Bella, a young Somali, arrived in Switzerland when she was 16, carrying a burden that 200 million women in the world also have to live with. When she was five, she had to endure female genital mutilation (FGM).
According to Unicef, the prevalence of FGMexternal link in Somalia is 98%. The East African country has the world's highest rate, but female genital mutilation is common in many African countries, as well as in the Middle East and in Southeast Asia. The World Health Organization estimated that three million girlsexternal link are at risk of undergoing female genital mutilation every year.
An illegal practice hard to eradicate
In Switzerland, FGM has been illegal since 2012, following a change in the penal code. Swiss-based families who subject their daughters to the procedure, whether in Switzerland or abroad, can face up to ten years in prison and substantial fines depending on the severity of the act and the personal circumstances.
The first person to be sentenced under this law was a Somali asylum seeker in 2018. The judge decided that the mother, who had arranged for her two young daughters to undergo FGM in Somalia before taking them to Switzerland "knew or should have known" that female genital mutilation is illegal in Europe and internationally disapproved of.
Prevention and support
Despite the criminal prohibition, in Switzerland 15,000 girls have already endured or risk enduring FGM. Several NGOs are combining their efforts to raise awareness among affected migrant communities, hoping to break the taboo and put an end to this practice.
The Network against female genital cutting,external link a government-funded project, offers help, support and advice to both women and men concerned with FGM. Meanwhile, doctors and social services are receiving further education on how to treat circumcised women, and collaborate with intercultural interpreters like Bella.