The 30th of November 2020, I was invited by ‘Veilig Thuis’ in Amsterdam to organize an online workshop for Dutch professionals about FGM/C, with a specific invitation to explain the criminalization of FGM/C in the Netherlands. I developed the content of this online workshop together with Marthine Bos, trainer and advisor specialized in intercultural communication.
Veilig Thuis (Safe at Home) is the Dutch national central body for the reporting of and advise on domestic violence and child abuse, and thus a very important actor in combatting and preventing FGM/C in the Netherlands. Not only employees of Veilig Thuis were attending this webinar, but we were also joined by policemen, primary school directors, General Practitioners, health professionals, NGOs and by employees of Municipal Health Services. Many people joined (about 200!) and our workshop was recorded live in the Amsterdam Public Library (OBA) that was closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, but open for us!
In short, we started the workshop with a presentation of Marthine in which she gave a general introduction to FGM/C. Afterwards, I gave a presentation where I zoomed in to the legal aspects of FGM/C. We concluded with a panel discussion with Abdikarim Mohamud. He is a so-called ‘key person’ (sleutelpersoon) for the Federation of Somali Associations in the Netherlands (FSAN), which means that he advocates against FGM/C in his own community in the Netherlands. In addition, 'key persons' can help professionals when a girl is at risk of FGM/C or women who have undergone the practice (and need medical support) to start the conversation or to be the 'intermediair'. Participants were able to ask questions between sessions, which was great, as I always like interactive workshops! Especially at times of COVID-19 this might be hard sometimes, but we managed to find a way. The technical crew in the OBA was very kind and professional and I was very happy that it all went very smooth.
Introduction to FGM/C
Marthine presented to the audience how she first was confronted with the practice of FGM/C while working as a nurse in Sudan. Marthine then continued to explain the different parts of the world where FGM/C is prevalent and the multitude of beliefs on which the practice can be build. Marthine also explained how in the Netherlands women and girls are living with FGM/C and that in next 20 years an estimated 4.200 girls are at risk of being subjected to FGM/C. Marthine also showed the audience how the different types of FGM/C affect the female genitalia and what consequences this can have.
After Marthine's presentation, it was my turn to tell the audience more about the criminal legal consequences of FGM/C in the Netherlands and what risks the COVID-19 pandemic may present to girls-at-risk who currently live in the Netherlands. I started my presentation by underlining that the Netherlands has a zero-tolerance approach to FGM/C: all types and forms are prohibited. But there is no specific provision on FGM/C in the Dutch Penal Code, nor a specific law criminalizing FGM/C in the Netherlands. That is because the Dutch Law is based on the principle of 'generality' under which several types of behaviour can fall under a single article. More specifically, FGM/C falls under the general crime of mistreatment ('mishandeling' in Dutch). I explained that there haven't been any convictions yet in the Netherlands for FGM/C, and therefore we don't know what type of mistreatment FGM/C would qualify for. However, because of the severity of the harm done and the fact that the perpetrator willingly accepts the likely consequences of his/her actions when performing or ordering FGM/C, the practice most like amounts to severe mistreatment, the more serious form.
In case of severe mistreatment, actions like 'trying to perform' FGM/C or 'preparing' FGM/C are also criminal actions in the Netherlands. I also explained the difference between co-perpetration and being an accessory to the crime. A co-perpetrator does not need to be present when FGM/C is performed, but what is important is that the co-perpetrator intensely worked together with the perpetrator with the intention of committing the crime, in this case FGM/C. We also discussed whether the age of the victim or any consent given by the victim were relevant to the question of whether someone who performs FGM/C is punishable. And no, whether or not someone consents to FGM/C, or even actively wants it (and starts looking for someone to perform it): performing FGM/C is a criminal offence. This means that the law can limit what people can do to themselves. If a doctor performs FGM/C on a young or adult woman, who free from any external pressure decided she want to undergo FGM/C, is still punishable and commits a crime when he performs FGM/C.
I also explained which punishments are applicable when someone is convicted for FGM/C in the Netherlands: fines up to €87.000,00 and a maximum of 16 years imprisonment for premediated severe mistreatment of one’s own child. At the end of my presentation, we tested the audience with some questions during a short quiz and were happy to see that almost everyone got every question correct! But maybe we were even more happy to see that participants started to discuss the application of the law they had just learned about in the chatbox; the law is almost never black and white and there are a lot of nuances and details that can have big consequences for its application. It was nice to see how the attendants picked up on this and really interacted with the material!
After my presentation, Marthine and I interviewed Abdikarim Mohamud. Abdikarim grew up in Somalia, but now he lives in the Netherlands and is active as a ‘key person’ for FSAN, advocating against FGM/C acting as a bridge between the communities that come from 'risk countries' in the Netherlands and relevant Dutch authorities and organizations.
He started by underlining that FGM/C is not just a female issue. As many men may like to say: “As a father, I am responsible for my daughter!” Abdikarim explained that FGM/C persists even today as a combination of cultural and religious factors. He told us that there is a saying meaning “to reject your culture is to invoke the wrath of God,” motivating people to continue with the practice, and sparking communal pressure. He explained how one has to be brave to stand up to the external pressure, particularly that of one’s mother, who is very important in Somali culture. He decided that he would tell his mother that he would not perform FGM/C on his children long before his first daughter was even born, so that she could get used to the idea, and even then she told him: “You have become westernized!” Luckily, this did not cause a rift between Abdikarim and his mother. Abdikarim then told us about how he gets the conversation about FGM/C started within his community. He also explained that the majority people react positively. Abdikarim also shared some critique, especially on the important role of Imams and other religious leaders. He explained that he believes that they should take more responsibility in this debate, as they often say that FGM/C is a female issue.
It was a very informative session and I hope that all 200 participants enjoyed our online workshop!