Good practices in Belgium about female genital mutilations

date: 05 March 2013

Good practices in Belgium about female genital mutilations
Side event Belgium-Turkey, CSW New-York,
5th  March 2013
Thérèse LEGROS, Coordinator INTACT

INTACT is a Belgian association acting on the legal plan to combat Female Genital Mutilations. At both national and international levels, we are working within a network of associations and institutions engaged in this effort, such as the "End FGM" European campaign, led by Amnesty International.

In my talk today, I would like to share with you some of the observations and experiences we have in Belgium regarding good practices to improve prevention and protection against FGM, but also for matters related to the rights of asylum.

Belgium national protection system against FGM

Let's start by reviewing the Belgian State national protection system against FGM. In 2001, Belgium introduced into its penal code a legal provision (article 409 CP) that prohibits and represses the practice of FGM. The adoption of such a legislation establishes a strong normative reference, as it denies any cultural relativism related to the practice of FGM: the mutilations are considered as a form of violence.

However, since the entry into force of the law, 12 years ago, very few complaints have been filed and none of these resulted in a judicial prosecution. This situation might be explained by two main factors. First, FGM are a taboo topic within families, and can very often be a source of internal and loyalty conflicts. The second factor relates to the lack of awareness and experience of the front-line workers who are in contact with the populations and communities concerned.

In light of this situation, Belgium realized that its system of prevention and protection of children at risk needed to be reinforced and adjusted in accordance with the international recommendations that promote complementarity in the fields of intervention, namely, prevention, protection, repression and reparation.

In 2008, a network of associations dealing with the issues of FGM initiated a think tank named "concerted strategies against FGM" with the goal of enhancing cohesion of the actions carried out in the field.

This initiative brings regularly together up to 40 organisations working in sectors in which contact with people concerned by FGM is likely to happen: hospitals, youth services, family planning, children health promotion, police, prosecuting authorities, government agents,… It involves doctors, nurses, social workers, psychologists, lawyers,…

The first years were devoted to developing an assessment of the situation in Belgium, an identification of the needs, a plan of activities to be undertaken and a strategy for a consistent action among the various actors.

The reflections in the context of the concerted strategies were especially used as a basis for the FGM topic when developing the 2010-2014 National Action Plan for combating conjugal and intrafamilial violence, as already presented by Madam Minister Milquet.

As in other European countries such as the Netherlands or Great Britain, we are working to develop recommendations in order to improve existing procedures, to enhance collaboration and adopt clear guidelines applicable to the specificities of FGM.

We find, indeed, that when such cases are encountered, they are too often being handled exclusively within a specific service. The institutions for health prevention, such as maternity units, service of preventive medicine, or early childhood education, are currently inadequately trained and do not interact on a wide enough scale to effectively deal with this type of abuse.

As emphasized by the Istanbul Convention and the UN Resolution of 20 December 2012, it is clear that training is essential to enhance the knowledge of professionals in the field, to increase their ability in detection of risk situations and to handle them. The task is difficult given the variety of professionals and sectors likely to be involved in FGM issues. In Belgium, education on FGM is exclusively done by specialized associations (GAMS Belgium and INTACT) and a clear connection has been established between the number of people reached through these training sessions and the increase of reporting incidents. In order to make this training more systematic, it is essential that professional awareness is performed as part of education program and recurrent training.

"One shot" communication to professionals is unlikely to be sufficient, and the provision of specific tools and services as a support to the management of these situations is crucial. Here are three illustrations of such tools:

- The Health Federal Public Service of Belgium supported the publication of an information guide on FGM aimed at all the concerned professionals and developed by civil society experts and stakeholders. In a first part, it introduces the various issues in light of socio-cultural and medical aspects. In a second part, it provides information specific to the needs and the daily reality of given professions.

- A "FGM travel document" was developed in 2012 in collaboration with INTACT and the Belgian Foreign Affairs for travel clinics, so that the medical staff may remind the legal prohibition of FGM to people traveling with intact girls into high prevalence countries. This tool aims to allow families to reduce the pressure from the community and family, by stating the existence of criminal prohibition. Indeed, the document reminds the content of the article 409 of the Penal Code, the circumstances in which parents can be prosecuted and the consequences of the practice on the health of girls. Our objective is to reinforce the value and diffusion of this tool by affixing the seal of various federal public services and by making it available at embassies in case of return to the home country for the holidays.

- Similarly to an initiative in Cyprus, an e-learning tool could be developed. The Cypriot tool consists in an interactive online training course that has been developed by international experts and that provide to health and asylum professionals the necessary information for a proper handling of women and girls victims or at risk of FGM.

Finally, we see that in the fight against FGM, prevention is mandatory. It requires a presence on the ground and a day-to-day engagement among the concerned women and families. Here, I would like to acknowledge the work of GAMS Belgium who supports and stimulates the women and girls awareness to the reality of FGM, through sewing workshops, literacy courses and discussion groups. This upstream action is essential.

Belgium and the field of International Protection

The UNHCR guidance note on refugee claims relating to FGM of May 2009 considered that all forms of FGM are a gender-related violence significantly harmful for both mental and physical health and equivalent to a continuous and ongoing persecution. However, we observe so far some reluctance of the states to recognize the refugee status to refugee women and girls invoking FGM.

In Belgium, INTACT investigated this issue and developed recommendations on asylum and FGM. Therefore, we hope that the Istanbul Convention will be ratified quickly, as it may become a major legally binding instrument within the Council of Europe for the protection of women victim of gender violence. By clearly highlighting the link between gender violence, such as FGM, and forms of persecution within the meaning of the Geneva Convention, this constitutes a major step forward.

An UNHCR statistical report of February 2013 should reassure the states of the EU insofar as it seems that these countries are not overwhelmed by asylum applications based on FGM issues. The study shows in particular that the number of girls and women from countries practicing FGM and seeking asylum remained constant between 2008 and 2011, even though the total number of women seeking asylum has increased by 43% during the same period.

In Belgium, we can point out some coordination practices on gender-related issues among the asylum authorities. These should be reinforced with the ability to assess the quality and the consistency of decisions on gender in relation to the International Requirements.

To conclude, I want to emphasize the importance of working together, of discussing our respective practices and findings. We will effectively combat genital mutilations only by going even further in this direction. As in the call by the European Parliament to the Commission in its resolution of 14 June 2012, I insist not only on the need to establish a strategic plan, but also on the creation of a concrete European action plan to fight against FGM, to develop a long-term vision of these issues and to further strengthen coherence and synergy of actions developed at national level.