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Doc. 9076

3 May 2001

Female genital mutilation


Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men

Rapporteur: Mrs Ruth–Gaby Vermot-Mangold, Switzerland, Socialist Group


Every year, two million women prepare to give birth knowing that they are at risk because they have suffered genital mutilation.

Moreover, the practice appears to increase in Council of Europe member states, especially among immigrant communities.

The committee is therefore of the opinion that these practices should be regarded as inhuman and degrading treatment within the meaning of Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights and recalls that it is a matter of urgency to make a distinction between the need to tolerate and protect minority cultures and turning a blind eye to customs that amount to torture.

The Assembly invites the member states to introduce specific legislation prohibiting genital mutilation and declaring it to be a violation of human rights and body integrity and to adopt more flexible measures for granting the right of asylum to mothers and their children who are afraid to be subjected to such practices.

I.        Draft resolution

1.       The Assembly recalls and reaffirms Resolution 1018 (1994) and Recommendation 1229 (1994) on equality of rights between men and women and the Declaration on equality of women and men adopted by the Committee of Ministers on 16 November 1988. It recalls also the European Convention on the exercise of children’s rights (1996) as well as Recommendation 1371 (1998) on banning the abuse and neglect of children.

2.       The Assembly also refers to Articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 12.1 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and Article 16 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

3.       The Assembly also endorses the position of World Health Organisation, Unicef, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the UN Commission on Human Rights, which have described genital mutilation as torture and called for it to be banned and the perpetrators prosecuted in accordance with the 1994 Cairo UN Convention and the 1995 Beijing Platform.

4.       The Assembly declares that the universal principles of respect for individuals and their inalienable right to bodily integrity, as well as complete equality between men and women, must take precedence over customs and traditions.

5. Every year, two million women prepare to give birth knowing they are at risk because they have suffered genital mutilation. Moreover, the practice appears to be becoming increasingly common in Council of Europe member states, especially among immigrant communities.

6.       It is therefore a matter of urgency to make a distinction between the need to tolerate and protect minority cultures and turning a blind eye to customs that amount to torture and inhuman or barbaric treatment of the type the Council of Europe wishes to eradicate.

7.       Genital mutilation should be regarded as inhuman and degrading treatment within the meaning of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, even if carried out under hygienic conditions by competent personnel.

8.       The Assembly underlines the serious consequences for the victims, in particular the direct impact on their physical health of infections caused by lack of hygiene leading to diseases such as Aids, in addition to serious psychological complications.

9.       It condemns the increase in the number of forced marriages, which make girls even more vulnerable, and virginity tests.

10.       In this connection, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) will have a key role to play in combating genital mutilation by enabling girls and young women to become involved in local communities and helping devise prevention programmes and information campaigns aimed at eradicating the practice.

11.       The Assembly calls on the governments of member states:

i.       to introduce specific legislation prohibiting genital mutilation and declaring genital mutilation to be a violation of human rights and bodily integrity;

ii. to take steps to inform all people about the legislation banning the practice before they enter Council of Europe member states;

iii. to adopt more flexible measures for granting asylum right to mothers and their children who are afraid to be subjected to such practices;

iv. to adopt specific time limits for prosecution that enable the victims to go to court when they reach the age of majority, and to grant organisations the right to bring actions;

v. to prosecute the perpetrators and their accomplices, including family members and health personnel, on criminal charges of violence leading to mutilation and also for crimes committed abroad;

vi.       to conduct information and public awareness raising campaigns to inform health personnel, refugee groups and all groups concerned by this question about the dangerous consequences of genital mutilation for the health, physical well-being and dignity of the women concerned and their right to personal fulfilment and about the customs and traditions that are in contradiction with human rights;

vii.       to introduce sex education classes in schools and all relevant groups to inform young people about the consequences of genital mutilation;

viii.       to make sure that any marriages involving young girls under marriageable age are preceded by interviews between the girls concerned and an administrative or judicial authority to ensure that the girls have given their full consent to the marriages;

ix.       to ratify, as a matter of priority, the international conventions with a view to harmonising legislation on women’s rights, in particular the European Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and to make sure to avoid at the reserves.

II.       Explanatory memorandum by Mrs Vermot-Mangold


1.       From 4 to 6 November 1999 the Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men held a seminar in Bari on violence and one of the items was the issue of genital mutilation. In their conclusions, the participants asked the committee to draw up a report specifically on this matter.

