisation’s work is based on respect for different cultures, with the addition that violence can never be accepted regardless of culture or tradition. There is a focus on preventive work by for example discussing the issue with Finns originating from cultures where genital mutilation is common. The target groups include Finns from Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Nigeria and Kenya.
– We meet with religious leaders, visit youth activities, talk to organisations and attend women’s celebrations and other events. My colleague, who is from Ethiopia, and I meet people in their natural environments, she says.
An increasing number of young people seeking medical attention
According to Saido Mohamed, who was born in Somalia, the attitudes to female genital mutilation have changed over the years. In the 1990s, the issue was a taboo subject in Finland. Today it is discussed more openly and an increasing number of young people are seeking medical attention. She believes that the organisation’s outreach work has made a difference.
– The preventive work is very important when it comes to genital mutilation. It has to be carried out continuously, since there is a steady inflow of new migrants from the areas in question.
Jamila Said Musse has worked against genital mutilation for over 20 years both in Somalia and in Sweden. Recently, for example on behalf of the County Administrative Board of Västra Götaland. She, too, thinks that the attitudes have changed in the right direction and that preventive work is of central importance.
– Sweden adopted its law against genital mutilation in 1982. But the law alone can’t put an end to the phenomenon. There’s also a need for education and prevention.
Mutilated genitals more common among older people
The exact extent of the genital mutilation problem in the Nordic region is hard to know. The existing studies on the topic rely on estimations that are merely based on the number of girls and women originating from countries where the practice is common. In an effort to produce more precise data, the National Institute for Health and Welfare in Finland has conducted a large interview study involving Finnish women from Somalia and Kurdistan. According to researcher Reija Klemetti, the purpose of the study was to explore the prevalence of the procedure, the health effects women experience and how the practice is connected to socioeconomic factors.
– An increasing number of genitally mutilated women are moving to Finland, but very little research has been done on the issue, such as on the health effects and treatments.
The questions in the study were included in a larger health questionnaire, and the responses show that genital mutilation is more common among women who are older and lack education. Married Finnish women from Somalia had higher rates of genital mutilation than their unmarried counterparts. Among Finnish-Kurdish women, the procedure was more common among those who described themselves as religious. The study also found that Finnish-Somali women with mutilated genitals were less likely to seek medical attention. The results of the study will inform the work against genital mutilation in Finland and help for example healthcare workers discuss the issue with affected women. Genital mutilation remains a sensitive issue that many professional groups are hesitant to address.
– We need to educate Finnish healthcare workers about the practice and how it can be prevented. It’s also important that teachers and other school workers become knowledgeable about the problem.
Swedish municipality found guilty of discrimination
It is of key importance that the issue of genital mutilation is dealt with in the right way. In 2010, Uppsala Municipality in Sweden was convicted of ethnic discrimination of a girl and her parents after a district nurse reported a possible case of genital mutilation to the social welfare board. The whole thing started when the girl and her father made a routine visit to the local child health centre. During the visit, the father said that the girl was going to travel abroad with her aunt in the summer to visit relatives. The nurse suspected that the girl would get genitally mutilated while abroad and filed a report to Uppsala’s social welfare board. The social welfare board in turn notified the police, who without prior warning picked up the girl from her school and took her to a hospital where she was given a gynaecological examination without her consent. The examination showed that the girl had not been genitally mutilated, which made the police close the case. The parents reported the municipality to the Swedish Ombudsman against Ethnic Discrimination, which took the case to the district court. The district court found that the municipality had acted solely based on the family’s ethnicity and therefore ordered it to pay SEK 60 000 in restitution to the family.
More resources for education needed
Both the Finnish League for Human Rights and Jamila Said Musse from Sweden are working to educate professional groups such as social workers, police officers and healthcare workers about genital mutilation. They say there is a great need for knowledge, but that it is difficult to provide all the support that is needed. According to Saido Mohamed, there is a great need for more resources, for both preventive measures and education. She thinks that Finnish policy makers should give more attention to the issue.
– Finland has had an action plan with an end date in 2016. When it expires, we don’t know what’s going to happen. But the issue needs to be given higher priority. Our organisation alone can’t be expected to do all the work that’s needed in Finland, says Saido Mohamed.
Jamila Said Musse has similar experiences.
– The authorities need to take this issue seriously, and it needs to be made clear who has the main responsibility. The policy makers also need to work on the issue globally, she says.