Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation

Marinela Stefanc, Elisabeth Cook, Mary Hinterleitner
March 27, 2017 - UN, Vienna  

8th Vienna Global Citizen Education Conference with the Global Women's Peace Network

Despite considerable effort to raise awareness of female genital mutilation (FGM) for decades, it continues to exist. Countries of origin indicate a slow decrease, while western communities indicate an increase due to the influx of immigrants. This conference came about because of a young FGM victim who won the hearts of all present when she shared her powerful story at last year's annual "WFWP Young Women's Speech Contest" in London.


The conference was opened by Mrs. Carolyn Handschin, UN Office Director of WFWPI, who explained that FGM breaks trust between parents and children, future leaders and their communities.  This very complex and traumatic practice needs to be eliminated sensibly within the framework of restoring dignity within families and the development of communities. Ultimately, all parties need to be convinced through education and with compassion that the eradication of this practice is in the best interest of society.


H.E. Mr. Leigh Turner, British Ambassador to Austria and Permanent Representative to the UN in Vienna, gave the keynote speech. Mr. Turner stated that gender equality is a top priority in the UK and the SDGs are a necessary tool but need to be implemented. Policies are required to encourage equality and end violence against women and girls. The UK has invested £35 million in a program to end FGM within one generation and enable women and girls to live in a world free of violence.

H.E. Dr. Christine Stix Hackl, Permanent Mission to the UN from Austria, welcomed the conference participants and referred to the healthy "gender balance" in the audience. She stated that the practice of FGM deprives women and girls of sovereignty over their bodies; it is child abuse with serious physical and psychological consequences that hinder female development. Austria has been involved in stopping FGM both nationally and internationally.

Mag. Alexandra Grasl, Vice-chair of the Women's Health Department for the city of Vienna, expressed her gratitude for the invitation to address this topic and meet experts and those engaged with this subject. She stated that FGM is human violation of women and girls, frequently causing high-risk births. Mag. Grasl explained that local communities and governments play an important role, and how a Vienna hospital provides information for migrant Arabic and African women affected by FGM.

The first session was chaired by H.E. Olga Algayerova, Permanent Representative of Slovakia to UN Vienna, who introduced the most prominent UN and Regional Conventions that take a stand against FGM. The fight now stands with governments and civil society to apply these and protect our girls and women.

Ms. Valentine Nkayo, Moyatu Foundation, a Kenyan FGM survivor, addressed the same issue at WFWP's conference in Bratislava in November 2016. She described her move to Nottingham for her studies in 2014, and the lack of support for FGM survivors. She started an initiative, which now has members from 29 countries who hold monthly meetings to raise awareness of FGM and train health professionals. Partnerships have been set up with local MPs, police, refugee forums and schools to train young people and teachers. A survivors club has been set up to offer a safe place for women. Zero tolerance of FGM was first declared by Nottingham City. Nine other UK cities have followed suit. The Sheriff of Nottingham and Ms. Nkayo, who have been invited to address international conferences, will speak in Kenya in the framework of cultural and sport festivals.

Ms. Jackie Morris, Sheriff of Nottingham, met Ms. Nkayo at an African culture event. Ms. Nkayo shared her personal experience of FGM with the Sheriff, who was so moved that she determined to work to end the practice. She took a personal approach to the issue from the perspective of a mother and grandmother to end this child mutilation by educating parents and children. This led Nottingham City to declare zero tolerance of FGM and the practice has since been outlawed in the UK.  She advised those dealing with the issue in Europe to avoid punishment and incarceration for family members whenever possible, but to use the threat of legal action as a deterrent.

Councillor Anja Hagenauer, Deputy Mayor of Salzburg, who has worked for women's integration for 25 years, stated that FGM is also a problem in Europe, Austria and Salzburg. She was recently confronted by a concrete case of a 10-year-old Somalian girl who went to her country of origin over school vacation and returned "very different." The girl's teacher was finally persuaded to report the situation to the police. This experience and possibilities for prevention motivates her to have Salzburg declare zero tolerance of FGM.

