SAINT-GERMAIN-EN-LAYE, YVELINES, France (WOMENSENEWS)— A 33-year-old French-born citizen here has vivid memories of what’s called “vacation cutting,” when immigrant parents send their daughters to stay with their families abroad and to endure female genital mutilation, or FGM.
Eman–who did not want to give her real name for fear of retribution–went to Senegal for a two-month summer vacation with her parents, four brothers and two sisters in July 1998.
At the time, she had no idea her summer family vacation in Senegal would include what her parents considered a sacred rite of passage and what she would decide was a reason to never return to that country again.
She was 8 and her sister 6 when three to five women, she cannot remember exactly how many, encircled and blindfolded them in the toilets of a deserted village of Dakar. Some women held down their arms and their legs while another applied a razor blade to their genitals.
“As soon as they opened my legs, I was scared because I did not know what they were doing with me,” says Eman, who spoke with Women’s eNews in an interview held at the Institut en Santé Génésique, an institute in Saint-Germain-en-Laye outside Paris created by Fréderique Martz and Pierre Foldes.
Her sister suffered a hemorrhage as a consequence.
Vacation cutting has existed in immigrant enclaves around the world for decades and activists and authorities try to prevent it.
Isabelle Gilette-Faye is a sociologist and the director of the GAMS movement, an association focused on abolishing female genital mutilation that works to prevent “vacation cuttings.” She says organizers will identify children at risk to French authorities.
France has zero tolerance of the practice, Gilette-Faye says.
Eman was a French citizen when her horrifying vacation cutting occurred. But the torment she suffered helps explain why thousands of other women at risk for undergoing the practice are seeking asylum in Europe.
Among 25,855 women and girls from FGM-practicing countries who sought asylum in the E.U. in the first three quarters of 2014, as many 18,500 were survivors of cutting, finds a report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the U.N. agency mandated to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide.
An estimated 3 million girls throughout the world are considered to be at risk of FGM each year.
For that reason, France is a popular country of refuge, particularly for female immigrants from Eritrea, Nigeria, Somalia, Guinea and Ethiopia. In 2004, the country hosted about 50,000 survivors of FGM.
The World Health Organization has estimated as many as 140 million girls and women have been subjected to this harmful traditional practice that is still widespread in 29 countries, mainly in Africa and the Middle East. FGM is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women.
Eighteen countries in Africa–Benin, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania and Togo—have enacted laws criminalizing FGM, according to the Center For Reproductive Rights, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing reproductive freedom, with headquarters in New York City. The penalties range from a minimum of three months to a maximum of life in prison. Several countries also impose monetary fines.
Numerous countries outside of Africa have also passed laws criminalizing the practice. In France, FGM was defined as a crime under French law in 1983 with the threat of 10 years in prison for both parents and people performing the cutting, or up to 20 years for cutting a girl under the age of 15. It can also be prosecuted as an act of torture and barbarity.
Linda Weil-Curiel is a French attorney and human rights activist and director of her Paris- based association, the Commission for the Abolition of Sexual Mutilation, or CAMS. She 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.
“When children start to die or are reported mutilated by doctors, there is a trial,” Weil-Curiel said in a phone interview.
Between 1979 and 2004, a total of 29 FGM court cases were brought before criminal courts in France, mostly from the mid-1990s onwards, according to a report by the European Institute for Gender Equality. By 2013, more than 100 people had been convicted of FGM.
Weil-Curiel says health authorities help in the fight against FGM because they are required to report physical or psychological abuse perpetrated against children or persons unable to protect themselves due to their age or incapacity.
But for some survivors, the fear of FGM threatens their daughters. One woman who underwent FGM in Bamako, Mali, told Women’s eNews that her mother put her through the procedure when she was only a couple of weeks old. Today she is working as a nursing assistant and is worried about her two daughters, who are 6 months and 4 years old. She fears her husband might take the children back to Mali on one of his frequent trips there.
“There are Malians who steal your children to perform FGM,” she says. “And the daughter of my aunt died from a hemorrhage, following FGM.”