Ottawa says female genital mutilation is ‘abhorrent,’ but offers no commitment on tracking cases

The Star continues its series on FGM, highlighting comparative Canadian inaction:

Canada has done little to understand the scope of the problem and is lagging far behind other developed countries in efforts to prevent it.

For example, earlier this summer, U.S. Homeland Security launched a pilot program to help prevent vacation cutting. The program is based on an initiative at London’s Heathrow airport, where security agents are trained to identify girls at risk.

The U.S., Britain and Australia have all undertaken research to determine the number of girls at risk: 507,000 in the U.S., 197,000 in the U.K. and 83,000 in Australia, according to an internal report from the Canada Border Services Agency.

The CBSA report, initially reported on by Global News, deals primarily with what is strongly suspected by Canadian officials but, as yet, unknown: whether FGM is happening on Canadian soil.

In the U.S., a doctor in Michigan was recently charged with carrying out the practice on up to 100 young girls, according to federal prosecutors, who say that no Canadian victims have so far been identified. There have also been cases in the U.K., France and Australia.

Those who perform female genital mutilation, called FGM practitioners, are “almost certainly entering Canada” to engage in the practice, according to the five-page report, which was prepared by Canadian border intelligence for employees.

“According to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and Canadian health-care providers, it is almost certain that FGM is also happening in Canada,” despite it being illegal, the report says.

A spokesperson for CBSA did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

Source: Ottawa says female genital mutilation is ‘abhorrent,’ but offers no commitment on tracking cases | Toronto Star

Canadian girls are being taken abroad to undergo female genital mutilation, documents reveal

Good reporting by the Star, including some comparative analysis of what other countries are doing:

Thousands of Canadian girls are at risk of female genital mutilation, government officials believe. And some are being taken overseas to have the dangerous procedure done — an illegal act known as “vacation cutting.”

Officials from the federal government’s Global Affairs Ministry warn that, as with forced marriage, the “one chance rule” applies to these cases, meaning a professional might get only one opportunity to speak to a potential victim and save her, according to documents obtained by the Star.

And yet Canada has done little to understand the scope of the problem and is lagging far behind other developed countries in efforts to prevent it, experts say.

“Based on the limited information available, it is possible that a few thousand Canadian girls are at risk, some of whom will be taken overseas for the procedure,” wrote Elaine Cukeric of the federal government’s Vulnerable Children’s Unit in a June 2015 email to a Canadian consular official in Nairobi, Kenya. At the time, the unit — tasked with dealing with issues related to Canadian children abroad — was reaching out to consulates in Africa, the Middle East, India and Pakistan where cutting is prevalent and asking for their experience dealing with the practice so that “we might develop an effective strategy.”

In a statement to the Star, a Global Affairs spokesperson said the federal government “recognizes that female genital mutilation/cutting is one of the most severe violations of the human rights of women and girls” and when made aware of a case they provide “appropriate consular services.” The spokesperson could not say how many cases her ministry has dealt with in recent years because they “do not have a specific category to track cases of (FGM)” and, further, are “not aware of any updated statistics on the issue of Canadian girls at risk.”

…FGM affects more than 200 million women worldwide, according to UNICEF. It is a crime in Canada, as is sending a child elsewhere to have the procedure done.

What is unknown — beyond anecdotal evidence — is whether FGM is happening within Canadian borders. In the U.S., a doctor in Michigan was recently charged with carrying out the practice on up to 100 young girls, according to federal prosecutors, who say that no Canadian victims have been identified yet. There have also been cases in the U.K., France and Australia.

Cukeric’s email correspondence, and dozens of additional emails sent by government employees over the past three years and released to the Star through an access to information request, reference multiple cases the government is aware of in which Canadian girls have undergone or are alleged to have undergone cutting abroad.

Government officials reference summaries of specific cases they are aware of, which are housed in internal servers. Many of the cases arose because “a relative (aunt/cousin) was the complainant,” said a Nairobi official. A different consular official in Nairobi wrote that their office had seen “several cases, not all of them successful.” Other officials mention known cases in Somalia and Pakistan — where it is “understood they have a lot of experience dealing with” FGM cases.

In one email chain from September 2015, officials reference a case in which a “little girl” was “alleged to be removed from Canada for the purposes of female circumcision.” (The child’s location in Canada and the country she was allegedly taken to have both been redacted to protect her privacy.)

