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Call to put female genital mutilation on political agenda

A six-year-old girl undergoing the procedure in Somalia Keystone Archive

At least 20 per cent of gynaecologists in Switzerland say they have seen women who have been subjected to female genital mutilation during their childhood, according to a survey conducted by Unicef. But less is known about whether the illegal practice is actually applied in Switzerland.

This content was published on May 22, 2001 - 08:24

The survey, conducted among almost 1,200 gynaecologists, is the first of its kind in Switzerland. The results were presented at a conference in Bern and organised by the Swiss committee of the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) on the issue of female genital mutilation.

Of the 450 doctors who sent back Unicef's questionnaire, just over half said they had seen women in their practices whose genitals had been mutilated. It is believed that in the majority of cases the women concerned were immigrants from Somalia, Ethiopia and from West African countries.

However, only six gynaecologists (0.5 per cent of the total) said they had either been requested to perform a "circumcision" themselves, or asked for advice about where one could be obtained in Switzerland.

But Unicef's Elsebeth Müller is convinced that female genital mutilation is practiced in Switzerland. "It is practiced in the shadows, which means we are dealing with closed communities which are difficult to penetrate," she said.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that two million girls are subjected to genital mutilation annually. A joint worldwide campaign by the WHO and Unicef has set itself the task of eradicating what has been defined as torture within three generations.

Zeedah Meierhofer, of the meeting place and resource centre for black women in Zurich, also says the practice is "bigger in Switzerland than we suspect". However, when pressed, she would only say that the resource centre tried "to work with mothers on the grass-roots level so we can do prophylactic work".

Müller said more resource centres were needed in Switzerland to deal with "the problem". The first task of the centres would be to begin gathering relevant information "so we can come up with a broader view of what the problem is, and then suggest some action".

Apart from the cruelty inflicted on girls who are subjected to genital mutilation, and the psychological consequences throughout their lives, the practice also carries severe health risks.

The organisers of the conference in Bern are demanding that medical and behavioural guidelines are drawn up by the authorities and aimed at professionals who are confronted with the problem, such as doctors, teachers and social workers.

While the authorities in France have prosecuted several cases of female genital mutilation among African immigrant communities, no similar action has been taken in Switzerland. In 1993, the Swiss government refused to consider a legal obligation for professionals to report suspected cases of female genital mutilation.

The federal office for refugees does not accept claims by women that they have fled from female genital mutilation as grounds for asylum rights.

The case is more complicated where women claim they were unable to protect their daughters from the practice, a representative of the office told swissinfo. She said two such cases were currently pending before an asylum review board.

by Markus Haefliger

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