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Will the EU help end FGM?

A new campaign urges standard EU regulations to fight female genital mutilation.

Kenyan teenage Masai girls attend an alternative right of passage in Kilgoris, Kenya, on April 19, 2008, at a ceremony organized by an anti-female genital mutilation campaign, the Cherish Others Organisation. (Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images)

BRUSSELS, Belgium — As a young girl in Guinea, Aissatou Diallo couldn’t save herself. She was 14 and six people were holding her down while a seventh cut her. 

Somalian Ifrah Ahmed couldn’t even comprehend what was happening to her. She was only 8 years old and there were people holding her arms and legs. She had no anesthesia of any kind before or after, just raw agony and then the 40 days of isolation imposed on newly circumcised girls. Five years later, inexplicably, they did it to her again. 

Diallo and Ahmed are just two of the estimated 140 million women girls and women worldwide who have been subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM). But unlike the vast majority of girls unable to fight back either during the procedure or after, these women are defying it now — and demanding the rest of the world do the same. 

They are some of the leading voices in the latest push in a long campaign spearheaded by Amnesty International against FGM.  The new drive is specifically geared toward pressing the European Union to coordinate the laws, statistics and even foreign policy of its 27 member states into a united front to halt the practice. 

Diallo is now in Belgium, one of the handful of countries that does grant asylum based on FGM claims. She claimed asylum on the basis that she could not protect her two young daughters from family and community members in Guinea determined to subject them to FGM. Ahmed, now 21, arrived as a war refugee in Ireland three years ago, unable to read or write as a result of never being sent to school in Somalia. Now fluent – and fearless – in English, she’s determined to change the culture of her own country, where almost 98 percent of adult women are believed to have been circumcised, the highest rate in the world. 

But activists are working to make clear that while African countries are infamous for the practice, people in the West should not think it only affects women “somewhere else.” Figures compiled by the European Parliament indicate there are approximately half a million women living in the EU who have already undergone FGM. An estimated 180,000 more girls each year in Europe reach the age when the procedure is usually done, which ranges from birth up to age 15. 

In the U.S., legislation has been in place since 1996 offering asylum to any woman fleeing the threat of FGM or who has already experienced it. But in Europe, though the majority of the 27 EU member states outlaw FGM under either specific or general criminal laws, only a handful officially recognize FGM as a form of persecution warranting protection and they do not apply the law in the same way. (This is also true among different courts in the U.S. where, for example, a Malian asylum seeker who had been subjected to FGM as a child was rejected by the state of Maryland because there was no reason for her to fear it happening again.) End FGM wants uniform laws adopted throughout the EU and the most generous possible interpretation of them. 

But living in a country where there are laws against FGM by no means grants these girls automatic protection from the practice — it’s technically illegal in many of the African nations too. Sometimes the cutting is actually performed in Europe, but more frequently young girls are taken on “vacation” back to Africa, where it’s done in the traditional setting. The End FGM campaign wants data collected from across Europe to gauge the extent of the problem.