Local police and children’s services “were unable to prevent the girl from leaving,” said one email.

…In another document from June 2015 summarizing an hour-long phone call with a senior consular officer in Nairobi, the official describes the “very delicate cases” and focuses on Somalia as an example.

The official explains that many Somali families relocated to Canada during the civil war in the 1990s, and some grew “concerned about the development of Canadian values.” In one example, a family might tell their children they are going on vacation to Australia, but instead, according to the documents, they travel to a small, remote village in Somalia for the girls to be cut. The official adds that the Canadian government has found out about these cases because “having grown up in Canada, the girls know their rights” and use social media to tell a friend, who in turn contacts Canadian authorities.

The consular official then listed a series of challenges associated with intervening, including the “right of the father to prohibit movement” and the fact that locally engaged staff overseas “may be less concerned with FGM and therefore less likely to act.”

It is also very difficult for victims of FGM to speak out against their families, the official said, adding that telling the embassy their story means they might never see their parents or siblings again. “It becomes the most difficult decision of their young lives,” she said.

In another summary of a discussion about FGM with a Toronto-based expert whose identity has been censored, the expert tells the Vulnerable Children’s Unit that Global Affairs had previously received accounts of “some girls who have been severely beaten and/or sexually abused by family members prior to (FGM), sometimes due to the girl’s attempt to contact authorities for assistance.”

At the same time, officials acknowledge they likely aren’t seeing the majority of cases.

“I think (FGM) is highly under-reported at the consular level, as most victims are young … and often not in a position to help themselves,” said yet another consular official in Nairobi in an email sent in March of this year. She added that for older girls, “it is often done in conjunction with a forced marriage, so the two issues are closely linked and might be reported as (forced marriage) instead of (FGM).”

In 1997, the Criminal Code was amended to include female genital mutilation as a form of aggravated assault. It’s not just the person performing the mutilation who could face justice. Provisions in the code also allow for others to be charged, for example, if a parent actively participates in the offence by holding a child’s hands or requests that someone perform it. And the amendments make it illegal to remove a child from Canada for the purpose of female genital mutilation.

There has never been a criminal conviction for female genital mutilation in Canada.

In its statement to the Star, Global Affairs say efforts to prevent FGM “remain collaborative,” and it also sent statements on behalf of the RCMP; the Department of Justice; Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada; and Status of Women Canada. They reference various steps taken by government agencies. For example, the RCMP is currently in the midst of developing an internal policy to deal with FGM. The Justice Department has given nearly $350,000 in funding to an organization in Quebec, RAFIQ, to develop “tools on the physical and psychological consequences of FGM.”

“The purpose of this project is to try to empower other women to denounce this kind of practice and to help young women to understand why it is not a good practice,” said Maria Montejo, chair of the board of RAFIQ.

The statement from Global Affairs also says that, “going forward, we will do more work with local women’s organizations.”

While there is some progress being made, Canada’s efforts fall short of what other countries are actively doing, said Corinne Packer, a senior researcher at the University of Ottawa’s school of public health. Packer co-authored a 2015 report on Canada’s response to FGM for the Canadian Medical Association Journal and reviewed the government responses provided to the Star.

“We’re behind the ball. We’re putting our head in the ground like an ostrich,” she said, adding that by the time a girl is overseas, it’s often too late. More work needs to done on prevention in Canada, Packer said.

Earlier this summer, U.S. Homeland Security launched a pilot program to help prevent vacation cutting. The program is based on an initiative at London’s Heathrow airport, where security agents are trained to identify girls who are risk.

Canada’s Justice Department, in a 2014 internal memo also obtained by the Star through an access to information request, acknowledges that the U.K. has “recently initiated a more proactive approach to FGM with a view to increased prosecutions.”

Kowser Omer-Hashi, a former Somali refugee now living in Toronto, was subjected to FGM. She is a former midwife who has been campaigning against the practice for more than two decades.

“We have a prime minister who declared himself a feminist and has a daughter the same age as children who could be losing their lives at this moment,” Omer-Hashi said. “If that doesn’t touch his heart to do something about FGM, I think there is no hope.”

In the internal emails obtained by the Star, government officials speaking amongst themselves suggest, and at times admit, that the Canadian response has not been adequate.