Zhannat Kosmukhamedova, Prog. Officer, Gender+HIV, Law Enforcement + HIV, South Europe/Central Asia-UNODC, outlined the work of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, especially for women. While not working directly on FGM, there are many crosscutting issues that affect vulnerable girls and women. She raised the topic of SDG 3, "Ending the epidemic of AIDS by 2030," tuberculosis and other venereal diseases, among people using and injecting drugs

Lilly Sucharipa, President of UN Women National Committee of Austria, stated that an attack on one woman is an attack on all women and a violation of human rights. FGM continues because mothers, elders, religious leaders consider it necessary to avoid social stigmatization of their children. Laws are often not enforced due to a lack of financial resources and political will. Furthermore, illiteracy, poverty, patriarchal structures and deep stereotypes make it difficult to eradicate. Special NGOs in the field approach this topic best because they can work on the grassroots level. In Gambia, The Committee on Traditional Practice's organized a two-year program for 300 women, of whom 64% declared they would never practice FGM. The Permanent Mission of Kenya criminalizes FGM and failure to report it. In Vienna, approximately 2,000 women with FGM must give birth by Caesarian section.

The second session was chaired by Mrs. Carolyn Handschin, UN Office Director of WFWPI.


Mr. Mamadou Kone, MES, Mali, Aktion Regen introduced his initiative, which uses knowledge as a preventive tool against FGM. They train health personnel and cooperate with eight local Malian NGOs, community leaders, elected officials and local media to teach people about the consequences of FGM through lectures, home visits, counseling in villages and radio broadcasts in a language people understand. They also clarify the false concept that FGM prepares girls for acceptance in society. Other innovative activities include handcrafts and a film detailing the consequences of FGM.

Mag. Marijana Grandits, Academic Coordinator, Vienna Master of Arts in Human Rights, Vienna University, expressed gratitude to Ms. Nkoyo for her courage and recalled her own first encounter with FGM through a Senegalese dancer. She recounted legal initiatives made through Human Rights in a top-down approach, but stated that a multidisciplinary, holistic and bottom-up approach to change attitudes towards stereotypes and racism is preferable. She cited a recent study in Ethiopia that indicated that university-educated fathers advocated FGM for their daughters due to deep-rooted traditions and concluded that while women need empowerment, men need education.  

Ms. Christiane Ugbor of the African Women's Organization, Austria introduced the organisation, which was founded in 1996 to empower, integrate and strengthen African women in the fight against FGM. Ms. Ugbor listed important milestones between 1998 and 2020. Following a book presentation in 1998, an FGM Study was conducted in Austria, which led to an International FGM Conference in the UN Vienna in 2000. The Austrian Parliament passed a law prohibiting FGM in 2002, and by 2005, a counter campaign was under way, using teaching materials while taking a multilateral approach based on ethnic and religious backgrounds. An FGM Counseling Centre was opened in Austria in 2005, and by 2009, action plans were developed to prevent and eliminate FGM in the EU. Since 2016 the EU Daphne Project, CHAT (Changing Attitudes Fostering Dialogue) has trained positive agents in communities through workshops with entrepreneurs and development agencies to prevent FGM.

Dr. Slawomir Redo, Senior Adviser, Academic, Academic Council on the UN System (Vienna, Austria) spoke on "Urban safety as FGM issue." He expressed his concern for urban safety and the timely issue involving the dignity and integrity of women. Using the acronym FGM positively ("Focus on Girl's Mind") he referred to Vienna as a multicultural and pluralistic city, but highlighted the need for change in some monoculture kindergartens to allow children to experience a multicultural environment. He coined another term for the acronym FGM, "Finally, Girls Matter." He referred to cases of domestic violence, rape, FGM and improper assault against girls where the attackers run free. To deal with such issues, women need empowerment through education, commencing in kindergartens where girls are treated as global citizens. He concluded that city representatives should face these challenges when working to create safer and inclusive cities.

Mrs. Carolyn Handschin, UN Office Director of WFWPI, described a WFWP initiative in Kenya where women missionaries offered a weeklong education programme for traditional FGM surgeons, girls and their parents. Other educational programs were offered to community elders, including religious leaders. This was an example of a best practice that could only be successful due to local knowledge and the recognition that each community affected receive education specific to their role. The traditional surgeons received alternative professional training and were willing to leave their traditional work. Eight left after the first year and twenty-four in the following year.