International: West Africans fight female genital mutilation in France

West African immigrant activists have taken their fight against female genital mutilation (FGM) to France where as many as 50,000 immigrant women a year undergo the procedure, according to the French Institute of Demographic Studies.
Female genital mutilation, a traditional initiation ceremony involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia for cultural or religious reasons, is practiced in 28 African countries, many of them in West Africa, according to the World Health Organization.
While ongoing struggles against the practice are causing numbers of excisions to diminish across the region, including in Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Guinea, some activists say West Africans living abroad are more likely to put their daughters through the procedure than they would be back home.

“Immigrants have a tendency to cling to their traditions and customs – sometimes even more so than those who stay at home - for fear of losing them or of being socially rejected,” said Khady Koita, a Senegalese immigrant and president of a European network for the prevention of traditional practices harmful to the health of women and children, which operates in France.

Some parents secretly submit their daughters to FGM in ceremonies in France while others send their children home during the school holidays to undergo the excision. There are even instances where relatives or immigrant community members instigate the procedure without the knowledge of the children’s parents, as was the case with Koita’s two girls.

More and more activists in France are mobilising against the practice by raising awareness of its dangers to women and girls in the media, through conferences and debates, and in schools and health-centres in cities which have significant immigrant communities across the country.

Awa Ba, a Senegalese woman and the president of the association of African women in Boulogne-Billancourt, a western suburb of Paris, targets families directly. “Before children leave for home for their school holidays I warn them about the risk of circumcision and I tell the parents that if their daughter has not been circumcised before going and comes back circumcised, I will bring a complaint against her.”

Their efforts are starting to pay off. Though the latest data is hard to find, recent studies say FGM among immigrant groups “has undoubtedly decreased” in France in recent years.

Sophie Soumaré, a Malian immigrant who works with the Women’s Group for the Abolition of Mutilation (GAMS) in Marne, northeast France told IRIN, “The mentality [among immigrant groups] is starting to change and parents understand more and more that the Koran doesn’t promote FGM.”

And it helps that in France activists have the law on their side. FGM falls under Article 222 of the criminal code on violence, carrying prison sentences of up to 20 years for those who carry out the practice and parents who collaborate in it.

Linda Weil-Curiel a lawyer who works with the Commission for the Abolition of Sexual Mutilation has pleaded approximately 100 cases in and around Paris, most of which have resulted in a prison sentence for parents or those carrying out the procedure. One perpetrator, Hawa Gréou from Mali, took up the fight against it herself on her release from prison.

Decentralising the fight

But activists are starting to realise that in order to have maximum impact they need to exert their efforts not only in France, but also back home in West Africa.

“It is very important to try to change people’s viewpoint and behaviour in the country of origin as well as the immigration country to get the best results,” said Koita.

To do this she has created La Palabre, an organisation to raise awareness of the dangers of FGM both in France and in her home town of Thiès, in central Senegal, where it also runs shelter for girls who are forced to undergo the procedure.

Diaryatou Bah, a France-based Guinean is president of Hopes and Struggles of Women, which extends its awareness-raising work to universities and hospitals in Guinea’s capital Conakry, as well as training local social workers in how to apply Guinean laws banning the practice.

But Somaré realises it takes strength to resist the social and cultural pressures immigrants face when they return home even for short visits. Knowing that many parents are willing to transgress laws when it comes to circumcising their daughters, GAMS tries to link them up with local networks in their country of origin who will remind them of the dangers of excision when they are there.

Most of these organisations struggle on shoe-string budgets as fighting FGM is often overlooked by local authorities many experts told IRIN, and immigrant community members are often reluctant to be seen to be supporting them.

“The biggest difficulty that I have encountered and I believe it is the case for many others, is the lack of funding. Often we are not even paid a living wage to carry out this work,” said Koita.

While local politicians support their efforts in theory, they do not finance them, and “often we do not even receive a thank-you,” from them, Koita complained.

This is just one of the obstacles these women face – the most challenging is opposition from their own friends and families. “Many of my African peers thought ‘white women’ had filled my head with feminist ideas to turn me against my own culture, and that I, in turn was trying to brainwash their wives,” Somaré said. Many fall out with their families as a result.

But others are luckier. “My family have always been behind me in this struggle,” said Koita, “and that helps me keep it going.”

23 June 2008