Source: Canadian girls are being taken abroad to undergo female genital mutilation, documents reveal | Toronto Star

Whether it’s a nick or full circumcision, female genital mutilation is about control: Paradkar 

Paradkar on FGM and the Dawoodi Bohras, a small sect of Ismaili Shia Muslims from India and Pakistan:

Circumcision of boys, a controversial and emotionally charged topic, is almost always by medical doctors (and not by a razor blade in a dark room), so you could say there is some comfort in a reduced risk of harm.

Science scrambled to catch up with that cultural practice and has thrown up contradictory results.

Female circumcision has no known medical benefits.

Then there is an added insult in the Bohra community. Circumcision of boys is openly celebrated. For girls, “it’s a very secretive practice,” says Doctor. “Often, the men don’t even know it’s happening to their daughters.”

So shrouded is it in secrecy that a celebration held after the cutting doesn’t even mention the girl has undergone khatna, the circumcision.

Get wounded, then hide in shame.

Like parents who circumcise their boys, women do this to their girls believing it to be in their interest.

In reality, in whose interest is it?

“It does damage to nerve endings,” says Doctor. “There’s psychological harm that makes them (women) afraid of sex. There’s pain during sex, risk of infections.”

Stories by affected women indicate it’s about male sexual insecurities.

“When a woman’s urge is moderated, many sins are eliminated from society,” says a young woman in A Pinch of Skin.

Urge to do what? To seek attention? To have sex? To have orgasms?

There’s no clarity on this, because talking about sex is taboo, as is talking about genitals.

The taboo allows for vagueness to conveniently mask what is essentially a caging of female desire.

Circumcision, whether it’s a symbolic nick, as some now claim, or a removal of the clitoral hood or clitoris, is a mark of sexual control over female bodies in this traditionally entrepreneurial culture where men travelled far as traders and were away from their wives and families for a long time.

It’s an interference that hoodwinks women into confining little girls in a chastity belt.

No such restraints for the travellers.

Source: Whether it’s a nick or full circumcision, female genital mutilation is about control: Paradkar | Toronto Star

U.K. girls learn about female genital mutilation before danger of ‘cutting season’ 

Likely an issue in Canada as well:

She teaches the types of FGM, how children can contact international organizations for help, and how to avoid getting on a plane to leave the country if they suspect they’re going for FGM.

“There’s one trick, called spoon-in-knickers,” Wardere says. “You can put something metal in your underwear when you’re going to the airport and [the detector] will sound. Everyone working in the airport is trained that if with an underage child, the detector goes off, you need to take them on the side, find out what’s going on.”

Wardere says what’s most important about what she does is making children aware of FGM and then sending them home to discuss it with their parents.

“For the first time,” she says, “that conversation is happening.”

Ali also teaches about FGM and talks about her experience. She recently returned from the Women of the World festival in Karachi, Pakistan. She says she’s received threats for sharing her story, “mostly from men.” She says people will come right up and tell her to her face.

“Just because I was talking about my own experience and something that’s happened to me, they were like, ‘F—  you’ and ‘You’re selling out to the white people’ and I just kept saying: ‘No. Actually, I’m talking about feminism and I’m talking about women’s rights.'”

Wardere also felt resistance. At first.

“Sometimes communities don’t know who is for them and who is against them,” she says. “Even if you come from that community itself. They need time to adjust and you know, figure out who you are, and then respect you and then let you in.”

Source: U.K. girls learn about female genital mutilation before danger of ‘cutting season’ – World – CBC News

Female genital mutilation should be legal in its mildest forms: gynecologists

I can understand the logic – better a minor procedure than a major one, better regulated than underground – but hard to accept nonetheless given the message that the procedure sends about women and sexuality:

Countries that have banned female genital mutilation should allow less invasive practices such as small surgical nicks to girls’ genitalia as a compromise, two U.S. gynecologists said on Monday.

But campaigners against FGM strongly criticised the proposal, saying it would undermine global efforts to eradicate the internationally condemned ritual.

At least 200 million girls and women have been subjected to FGM in over 30 countries, according to UN estimates.

The ancient practice usually involves the partial or total removal of a girl’s external genitalia. In some cases the vaginal opening is also sewn up.

But some communities practice less invasive rituals such as pricking or nicking the clitoris.

The U.S. gynaecologists, writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics, argued that permitting more minimal procedures could allow families to uphold cultural and religious traditions while protecting girls from more dangerous forms of cutting.

