Good practices in Belgium about female genital mutilations, intervention by Joëlle Milquet, Vice Prime Minister

date: 05 March 2013

Breakfast Panel Belgium – Turkey - "Protecting Women and Girls from Harmful Practices: Sharing Best Practices"
Side event organized by Belgium and Turkey on the occasion of the 57th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women - Tuesday 5th March 2013 / 8:30-10:00am

Madams, Sirs,

First of all, I would like to thank Turkey for co-organizing this event, and the Commission for moderating this event.

1. Introduction

Many of us believe that harmful practices such as female genital mutilation, forced marriages and honour-related crimes only occur in countries outside of Europe. But the truth is very different. In Belgium, there are an estimated 22 840 women and girls coming from a country where female genital mutilation is practiced. Amongst these, 6 260 women and girls are probably already mutilated and 1 975 are at great risk of being mutilated.

As people from different corners of the globe have settled in Europe, they have brought with them their languages, customs, beliefs, traditions and rituals. In most cases these have become part of the fabric of everyday life in the Member States of the Union, being shared enthusiastically among people with different origins who now call Europe home and have a common dream for the future.

Sadly, within some communities – even second – or third-generation migrant communities where children and grandchildren have never known the country of origin of their families – some practices continue that are harmful to those who fall victim to them. Most obvious among them are female genital mutilation, early and forced mariages,  and crimes justified on the grounds of ‘honour’.

Belgium, where 25% of the population has foreign roots, is a country with cultural diversity that the many different migrant groups have brought to Europe.  All people, as those who wish to live and prosper in Europe – whether born in one of the Member States or not – have an equal right to protection from practices that prejudice health, freedom, equality and human rights.

Belgium considers the legal ban of these practices as a democratic imperative and as an undeniable respect for human rights and human beings. It is our duty to do everything in our power in order to prevent those practices that impede women’s rights. Whether we talk about forced and/or early marriages, so-called honour-related violence or female genital mutilations, no custom, tradition, culture or religion can justify the use of such practices.

2. Female Genital Mutilation

In line with its international commitments and obligations, and considering the number of women that have undergone FGM and are at risk of undergoing FGM, Belgium has, since 2000, a law criminalizing the use of these practices. The law condemns FGM and punishes those who perform and enable this practice, among others through traveling abroad.

Any law considering female genital mutilations as a criminal violation is important as it clearly confirms that the authorities do not tolerate this practice.

However, we notice that legislation is often unknown and that its application remains difficult because it tackles a clandestine phenomenon and can have serious consequences on women and girls.

Therefore politicians have to implement a global strategy with all the different government structures and levels enabling actors in the field to work together, whether they are medical, social, policy or judicial actors.

2.1 National Action Plan

That is why our National Action Plan against intimate partner violence has been expanded to other forms of violence within the family, such as female genital mutilations.

This Plan is the product of a long-term endeavour in collaboration with all the different government structures and levels concerned, and more importantly in collaboration with civil society.

Our plan contains 5 main objectives :

1) improve our knowledge of FGM in Belgium ;

2) inform, raise awareness and involve those professionals concerned in preventing FGM;

3) provide comprehensive care for mutilated and at-risk girls and women and their family circle ;

4) adequate reception of migrants experiencing or at risk of prosecution because of their sex;

5) contribute to the international fight against FGM.

2.2 Awareness raising

But even then, with a law and a national action plan in place, it is still hard to fight against this specific type of violence, because of different reasons:

• First, FGM is committed within the family structure, while normally family should offer help, security and affection.
• Secondly, it is most often committed by women on women, by grandmothers and mothers on their daughters.
• Thirdly, it happens in a context defined by traditions and male domination on women.

That is why there is need for continuous awareness raising among the populations concerned. Any means of action is based on awareness.

It is the reason why Belgium actively supports and strengthens the capacities of civil society, as they are key actors in raising awareness and prevention.

Special attention is also given to better training of health, paramedical and social actors, in order to sensitize them and to persuade them of the fact that they are the first in line to fight against female genital mutilations.

3. Forced marriages

Although Belgium has focused on FGM in recent years and thus has many good practices, studies show that a number of women and girls are confronted with forced marriages and so-called honour related violence, although we do not have any exact numbers.

Therefore, we also have included these issues in our national action plan.

Moreover, Belgium has an active policy on the fight against marriages without free consent of one or both spouses. Forced marriages are prohibited by law, just as attempts to conclude such marriages.

In this case, we chose to pay particular attention to prevention. Sensitization and education programs specifically developed for young girls and boys are organized in schools. Several information tools and thematic activities enable us to explain what to do, to avoid forced marriage, or what to do whenever someone is married off without his or her consent.

As with FGM, professionals, such as the police, justice, health, education and social sectors, are sensitized and receive special trainings. These trainings tackle the legal, cultural and other difficulties of these young girls and women.

Different studies are also carried out in order to adapt the prevention and the support to the specific needs of the victims. This why in Belgian we elaborated, together with all women concerned,  a specific brochure on forced marriages in 17 languages, to help all those women who seek help in their own language.

4. So-called honour-related violence

Lastly, Belgium’s national action plan also includes actions on so-called honour-related violence.

Local projects have been set up in order to develop an approach based on prevention and, when there are violations, to ensure adequate follow-up by the police and judiciary.

This phenomenon is still largely unknown in Belgium, therefore a first study of the phenomenon of so-called honour-related violence in Belgium has been carried out. It clearly shows the necessity to develop a specific approach for this form of violence, as made clear by the case of Sadia Sheikh, who was murdered by her brother because she refused to marry someone chosen by her family.

The objective is now to define a policy on this issue through a strategic and multidisciplinary plan involving all the actors concerned. Therefore I am very happy to hold this event with my colleague from Turkey, to learn from their good practices in tackling this specific form of violence.

5. Belgium and its international commitments

(All these actions are consistent with our international commitments, of which I want to highlight one, namely the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.

This Convention is the first constraining tool which fully foresees in a set of measures in the field of prevention and fight against violence against women and domestic violence, including harmful practices.

I take advantage of this event to pay tribute to Turkey, which was the first country to ratify the Convention. Belgium shares the same determination and hopes to ratify this Convention very soon. In the meantime, Belgium will intensify its policy in accordance with the provisions mentioned in the Convention.)

6. Conclusion

It is time to harness all the work that has been done and learn lessons from work that has been done in the countries of origin of the affected communities in order to better understand how to deal with this issue.

The way forward is not use impositions, but to learn from each other, and using each other’s experience to pursue change from within.

For us, our experience learns us that a multidisciplinary approach is the best way forward. But this cannot be done without the strength and courage of the women and men who dare to stand up against these practices and change mentalities.

Because all these violations leave lifelong marks, they require a permanent fight and that is why we are all here today : to fight for women’s rights!

Thank you