Spain: Court Steps in to Save Girls from FGM

The judiciary is embroiled in a simmering row with Gambia over the best way to protect girls from circumcision.
On 15th May 2004, a court confiscated the passports of three Gambian girls to stop them being repatriated for surgery.
Ruling that the three were in real danger of genital mutilation, Judge Eva Platero called for their passports to be withheld until they are 18 and ordered twice-yearly gynaecological examinations for them. Gambia's envoy to Spain, Juan Antonio del Moral, called the decision "repressive" and an anomaly in a democracy.

Female circumcision is believed to be common among west African communities living in Catalonia. It normally happens when girls return to west Africa to visit their families, although there have been occasional reports of operations carried out in Spain. The practice is still considered normal by many older people in west Africa, particularly those from rural communities.

Radio Girona said that the three girls, from San Feliu de Guixols on the Costa Brava, had two older sisters who had been circumcised on a previous visit to their grandparents in Gambia. The girls' father, who has Spanish residency, said that there was nothing he could do to protect his daughters because it was traditional practice. The 7,500-strong Gambian community has become well established across Catalonia since the 1970s and is generally well integrated. But the high incidence of genital mutilation has long been a cause for concern.

A spokesman for Unicef in Gambia said the government was unwilling to legislate against the practice because it was entrenched in traditional society. Anna Farjas, an expert in ethnic groups who has conducted studies of the community, said: "It's very important that we eradicate this practice of mutilation. I welcome the judge's ruling, not just because of her decision, but because she did it in the right way, preparing the ground through meetings with the people involved to make sure they understood."

Spain has set up an umbrella group of prosecutors, doctors, social services workers and judges to preempt mutilation. Parents are warned about the possible consequences, medical and legal. But Mr Del Moral said the approach involved too much repression and not enough education. "Many of the Gambian people living in Catalonia come from rural communities and so the level of literacy is low. We need to help them to understand that this practice offends the dignity and violates the rights of their daughters."

Three years ago, the town of Banyoles, which has one of the largest Gambian populations in the province, warned the west African population of the potential punishments for female circumcision after it was suspected that a Gambian grandmother was performing the operation in the town. Although the practice is illegal in Spain, it is difficult for the courts to act because it takes place outside the country and parents clam to have no prior knowledge. In 2002, the same court in San Feliu de Guixols shelved a case against the parents of four sisters who had been circumcised. The parents claimed that the operations had not been planned before their trip to Africa and the judge ruled that the court therefore had no jurisdiction over what had happened.

Source: The Guardian, 15.5.04.