Communities which support FGM often consider it a prerequisite for marriage. Many also see it as a religious obligation, although it is not mentioned in the Qur’an or Bible.

But female genital mutilation can cause a host of physical and psychological problems.

Gynaecologists Kavita Shah Arora and Allan Jacobs said procedures that slightly changed the look of a girl’s genitalia without damaging them were comparable to male circumcision or cosmetic procedures in Western countries like labiaplasty.

Laws against mild modifications were “culturally insensitive and supremacist and discriminatory towards women”, they wrote in the specialist publication that is published by the British Medical Journal.

‘Behind the times’

Female genital mutilation is practised in many African countries, pockets of Asia and the Middle East, as well as by diaspora communities living in the West.

The gynaecologists suggested that global attempts to stamp out FGM with legislation had failed and may by driving the practice underground.

“We are not arguing that any procedure on the female genitalia is desirable,” they said. “Rather, we only argue that certain procedures ought to be tolerated by liberal societies.”

Source: Female genital mutilation should be legal in its mildest forms: gynecologists – Health – CBC News

Zero-tolerance on FGM doesn’t have to be an attack on multiculturalism

While this specific piece by Reema Patel focusses on FGM, it raises the broader issue of how to effect change from within on any number of issues:

Powerful advocates within communities that practice FGM, that support homophobia, or that mandate forced marriage will often say that governments have crossed the line of what is acceptable. They will cite consent or acquiescence from minorities within those communities as justification for allowing such practices to continue, and they will often argue those cultural practices are an essential part of the culture – that governments challenging those cultures are illiberal because they do not make space for free expression of those cultures.

The problem is that many on both sides of the debate feel they have to pick a side. That supporting multiculturalism is somehow inconsistent with supporting rights for minorities – including women. But we know that cultures are not as fixed and unchanging as powerful advocates within them may like to make out – they shape themselves to the conditions around them, to social and economic imperatives, and they often liberalise rapidly in new worlds and environments by combining a healthy recognition of traditions, backgrounds and cultural practices with new and modernised interpretations of what it means to belong to that culture in a globalising world.

We also know that change within cultures can only happen when advocates and allies within those cultures are empowered to change minds and hearts around them – and this is where governments must focus their efforts when tackling such problems. The most powerful voices are always those on the inside, not the outside – and governments would do well to work with those voices in order to amplify them.

New Statesman | Zero-tolerance on FGM doesn’t have to be an attack on multiculturalism.

Zero-tolerance on FGM doesn’t have to be an attack on multiculturalism

A reminder that change works best from within, and the role that governments, organizations and people can play in making these kinds of cultural changes. Much more productive than just labelling cultures and religions. How best to encourage such dialogue in a way that engages, rather than dismisses, is the challenge:

The problem is that many on both sides of the debate feel they have to pick a side. That supporting multiculturalism is somehow inconsistent with supporting rights for minorities – including women. But we know that cultures are not as fixed and unchanging as powerful advocates within them may like to make out – they shape themselves to the conditions around them, to social and economic imperatives, and they often liberalise rapidly in new worlds and environments by combining a healthy recognition of traditions, backgrounds and cultural practices with new and modernised interpretations of what it means to belong to that culture in a globalising world.

We also know that change within cultures can only happen when advocates and allies within those cultures are empowered to change minds and hearts around them – and this is where governments must focus their efforts when tackling such problems. The most powerful voices are always those on the inside, not the outside – and governments would do well to work with those voices in order to amplify them.

That has been the real success of the campaign on FGM – its increased visibility in the past two years, and the way in which it has made voices more prominent. Campaigners such as Leyla Hussain, an FGM survivor from the campaign group Daughters of Eve are so important for this very reason, as are political advocates such as Jennette Arnold AM and Diane Abbott MP – who have campaigned on this issue and taken a strong position of leadership for some years. All three of these speakers were present at a meeting of the Fabian Women’s Network last week. Abena Oppong-Asare, who chaired the discussion spoke eloquently about the role FGM has played in regulating women’s bodies, desires and self-expression in different cultures.

It is in this direction (of leadership, advocacy and dialogue with communities) that governments must look – if they are to reconcile protecting rights of individuals with the objection that cultural practices are a no-go area for policy makers because those policy makers “just don’t understand”.

New Statesman | Zero-tolerance on FGM doesn’t have to be an attack on multiculturalism.