2.       Pursuant to this request, the committee organised a hearing on 29 February 2000 for NGOs and persons directly concerned by the issue.

3.       Every year two million women all over the world prepare to give birth in the knowledge that they are at risk because they have suffered genital mutilation.

4.       Genital mutilation appears to be increasingly common in Canada and the United States, especially among immigrant communities and several cases have come to the attention of the authorities in Council of Europe member states.

5.       Mutilation is practised in almost thirty African countries and among a few minority communities in Asia. It is especially common in Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan. In Djibouti and Somalia 98% of girls are affected.

6. The two most widespread types of mutilation are excision (80%) and infibulation (15%).

7. Excision involves ablation of a large part of the clitoris and the labia minora. This form of mutilation is practised above all by tribes in West Africa. It might be compared with sectioning the penis of the boys.

8. Infibulations involves excision of the clitoris and labia minora and sectioning of the labia majora, the two remaining flaps being brought together in such a way that only a tiny opening remains for evacuation of urine and menstrual flow. The place of the vulva is taken by heavy scar tissue, which must be cut at marriage and childbirth. Infibulation is characteristic of East Africa.

9. One type of infibulation peculiar to West Africa entails leaving the labia majora intact but drawing the reduced labia minora together so that the vagina is closed off almost entirely.

10. There are still other forms of excision, including vaginal introcision, the introduction of corrosive substances or plants into the vagina in order to cause bleeding or reduce its size, pricking or perforation of the clitoris and cauterisation by burning the clitoris.

11. These operations, which last some fifteen or twenty minutes, are generally carried out by a traditional excisor, usually the community headwoman, with crude instruments and without anaesthetic. Among the wealthier classes they are sometimes performed in hospitals by qualified staff.

12. The age at which mutilation is carried out varies according to ethnic group and locality. It may concern babies no more than a few days old or girls between four and ten years of age. Sometimes it is delayed until adolescence, and on occasion it takes place at marriage or during the first pregnancy.

13. All these forms of mutilation are irreversible and damaging to health, and they all have lifelong consequences.

14. There are numerous known reasons for mutilation. They include:

      –ps       ycho-sexual reasons such as curbing sexual desire in women, ensuring their chastity and virginity before marriage and their faithfulness thereafter and enhancing male pleasure in sex;–

      –so       ciological reasons such as cultural custom, female rites of passage, membership of the community and the maintenance of social cohesion;–

      –re       asons of cleanliness or aesthetics. The external female genitalia are removed because they are deemed to be dirty and ugly;–

      –my       th: mutilation is said to increase fertility and improve children’s chances of survival;–

      –re       ligious reasons: mutilation is practised by Muslim, Christian, animist and even atheist communities.I.

I.       Consequences for the victims

15.       Genital mutilation seriously compromises women’s health and gravely undermines their physical well-being. It brings both short-term and long-term consequences, with the immediate effects being intense pain, shock and haemorrhage. The health consequences of the practice, which is often carried out under primitive and unhygienic conditions, range from serious infections to disabling or even fatal obstetric complications.

16.       Direct effects are also dependent on the technique employed, the identity of the excisor, considerations of hygiene and the girl’s physical health.

A.       Physical and psychological health consequences

17. As mentioned above, most mutilation is carried out without anaesthetic. Even where anaesthetic is available it is difficult to apply it to the entire area affected. The use of sharp instruments also carries the risk of perforation or tearing in adjacent tissue and organs. This occurs very frequently in girls who are agitated by pain or fear.

18. Girls who have suffered genital mutilation often develop trauma. However, one of the most widespread consequences is infection owing to unhygienic conditions and the application of substances harbouring bacteria, leading to fever, abscesses and urinary and pelvic infections, and even to tetanus, gangrene or septicaemia. Clitoral excision may also cause repeated haemorrhaging leading to anaemia or death.

19. The long-term consequences most frequently observed are cysts and abscesses, lesions in the urinary tract, the risk of sterility and adverse effects on sexuality.

20. Young women also experience a range of problems when they fall pregnant, especially when the time comes to give birth. Premature births are common, as is an increased risk of maternal death and still-born children.

21. In addition, young women who have suffered infibulation must have the process reversed before they can give birth. Defibulation is another possible cause of haemorrhage and infection.

22. Genital mutilation can have lifelong effects. Psychological complications may be driven deeply into the subconscious, resulting in behavioural problems. Another consequence may be a loss of faith in medical staff.

