A change to the Swiss penal code on female genital mutilation comes into force on Sunday which aims to prevent Swiss-based families from having their daughters circumcised, whether in Switzerland or abroad.
“Thanks to the new provision in our criminal law, mutilation of female genitals can be prosecuted and punished by a Swiss judge, even in cases where the offence has taken place abroad and even when not punishable under that country’s law,” Andrea Candrian, vice head of the Federal Justice Office’s international criminal law unit, told swissinfo.ch.
Under the new legislation, any person who carries out an act of mutilation can be held responsible and punished.
“In addition, persons who have assisted in such a crime or contributed in another way can be prosecuted as well. For example – if a girl’s family has organised a mutilation – then not only the circumciser but also the family members involved can be prosecuted,” Candrian explained.
While the goal is not to target instances of FGM carried out in other countries, the legislation should help deter parents from forcing their daughters to undergo the painful and debilitating procedure.
The degree of mutilation (see box at right) along with the personal circumstances of the perpetrators will determine the severity of the sentence, which could involve up to ten years in prison or substantial fines.
Already in 2008, a Zurich court found a couple from Somalia guilty of causing bodily injury to their daughter in the first case of genital mutilation to come before judges in Switzerland. The circumcision had occurred inside the family’s canton Zurich home when the girl was two years old. The prosecution believed that a Somalian midwife had performed the cutting, but this could not be proven.
“The new article is a clear and unmistakable signal that Switzerland does not tolerate this violation of human rights. FGM is a violation of human rights and a severe violation of children’s rights, which explicitly guarantee the right of physical integrity,” Katrin Piazza, spokeswoman for the Swiss National Committee of the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) told swissinfo.ch.
In 2010, Unicef Switzerland collected some 20,000 signatures calling for stronger measures against FGM. The Swiss parliament asked the government to amend the law in 2011, which the government agreed to do in 2012.
Unicef estimates that within Switzerland, 7,000 women and girls have undergone FGM or are at risk of being circumcised in the near future. That figure is based on surveys carried out in 2001 and 2004; the results of a new survey will be released in autumn 2012.
“It’s difficult to collect the data, and most victims don’t dare to talk about their mutilation or even their present suffering. Unicef Switzerland is going to collect the new survey data by working with gynaecologists, midwives and social workers – and if possible, members of concerned communities,” Piazza said.
According to Unicef, the number of affected females might actually be higher because of the large number of migrants from countries like Eritrea, where the practice of female circumcision is common.
Switzerland is not the only nation tackling FGM through legislation. According to Candrian, “Switzerland is among countries such as Sweden and Britain which have introduced a specific provision against genital mutilation. Other nations such as France and Germany cover the offence under general provisions of their national law.”
Law not enough
However, criminal law is not the only answer to this issue, noted Candrian.
“Measures and information campaigns with regard to prevention among migrants might be even more important and a more useful tool in the fight against mutilation,” he said.
Piazza agreed: “Legislation alone isn’t enough; there’s always the risk that the circumcision is simply practised underground. When an entire community shares a harmful social practice, it is almost impossible for an individual to defy it – even if he or she is aware of its danger.”
She cited the importance of building alliances within immigrant communities and between doctors, human rights activists, women’s and youth organisations, teachers and religious leaders – not to mention children, whom she described as an important driver of change.
Yet some wonder whether all the fuss over FGM in Switzerland is simply a matter of activism.
“I called community representatives and interpreters from countries where FGM is practised. I asked if they had ever heard anything about FGM going on here and they all said ‘no’,” countered Abdul Abdurahman, a canton Aargau-based social worker and board member of Second@s Plus – an organisation that represents second- and third-generation foreigners.
Originally from Ethiopia, Abdurahman visits his native country regularly. FGM is now illegal there, though it is still an issue among nomadic people. Here in Switzerland, Abdurahman has worked with Eritrean and Somali families.
“I asked them about the tradition of FGM, and they told me that they’d never do to their daughters what was done to them,” he told swissinfo.ch.
He suspects that today’s activism may reflect feelings of “cultural superiority” and “the old white tradition of wanting to tell black people how to live” – noting that prejudices must be overcome.
“I think that when people come here, they are happy to leave that old culture behind. Whether they’re economic or political migrants, they’ve come here for a better life,” he said.
Abdurahman has also spoken with a number of men about the topic of FGM. “I asked whether they wanted a circumcised wife or not and they said, ‘No, it’s better for the sexuality in our marriage’. They don’t want a woman who is suffering.”