Austria: African Women Fight Female Genital Mutilation

Vienna (Women’s Feature Service) – Waris Dirie, an Austrian of Somalian origin, is an inspiration to the many victims of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), especially in Africa. Born into a family of Somalian nomads, Dirie’s genitals were mutilated when she was three years old. She was sold in marriage at 13 years after which she fled Africa. From the heart of the desert to the West, where she became one of the highest paid models, Dirie has come a long way. She has been chosen as the United Nations spokesperson against FGM and is a fierce crusader against the ritual of FGM, calling it one of the biggest challenges facing Somalian women.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 100 to 140 million girls and women worldwide are currently living with the consequences of FGM. The inhuman procedure is mostly carried out on young girls some time between infancy and post-puberty (15 years). FGM intentionally alters or injure the female genital organs and causes severe long-term medical problems.

FGM is associated with anachronistic cultural values of femininity and modesty – often considered a necessary part of raising a girl properly and preparing her for adulthood and marriage. It is this aspect that makes it that much harder to fight. But the battle has been on for years now, with concerted efforts being made to spread awareness about FGM’s life altering ill-effects for women.

Austrian filmmaker Ronald Vaughan has been helping the Vienna-based African Woman Organisation (AWO), which was established in 1996 primarily to address the shared problems of women from Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Nigeria, Senegal, Egypt and other African countries. Since 2003, he has been producing information videos and reporting on the fight against FGM. On Mother’s Day (May 9), Vaughan’s film on FGM, ‘The FGM Story’, was aired on Austria’s national television. “The problem of FGM is no longer confined to Africa and parts of Asia but is being battled by Europe as well,” he says.

Vaughan’s film includes the portrait of an icon of the fight against FGM – Berhane Ras-Work, President of the Inter African Committee (IAC), who has been working for the cause since 1984. An Ethiopian by birth, Ras-Work was recently presented Austria’s highest Order of Merit by Barbara Prammer, President of the Austrian Parliament, at a grand ceremony in Vienna.

In the 1980s, Ras-Work was living in Geneva, Switzerland, when she decided to join the group of Europeans who wanted an end to FGM. She is the first African woman to publicly demand the immediate eradication of the practice and encourage a North-South dialogue on the subject. For 25 years she has been urging the decision-makers in Africa to face the fact that FGM and economic success in the modern world do not go hand in hand and that it is a sad reflection of the low economic status of women in the region.

It is largely thanks to women like Ras-Work and Dirie that the problem of FGM is being spoken about and debated in public. Today, FGM is considered a violation of human rights, physical integrity and reproductive health and the problem is being addressed globally instead of being buried regionally and wrapped in shrouds of tradition locally.

But this critical advocacy started with the NGO Working Group on Traditional Practices way back in 1977 in Geneva, with members of 26 NGOs enjoying consultative status with the UN. Years of lobbying and networking by the NGO Working Group eventually led to the creation of the IAC on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children in 1984 under the leadership of Ras-Work.

IAC’s principal aim is to empower women through information and education. The changes that have taken place are very evident. Women all over Africa now demand legislative measures to protect their daughters from traditionally condoned violence such as FGM and question a ritual that has been disguised for centuries as a cultural practice. Slowly but surely they are realising that the sole purpose of practices like FGM is to control women and to limit their freedom.

The exact figures on FGM remain unclear, particularly in Europe as incidents are often not reported. “We estimate that more than 155 million women worldwide are affected by genital mutilation, a figure that rises by about two million each year. This means that we are talking about roughly 5,500 victims every day,” reveals Gabriele Heinisch-Hosek, Austrian Minister for Women and Civil Service.

In the European Union alone around 500,000 girls and women are either affected or threatened by FGM. During the last few decades Europe has received thousands of immigrants and refugees from African countries and some continue with the practice. Most European countries prohibit the practice but the laws are seldom enforced. In the absence of a common cross-border agreement, individual countries deal with the same problem differently. In Austria, FGM is punishable for both physicians and parents under an amendment that has been in force since 2002. Other European Union countries that consider it a criminal offense include Belgium, Denmark, Spain, Sweden and the United KIngdom.

Of course, women are being made aware of their rights through organisations like the IAC and AWO. Up until 1998, the AWO was involved in facilitating integration activities and creating platforms for African women in Austria to discuss various women’s issues. However, on International Women’s Day in 1998, Barbara Prammer, who was the then the Austrian Minister for Women’s Affairs, had declared that no child born in Austria should undergo FGM. This public support by the minister was a huge morale boost to AWO, admits Ethenesh Hadis, the Founder President. And when Dirie released her autobiography, ‘Desert Flower’ the same year, it inspired AWO to expose the practice of FGM in Austria.

In fact, soon after the release of ‘Desert Flower’ in Vienna, the AWO began to collect background information on FGM to create awareness at seminars and discussions in different cities across the country. “We have also undertaken a study on the situation of FGM among immigrants here and it is the first of its kind in Austria,” adds Hadis.

Prammer, too, has promised her continued support to the campaign, saying that parliaments have the biggest responsibility to end violence against women, which is how she sees FGM. “Initiatives like the Inter African Committee keep reminding us of this responsibility,” she says.

Some progress may have been made in attacking the stereotypes attached to FGM and other traditional practices affecting women and children, but the practice is far from being eradicated.