Strengths and good practices of anti-FGM laws

The very existence of the law produces effects that go beyond the mere application of sanctions and the prosecution of those practising Female Genital Mutilation. It serves as a deterrent and therefore protects girls at risk of undergoing FGM both from the practice itself and – in some cases – from the stigma associated with not being excised.

The deterrent effect of anti-FGM laws

Several authors argue that, although existing laws have resulted in few prosecutions for FGM cases, this does not mean that the law does not have a positive effect in terms of reducing prevalence. 

In Senegal, for example, the 1999 law has resulted in few arrests or trials but has had the effect of creating a formal framework for NGOs and national groups committed to eradicating the practice. As such, it is considered essential to enable a change in attitudes towards FGM as a social norm. 

In Europe, studies also show that knowledge of anti-FGM laws and fear of legal consequences have a deterrent effect on migrant communities from high-prevalence countries.

More than a strictly legal tool, enabling arrest and prosecution, the mere existence of laws has a symbolic effect and constitutes a tool of prevention. The law makes it clear that FGM is not an acceptable practice and provides an opportunity to explain its harmful consequences. 

Annemarie Middelburg shared some conclusions drawn from her doctoral thesis highlighting the importance of the law as a preventive and deterrent measure. She stressed that the law is a powerful instrument available to NGOs for their awareness and education campaigns and as a symbolic commitment of the government against the practice:

” The law often has prevention and protection objectives. When I interviewed a representative of an international organization in Senegal, she explained:“As far as FGM goes, it is very difficult to say that it must be punished and prosecuted, because sometimes the exciser is a mother who has many children. So you are faced with the dilemma: What is the best course of action? Is it in the best interests of the children to put the mother in prison? That’s why I think the law should be used as a preventive measure, as a kind of warning mechanism at the community level. And it can also be used as a means of settling disputes around the problem before resorting to actual court proceedings.

Criminalising stigmatising language: example of Kenya (Brenda Dora’s contribution)

“Article 25 of the Anti-FGM Act (2011 in Kenya) prohibits the use of derogatory or abusive language towards women and girls who have not undergone FGM. It is particularly interesting to note that despite the presence of such a provision, no cases have been reported and/or prosecuted. It should also be noted that this offence is punishable by imprisonment (6 months) or a fine of Ksh. 50,000 (approximately USD 500) or both. 

My argument has always been that women and girls in these communities were not sufficiently aware and empowered to know that such a provision existed in the law and that they could report such insults and abusive language to the authorities. In our legal awareness campaigns, we try to raise awareness in the community so that they may take full advantage of this legal provision. Nevertheless, from the information I have had so far from the women and girls I have been in contact with, it appears that they do not believe that anything can be done even if they report some of the pejorative and abusive language used to refer to them. They believe society has normalized verbal violence against women.” Brenda Dora

Furthermore, the broader context in which the laws are made should not be overlooked. The increasing criminalization of FGM may create an “enabling environment for change” but is not a guarantee to end the practice. Therefore, legal measures must focus on the well-being of the girls and women concerned and avoid stigmatization. 

Special consideration must be given to ensuring a sense of ownership of the laws and information to all members of society, support by trained professionals and the allocation of adequate resources. 

In addition to legal measures, other strategies should be adopted, such as :

  • Awareness raising
  • Training of professionals, including health professionals
  • The establishment of alternative rites of passage
  • Working with religious and community leaders
  • Creating alternative livelihoods for former cutters
  • The commitment of men and boys
  • Further measures working towards the acceptance of the law and improving its effectiveness.

Providing an anonymous hotline on FGM

” There is an anonymous hotline for female genital mutilation in Kenya. We have two toll-free telephone lines – the national Gender-Based Violence Line 1195 and the Child helpline 116 – that people can use to anonymously report cases of FGM. The National Gender-Based Violence Hotline is unique in that it is not only a toll-free telephone line, but also leads to local facilities that promote medical care and treatment, legal aid and assistance, and crisis centres. I must say that these hotlines have really helped a great deal in the reporting of cases and have sometimes led to the successful rescue of women and girls at risk. Problems such as the lack of awareness in some regions about the existence of these reporting hotlines and poor mobile network coverage are hampering the full success of the measure, but we have nevertheless seen significant progress.” Brenda Dora

The importance of awareness campaigns

Annemarie Middelburg shared the story of her meeting with a Senegalese Imam opposed to FGM, whom she asked about the reasons behind his position:

“He said he had attended a conference on FGM in France a few years ago. The conference was organized for religious leaders. He told me that at one point a video of a girl undergoing FGM was shown. He said he had seen how a traditional exciser cut off the clitoris of a girl who was screaming and bleeding. He then said, with tears in his eyes: “It was only then that I realized what I had done to my daughter… It was only then that I realized what I had done to my granddaughters… and to everyone in my community.” 

Before going to France, he preached in his mosque that FGM was a good thing, that all women should submit to the practice, and he also declared that it was a religious obligation. The Imam told me that he could not sleep for three nights after seeing this film at the conference.
Back in Dakar, he set up his own NGO to combat female genital mutilation. After the interview, I saw him from time to time on television and heard him on the radio. He has become an important agent of change.”

Working on social norms

 Joséphine Wouango highlighted the importance of working on the social norms underlying the practice of FGM in Burkina Faso in order to fight even more effectively against its perpetuation:

“In Burkina Faso, although the law has been tightened, awareness raising remains the preferred means to end the practice. The National Council to Combat the Practice of Excision (CNLPE) continues to work with various stakeholders to understand why the practice persists. Several approaches have emerged from these reflections that I find relevant in order to achieve a major breakthrough in the fight. They are as follows:

  • Reinforcing the skills of actors in the field on the approach based on social norms
  • To apply the method of value clarification (MCV) in promoting the abandonment of the practice of excision in Burkina Faso.
  •  Finance activities in accordance with the steps of the orientation guide for the implementation of the social norms-based approach to end FGM”.

Some key factors for the success of the law: findings of the UNFPA study on legal frameworks

Annemarie Middelburg shared some findings from the study she conducted for UNFPA in 9 West African countries (Burkina Faso, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone) on legal frameworks related to FGM. Different factors were identified as key to making the law effective.

  • Political will for the elimination of FGM
  • Public knowledge and understanding of the law
  •  A strong institutional framework and collaboration with law enforcement and the judiciary
  • The existence of an anonymous telephone line that increases the number of reported cases.
  • Innovative approaches, such as community patrol teams and mobile community courts introduced in Burkina Faso
  •  Supporting the law with strategies that encourage positive social change in communities

She also stressed the importance that should be attached to the drafting of the legislative text:

“Drafting legislation through a consultative and participatory process facilitates and improves the effectiveness of law enforcement. For example, in Senegal, where the law was not established through a consultative process, many people demonstrated in the streets in front of Parliament when the law was under discussion. They felt that
their culture was under attack, and this is the case in many countries.
When I was at Women Deliver a few weeks ago, a lady from Kenya expressed it very
well: “The law against FGM in Kenya is not well enforced in some areas because some people feel that the law is against them, when in fact it is there for them. ” “

“The Community of Practice on Female Genital Mutilation” is part of the “Building Bridges between Africa and Europe to tackle FGM” project, supported by the “UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme on the Elimination of FGM”.
The project is coordinated by AIDOS in partnership with GAMS Belgium.

The views expressed on this website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the UNFPA, UNICEF or any other agency or organization.

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