Europe’s commitment to the fight against the brutal practice of female genital mutilation that thousands of young girls find themselves the victims of remains unquestioned, however, ending female circumcision is a huge challenge for the West

“Girls and women have the exclusive right to make decisions about their own bodies. No one should see their body subjected to any kind of violence or abuse under any circumstances,” said EU’s Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell, who was alongside the Commissioner for Equality, Helena Dalli, International Partnerships Jutta Urpilainen, and Vice President for Values and Transparency Vera Jourova, on the International Day for Female Genital Mutilation February 6.

A blatant manifestation of gender inequality

More than 200 million women and girls in the world have been subjected to female circumcision and the number is expected to rise further in the next decade. The practice, which is carried out for cultural or non-medical reasons, involves mutilating the female genital organs from infancy to the age of 15 and constitutes a form of severe child abuse and violence against women.

Female genital mutilation, of FGM, in Europe, where at least 500,000 girls have been cut, is criminalised under the Council of Europe Istanbul Convention. FGM is also mentioned in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development concerning gender equality and on the elimination of harmful practices.

Europe’s fight against FGM is not unprecedented as it also included in the Commission’s communication to the EU Parliament from November 2013, which was followed by a Gender Action Plan for 2016-2020 and in the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy for 2015-2019. Advocating for better legal protection, improving access to support for victims, instilling social change, and building the capacity of practitioners are practices that the EU wants to take to tackle FGM.

The bloc has long pushed other countries to adopt laws and regulations that both prevent and criminalise the disgraceful practice and it has been alarming nations who continue to perform the practice that they will suffer consequences if they do not put a halt to female circumcision.

Is abandoning FGM possible?

When Ursula von der Leyen, the EU Commission’s president, presented her priorities for her five-year term, she placed the Equality Policy on top of the bloc’s agenda. While the EU is already running projects in seven European countries as part of the continent’s drive to end female genital mutilation, the upcoming EU Gender Equality Strategy plans to address all forms of violence against women.

“No custom, tradition, culture, religion or so-called honour can justify such a dangerous criminal act in violation of the rights of women and girls,” said senior EU officials in a joint statement.

Global pressure to end FGM has led several countries in the Middle East and Africa to enact legislation against the practice, while 33 more countries worldwide with migrant populations from nations where it is practised have also followed. ”

Medicalising the practice does not make it safe, moral, or defensible,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. Misconceptions around FGM had many nations believing that the practice should stop due to medical concerns and not due to the violation of fundamental human rights. Under no circumstances, however, should the medical concerns be undermined, as severe infections, chronic health conditions, psychological trauma and even bleeding to death are the consequences of the long-lasting violent practice.

With 68 million girls in 25 countries expected to be cut between 2015 and 2030, Europe has decided to confront the practice head-on, marking perhaps a turning point in the history of women’s rights.

Significant progress has been made and attitudes are changing, but progress is slow, and for every social change to happen, growing opposition is much needed. While the United Nations aims to end FMG by 2030, the European Commission proposed in 2016 that the EU pass the Istanbul Convention, which focuses on preventing and combating violence against women, as only some of the EU member states have signed and ratified the Convention. The issue was taken to the European Parliament, which backed a resolution that called for the EU’s members to ratify the Convention and encourage third countries to ban FGM.

The resolution also pledged support to survivors and pushed for incorporating FGM prevention measures in all policy areas when it comes to health, asylum, education and employment. Without a sincere and concerted effort by organisations like the EU, affected communities and survivors will not be able to push for introducing local legislation that prohibits FGM or raises awareness about its dangers to women and girls around the world.