Giselle Portenier is a Vancouver-based journalist and filmmaker
Not long ago, I sat with Hadija (not her real name), a young Canadian woman, tears streaming down her face, as she told me about her summer holiday back to her birthplace in Somalia, where she came face to face with a razor blade in a mud hut and was forced to endure female genital mutilation at the age of 14.
Wednesday is International Zero Tolerance Day for female genital mutilation (FGM) with activities worldwide, but in Canada it will again be greeted with a deafening silence. This, despite the fact that the Canadian government knows Hadija’s case is not unique; FGM is an issue here too. Government documents released to journalists under the Freedom of Information Act show that thousands of Canadian girls may be at risk of this torture.
There’s evidence girls are taken abroad for “vacation cutting,” and that “cutters” with their razor blades are entering Canada to do their dirty work here; and yet our government, much of civil society and the media remain silent.
FGM is the single worst systematic human-rights abuse committed against girls and women in the world today. It predates both Islam and Christianity and is defined as the alteration of the female genitalia for non-medical purposes. It’s an extreme form of sexual control of girls, and is a fact of life in 28 countries in Africa, and elsewhere too; in Asia – Indonesia, Malaysia, parts of India; pockets of the Middle East, including Egypt; pockets of South America; Iranian and Iraqi Kurdistan; and now, with immigration from practising countries, in the West.
The most serious type of FGM, practised almost universally in Somalia where many Canadian immigrants hail from, involves removing the external part of the clitoris, the labia minora and majora, and then sewing everything shut, leaving only a tiny opening. It’s not difficult to grasp the serious health implications that result – post-traumatic stress, difficulty and excruciating pain passing urine and menstrual blood, complications in childbirth – even death. Never mind the right to pain-free, joyful sexual intimacy that every human being is entitled to.
According to the World Health Organization, there are 200 million FGM survivors worldwide, and more than three million girls at risk each year. Some of those girls are right here in Canada; recently a teacher in Greater Vancouver told me of a mother who confessed to having taken her own daughter to India to be cut; the teacher did nothing.
There’s been a law against FGM in Canada since 1997, but there hasn’t been a single prosecution. Unlike other Western countries, in Canada there are no protocols to save girls from FGM; no training for teachers, no systems in place to spot girls – and save girls – who are in danger. For survivors who came here already cut – and that includes young women who arrived here as small children – there is virtually no specialized help. No specific counselling, no specially trained doctors, nurses or midwives. Nothing. Contrast this with other Western countries: In Britain, survivor activists have forced the government into action. There are now helplines for girls at risk; specialized clinics for survivors; training for teachers to spot vulnerable girls; a mandatory reporting requirement of FGM cases for all health and social-services professionals and teachers. And just last week, they had their first conviction, of a mother who forced her three-year-old daughter to undergo FGM.
In Canada, there aren’t even any official statistics analyzing the scope of the issue.
An informal analysis of the 2011 Canadian Census looking at immigration from affected countries and UNICEF statistics on the prevalence of FGM indicates there may be upward of 80,000 survivors of FGM in Canada, and yet this is not an issue addressed by any government department. This distinct lack of action is fuelled in part by fear of stigmatizing the communities involved, and is encouraged by the adults of the communities themselves, who enforce a strict code of silence. The silence is also the by-product of cultural relativists – mostly white – who argue that FGM is a cultural prerogative, when in fact it’s an unacceptable abuse of a girl’s human rights, plain and simple. Indeed, in Africa the campaign to end FGM is driven by Africans themselves.
So far, no Canadian survivor has galvanized action on FGM. But that is no excuse for inaction. We are completely failing Canadian girls: those at risk, and young survivors such as Hadija crying out for help. It is a disgrace. By worrying so much about the cultural sensitivities of the adults, we are sacrificing the human rights of the children.