23. In the longer term, the psychological consequences often involve depression and post-traumatic stress or even prostration, anxiety, chronic irritability, violent or suicidal behaviour and frigidity, as well as alcoholism and drug addiction. The victims lose all confidence in those close to them and experience relationship difficulties not only with adults but also with their children. They generally feel as though they had been raped.

24.       More recently it has become evident that mutilation carries the risk of transmitting the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) when the same instrument is used for several operations. In cases where infibulation precludes vaginal penetration, anal intercourse is practised, resulting in lesions which also favour HIV transmission.

B.       Consequences relating to social status

25.       The practice of genital mutilation turns girls into “invalids” who can be kept in their home communities and encouraged to accept husbands chosen for them from the same background.

26.       One indirect social consequence of genital mutilation is forced marriage.

27.       However, the distinction must be made between forced and arranged marriage. The principal difference resides in the freedom of choice.

28.       Traditionally, in the case of arranged marriage families select the prospective spouse but leave the final decision to the parties concerned, who are consequently free to accept or reject the person chosen.

29.       In forced marriage there is no such freedom of choice.

30.       This practice, which is to be condemned, cannot be justified on any religious or cultural grounds. Both parties’ freedom of consent is an essential precondition for Christian, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh marriages.

31.       In most cases where parents compel their children to marry the person whom they have chosen, they do so for cultural or religious reasons, for the sake of family or tribal honour or in order to control their daughters’ sexual behaviour. The trauma which they have suffered greatly increases girls’ vulnerability and, as mentioned above, their psychological and social fragility, causing them to lose confidence in themselves and in others. Consequently, it is natural for them to accept the husband chosen for them by their families.

32.       This submissive attitude is also part and parcel of the feeling that they have been physically defiled.

II.       Instruments for tackling the problem of mutilation

A.       At national level

a.       The situation in industrialised countries

33.       Legislation prohibiting excision has been introduced in three Council of Europe member states – Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom – with a large immigrant population from countries where the practice exists. Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States have also introduced legislation.

34.       France has used legislation against acts of violence leading to mutilation to prosecute those practising excision and parents allowing their daughters to suffer mutilation.

35.       Belgium has drafted a bill to prohibit the practice.

36.       In addition, Belgium, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom have organised and funded educational and awareness-raising campaigns, as have Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States.

b.       The situation in Africa

37.       Efforts have been made in Africa to prohibit excision. A number of countries (Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Egypt, Ghana, Guinea, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania and Togo) have passed laws criminalising the practice, and there are moves to follow suit in Benin and Uganda. Furthermore, many African countries have organised educational and awareness-raising campaigns.

B.       At international level

a.       International treaties and declarations made by international organisations

38. The complications arising from genital mutilation and affecting sexuality and reproductive health amount to a violation of women’s health rights and a violation of their right to physical and mental wellbeing.

39. Genital mutilation must also be considered an infringement of children’s rights, since it is an act of violence and an assault on their physical integrity.

40. The protection and promotion of female health have also been the subject of several United Nations treaties and declarations.

41. Children’s and women’s rights are thus protected under several international instruments which include provisions for action to be taken against the practice of mutilation.

42. Guarantees on health rights are contained in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 12 (1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and Article 16 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

43. Recommendations concerning genital mutilation also formed part of the Programme of Action of the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development, in which governments were encouraged to introduce measures aimed at bringing the practice to an end.

44. Finally, the Platform for Action approved by the United Nations member states represented at the World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995) denounced and condemned the practice of female genital mutilation, which states undertook to eradicate.

45. As regards the more specific issue of the genital mutilation of children and infants, Article 2 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child enshrines the right to gender equality, while Article 19.1 provides for the right to protection from all forms of physical or mental violence and maltreatment.

46. Article 24 (3) of the same Convention stipulates that states must take appropriate measures with a view to abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children.

47. Reference might also be made, in combating this practice, to certain provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, since it has often been pointed out that genital mutilation leads to inequality between women and men.

b.       The European Convention on Human Rights

48. According to Articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, “everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law” and “no one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. This clearly demonstrates an intention to assert protection for human beings’ physical integrity.

49. The Court in Strasbourg has often given a broad interpretation of the concept of inhuman and degrading treatment, defining it in particular as treatment deliberately intended to cause especially intense mental or physical suffering and inspiring feelings of fear, distress and inferiority.

