A cultural practice without a medical basis, which leaves women with long-term health risks, female genital mutilation (FGM) has affected at least 200 million women around the world. But while it is most prevalent in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, women in Denmark are also at risk.
Sadly, there is no statistical evidence to clarify exactly how large an issue FGM is in Denmark, which limits the ability of parliament, health professionals and civil society to take action. This lack of information was supposed to be addressed after Denmark signed the European Council’s Istanbul Convention in 2011.
The convention commits signatories to protect women against any act of violence and take the necessary legislative steps to prevent, investigate and punish the offenders.
Five years on and still no statistical studies have been made to survey how many women in Denmark have undergone – or are at risk of undergoing – FGM. The government’s action plan for combating FGM, has also not been updated since 2010.
By failing to live up to its obligations, Denmark is therefore violating the convention, explains Christopher Badse, director of the monitoring department at The Danish Institute for Human Rights.
“As there is no data available, our opinion is that Denmark does not have the required overview and is thereby failing one of its areas of responsibilities,” says Badse, adding that if FGM is to be properly combated in Denmark, it is essential to have data to work from.
“We believe that it is necessary to have the right basis of evidence in order to be able to come up with the correct initiatives to combat FGM.”
20,000 at risk
Despite a lack of official statistics, it is possible to estimate the extent of the problem in Denmark. According to Danmarks Statistik, in 2014 there were 17,500 women resident in Denmark who originate from the 28 African countries in which there is a strong tradition for FGM. Within that group were 8,500 women from Somalia where 98 percent of the female population has undergone FGM, according to UNICEF.
Lena Nyhus, head of the anti-FGM organisation Intact Denmark, says as many as 20,000 women in Denmark have either undergone FGM or are at risk of it. The number could be significantly higher if female immigrants and descendants from non-African countries, where FGM is known to take place, are also included.
“The UN is neither interested in the well-hidden FGM culture in Pakistan, nor the very visible one in Indonesia, which makes it impossible to get access to any data from that area in a country like Denmark,” she says, adding that the problem is likely growing in Denmark.
“We know from countries like Sweden, Norway and the UK – where the interest in the area has been a lot bigger – that FGM is a growing issue. The reason for the growth is that implementation of legislation has been either weak or, in countries like Denmark, non-existennt,” she explains.
While Nyhus calls for more statistical research in the area, she also calls for a larger focus on children’s rights in general, as she considers this the best tool to defeat FGM.
“Of course we need to have data and it is utterly bizarre that we are not living up to the convention we have signed. However, I just want to stress that the data cannot stand on its own. A broader effort is required,” she says.
Difficult to estimate
Els Leye is an assistant professor at The University of Ghent where she is a coordinator for the Focal Programme on Harmful Cultural Practices at the International Centre for Reproductive Health. She has studied FGM since 2008 and is one of the leading European experts in the field.
She has developed a model that provides a very rough estimate of the number of women residing in Denmark that have suffered FGM. However, the model does not take into account the women and girls who are at risk.
“Estimating the number of women with FGM is always difficult because of the fact that it is a very personal and controversial subject. The number I have come to is roughly 8,000. These are the ones with FGM, not the ones at risk,” says Leye.
No European overview
End FGM European Network is a European umbrella organisation consisting of 15 different anti-FGM NGOs whose goal is to draw attention to the issue on the European level. Spokesperson Natalie Kontoulis agrees with Nyhus’ estimate of the extent of the issue in Denmark, based on the number of immigrants and descendants from countries with a long-running tradition of FGM.
She argues that current initiatives in Europe are insufficient to tackle the scale of the problem.
“It is incredibly hard to find any data on the area – not just in Denmark but in many European countries. This is due to the fact that many EU-governments simply do not accumulate data from the affected groups,” she says.
The European Parliament estimates that the number of women that have undergone FGM, which are living in the EU, could be as high as 500,000. The parliament also estimates that a further 180,000 women and girls are at risk of undergoing FGM every year.
“We consider those numbers to be grossly underestimated. The actual amount is much, much higher,” says Kontoulis, adding that while a number of initiatives are in place in EU-countries, many have not been implemented.
“The EU and the European Council have initiatives in place to combat FGM, but because of the financial crisis and the refugee crisis, they have never been properly put into place by the member states. Teachers, nurses, lawyers and employees in asylum centres need to be properly trained to talk to affected persons and, of course, in treating them. This is not currently happening.”
Kontoulis argues that for FGM to be adequately combated, better legislation and greater awareness is needed. But this is only possible following a thorough overview of the current situation.
“I think the best thing to do is to check people who arrive in European Council member countries, from countries with a tradition of FGM traditions. We need to make sure that gynaecologists, nurses and doctors are trained in registering and treating women who either have been or are at risk of being subjected to FGM.”
She also calls for better transnational cooperation in the area.
“In order to really combat the issue it is necessary for all signatories to agree on a single way of implementing the convention. It is possible that the EU can help with finding the best way of implementing the convention, but in the end it is up to the individual states and as of now it is simply not a high-priority issue.”
Six charged in Denmark
Ulla Sandbæk, MP for Alternativet, says she is disappointed by Denmark’s inaction.
“The Alternative is of course highly critical of the fact that Denmark is not living up to its obligations. We will consult the relevant minister on the matter, and continue to work toward ensuring that the Convention on the Rights of a Child, which bans FGM, is implemented in Danish law.”
Sandbæk pressed Justice Minister Søren Pind on the issue in a parliamentary question. He answered that Denmark ratified the Istanbul Convention in 2014. He added that it is illegal under Danish law to perform FGM, which carries a six year sentence, and that between 2012 and 2015 the National Police charged five individuals with the offence.
“The Justice Ministry does not have any information about how many people are at risk of FGM in Denmark or in their parent’s homeland,” Pind wrote. M