Written by Rosamund Shreeves.
The European Union (EU) is committed to working collectively to eradicate female genital mutilation (FGM), as part of broader efforts to combat all forms of violence against women and girls, and to supporting the efforts of its Member States in this field. The European Commission has undertaken to assess EU efforts to combat FGM every year, on or around 6 February – the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation.
Facts and figures
Female genital mutilation (FGM) includes all procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical purposes. FGM is carried out for cultural, religious and/or social reasons, mostly on young girls between infancy and the age of 15. It has no health benefits and can have serious immediate and long-term effects on health and wellbeing.
The exact number of girls and women affected by FGM is not known, but the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that, worldwide, at least 200 million women and girls have been cut, while around 4 million girls are at risk of undergoing FGM every year. The practice, which is most common in 28 African countries, is also prevalent in parts of the Middle East and Asia, and has been reported to a lesser extent elsewhere. Assessments issued by the United Nations Secretary-General and UNICEF-UNFPA, find that prevalence has been reduced in some regions, but progress could be cancelled out as a result of population growth, girls undergoing FGM at a younger age and further spread of the practice as a result of population movement. The coronavirus pandemic has been a further obstacle to progress, putting more girls at risk of FGM and disrupting prevention efforts and support services. Medicalisation of FGM is a growing problem.
Although official EU data on the prevalence of FGM in Europe are lacking, four studies to map FGM, conducted by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) between 2012 and 2020, found that there are victims (or potential victims) in at least 16 EU countries: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. Around 20 000 women and girls from FGM-practising countries seek asylum in the EU every year, with an estimated 1 000 asylum claims relating directly to FGM. This number has grown steadily since 2008.
Commitments and action to combat FGM
FGM constitutes a form of child abuse and gender-based violence, and is recognised internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. The practice also violates a person’s rights to health, security and physical integrity; the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; and the right to life in cases where the procedure results in death. Measures have been adopted at international, EU and national level to prevent FGM and to protect FGM victims.
Instruments and action at international level
At international level, United Nations (UN) and Council of Europe standards are benchmarks for work to combat FGM. Key treaties, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Geneva Convention, all cover FGM indirectly, with specific guidance on protection and asylum for victims. The Council of Europe’s Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (‘Istanbul Convention’), is the first treaty to recognise that FGM exists in Europe (Article 38), and sets out specific obligations on preventing and combating the practice, and providing support for victims and those at risk.
The UN’s longstanding efforts to end the practice culminated in its first specific resolution on FGM in 2012, calling for the adoption of national action plans and comprehensive strategies to eliminate it. The UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development identifies FGM as a harmful practice, to be eliminated by 2030 (Goal 5), a priority reaffirmed by the UN – in a resolution in 2018 and at the International Conference on Population and Development in 2019. Concrete targets were set at the Generation Equality Forum in 2021. The UN also recommended action to tackle FGM in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. The UN has named 6 February the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, and the European Commission takes stock annually, around that day, of EU efforts to combat FGM.
Legislative and policy framework at EU level
The EU itself currently has no binding instrument designed to protect women from violence, but relevant instruments exist in a number of areas. The principles of gender equality and non-discrimination are affirmed in the Treaties and in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which also guarantees the right to dignity and includes provisions on the right to physical and mental integrity. The Directive on Victims’ Rights requires provision of support services for victims of violence, including FGM. The Asylum Reception Conditions Directive specifically mentions victims of FGM as being among vulnerable persons who should receive appropriate healthcare during their asylum procedure, while the recast Qualification Directive includes FGM as grounds to consider when granting asylum. Both directives are under review. The EU signed the Istanbul Convention in 2017 and is currently in the accession process. Parliament has urged those Member States that have not yet done so to ratify and implement this convention.
Combating gender-based violence, including FGM, is one of the priorities of the EU’s external action and its internal strategies on children’s rights and gender equality Proposals for new EU legislation on gender-based violence and a recommendation on measures to prevent harmful practices are planned for 2022. In addition, the approach to eliminating FGM adopted in 2013 will continue, with the aim of ensuring that action to combat FGM is mainstreamed across the fields of justice, police, health, social services, child protection, education, immigration and asylum and external action. Areas where the Commission has promised to act include:
- providing the reliable, comparable EU-level data necessary to establish the prevalence of FGM and provide a solid basis for policy;
- improving victim support by helping Member States to develop support services for victims, and training and awareness-raising for relevant professionals, focusing on empowering communities;
- supporting Member States in prosecuting FGM more effectively;
- ensuring that women at risk are protected more effectively under EU asylum rules through proper transposition and implementation of the EU legislative framework on asylum and victim protection;
- promoting worldwide elimination of FGM, by ensuring that EU external policy addresses FGM.
Funding for tackling FGM is made available through the joint EU-UN Spotlight Initiative and EU funding programmes, notably the longstanding Daphne strand, which is continuing under the Citizens, Equality, Rights and Values programme for 2021-2027.
National-level instruments against FGM
Many of the actions needed to end FGM lie within the competences of the Member States. FGM is now a prosecutable offence under national law in all Member States, either as a specific criminal act or as an act of bodily harm or injury. However, very few cases are brought to court. A number of Member States have also developed national action plans on FGM. Continuing issues of concern include barriers to reporting and successful prosecution, victim support, and ways to ensure long-term, sustainable cultural change.
European Parliament position
The European Parliament has played an important role in raising awareness and pushing for firm action on FGM, including through the work of its Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM). Parliament adopted resolutions on FGM in 2001, 2009, 2012, 2014, and 2018, calling on the Commission and Member States to provide the legal and other means required to raise awareness, protect and support victims and ensure that offenders are prosecuted. In 2016, it called for appropriate protection for women and girls seeking asylum on grounds of FGM. In 2020, Parliament set out its own recommendations for an EU strategy to put an end to FGM around the world. It has called for coordination of external and internal programmes and for action to address the increased risks of FGM resulting from the pandemic. Parliament has also welcomed the Commission’s plan for an EU recommendation.
This publication is a further update of an ‘at a glance’ note originally published in January 2015.
Read this ‘at a glance’ on ‘Zero tolerance for female genital mutilation‘ on the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.