50. Thus it was that the Commissioner for the French Government was able in 1996 to demonstrate that excision fell within the definition of inhuman treatment. To date, however, no cases relating to genital mutilation have been referred to the Court.

51. Article 3 of the ECHR may also apply in the case of foreigners being deported or removed from the country, who cannot be repatriated if it is shown that a threat exists to their life, liberty or physical safety.

52. However, it has become apparent in specific cases of genital mutilation that victims have often had great difficulty providing concrete evidence.

53. In this connection, victims are required to prove that they belong to an ethnic group that practises excision and that they will be unable to escape family pressure once they return to their country.

54. None the less, it is relevant in this regard to recall the 1996 case in which the United States Board of Immigration Appeals ruled that a young Togolese woman at risk of excision should be awarded the protection of the US authorities. It did this after studying a report on excision in Africa, threats to the freedom of African women, acts of physical violence and the social ostracism facing those who refuse to submit to such treatment.

III.       Recommendations

A.       Information, education and training

55. The most critical measures for eliminating the practice of mutilation, besides publicity about its prohibition, would appear to be preventive measures and education.

56. In this connection, many associations and NGOs have begun to organise education, training and prevention projects among immigrant communities.

57. A crucial part of such activities is to inform families that such practices are illegal and that those who carry them out or are accessory to them run the risk of prosecution.

58. One of the first goals must be to remove taboos.

59. Families and, more especially, women must be helped to break the silence and encouraged to speak out publicly about the consequences of mutilation.

60. These consequences should also be brought to the attention of men in an effort to make them aware that their wives may face health and sex-related problems.

61. It is just as crucial that information about the physical and psychological consequences should be presented in a culturally acceptable manner.

62. In this regard, schools and medical and family planning centres are very important channels for disseminating information and making women aware that they have the same rights as their husbands.

B.        National policies and legislation

63. In order to eliminate these practices, governments must first ratify the relevant international agreements and ensure that their legislation on women’s rights is compliant.

64. Member states must also take the necessary steps to ensure that genital mutilation is considered a violation of human rights and an assault on physical integrity.

65. Measures should be taken to hold trials in camera so that witnesses are not subject to pressure from their families, to ease the burden of proof by extending time-limits for bringing proceedings and to offer victims the opportunity of free legal representation.

66. Member states should also take action in the field of immigration policy and make all necessary information available when visas are granted in countries of origin and upon arrival in the host country.

C.       Action by international organisations

67. International organisations and NGOs have a key role to play in combating genital mutilation.

68.       Above all, organisations should become involved with local communities and help them, chiefly by arranging round-tables, workshops and seminars, to organise prevention and information campaigns.

Reporting committee: Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men

Reference to committee: Doc 8370, Reference No. 2378 of 26 April 1999

Draft resolution unanimously adopted by the committee on 26 April 2001.

Members of the committee: Mrs Err (Chairperson), Mrs Aguiar (1st Vice-Chairperson), Mr Hadjidemetriou (2nd Vice-Chairman), Mrs Keltosova (3rd Vice-Chairperson), Mrs Auken, Mrs Biga-Friganovic, Mrs Castro (Mrs Lopez-Gonzalez), Mrs Cryer, Mrs Dade, Mrs Dromberg, Mrs Druziuk, Ms Faldet, Mrs Freitag, Mrs Freyberg, Mrs Frimannsdóttir, Mrs Gatterer, Ms Granlund, Ms Gülek, Ms Hadjiyeva, Ms Herczog, Mrs Hornikova (Mr Mezihorak), Ms Jones (Mr Etherington), Mr Juri, Mrs Katseli, Mrs Kestelijn-Sierens, Mr Kiely (Mr Connor), Mrs Lakhova, Mrs Laternser, Mrs Mikutiene, Mr Neuwirth, Mr Olteanu, Mrs Paegle, Mrs Patarkalishvili, Ms Patereu, Mr Popovski, Mrs Poptodorova, Mrs Pozza Tasca, Mr Pullicino Orlando, Mr Riccardi, Mrs Roudy, Mrs Rupprecht, Mrs Serafini, Mr Volodin, Mrs Zapfl-Helbling (Mrs Vermot-Mangold), Mrs Zwerver.

N.B. The names of the members who took part in the meeting are printed in italics.

Secretaries of the committee: Mrs Nollinger, Ms Kostenko