PERPIGNAN, France (TrustLaw) - When a three-month-old girl bled to death in France after her genitals had been cut in 1982, a media outcry and the prosecution of the baby’s parents helped get Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) recognised as a crime. France has since led the way in punishing FGM with by far the largest number of convictions in Europe.
There have been more than 40 FGM trials in France, and two practitioners and more than 100 parents have been convicted. Although female genital cutting is banned across the European Union, only a handful of cases have gone to trial in other European countries.
Linda Weil-Curiel, a Paris-based lawyer who played a key role in the case against the baby’s Malian parents, says a combination of prevention and prosecution has significantly reduced genital mutilation in France.
Since the 1980s, she has campaigned for doctors to conduct routine genital checks on babies and young children, and successfully represented many FGM victims in court.
"Due to this prevention by doctors ... and the trials, the number of mutilations has largely decreased," Weil-Curiel says.
At first, she met with some resistance, particularly from immigrant communities, but this has changed to a growing realisation of the harm FGM causes. "Africans (in France) came to understand that what I was saying allowed the protection of their children. I was not accusing them," she says.
Weil-Curiel argues that respect for cultural customs - a commonly used justification for FGM, which is widespread in much of east and west Africa - amounts to discrimination against girl children. She believes this is a problem in countries like Britain where there have been no prosecutions.
"You don't want to hurt the feelings of immigrants or people of foreign origin. But what is more important – these people's feelings or the suffering of the victims? It is the responsibility of society to defend children," says the plain-speaking lawyer.
Accurate figures are hard to come by, but France is thought to be home to up to 30,000 women who have been cut, many of them among West African immigrant communities, with several thousand more girls deemed to be at risk.
Genital checks are not compulsory in France, but Weil-Curiel says they are "indispensable" in bringing successful prosecutions, because medical staff have a duty to report FGM to the authorities when they discover it.
The examinations are routinely performed in mother and infant protection centres in Paris and other cities, where doctors explain to parents why it is so important not to cut their daughters.
Today, some mothers obtain a doctor's certificate confirming their daughters have not had FGM before a visit to their country of origin, as a deterrent to family members who might think they should be cut while "on holiday", Weil-Curiel says.
Yet prevention alone is not enough, she stresses. "We know for sure that the fear of prosecution and trial is a deterrent also ... Prevention and judicial repression are the two sides of the coin," she says. "You have to do both - that is the way the families understand it."
Parents in France who don't want their daughters to be cut, yet feel unable to speak out against FGM can take shelter behind the law, she argues.
PROTECTION OF THE LAW
There is no specific piece of French legislation banning FGM, but it is a crime under articles of the Penal Code which deal with mutilation and abuse of minors.
Weil-Curiel says the French legal system makes it easier to bring FGM trials than in other countries because a young victim does not herself pursue her own parents through the justice system. She can be represented by a person named as her guardian by the judge, and relevant associations may also intervene.
Other key elements of successful prosecution are the handing down of non-suspended prison sentences and financial compensation for the victims, she says.
For Weil-Curiel, it is also crucial that cases are heard in France’s top criminal courts.
"That was my fight from the beginning ... because if (FGM) happened to a white, blue-eyed girl, it would cause a scandal. And as mutilation in (France's) Penal Code is one of the most serious crimes, there would be no question – the parents and the practitioners would be sent before the highest criminal court," she says.
The first FGM trial before the Cour d'Assises, a court that tries major crimes by judge and jury, was in May 1988, involving the death of another baby with Malian parents in 1983. It opened the door to many others.
"All children are alike, and they are all entitled to the same protection of the law," Weil-Curiel adds.
The largest lawsuit to be brought against FGM led to the conviction in 1999 of a practitioner, Hawa Gréou, and 25 parents who had asked her to cut their daughters.
The case was also the first triggered by a victim - an 18-year-old girl who had been cut 10 years earlier and recognised Gréou when she came round to operate on her sister.
"It was very courageous of her, and in court she was adamant - she said, 'My parents knew it was forbidden and they took us there pretending we were going to the doctors, and what we suffered was real torture'," recalls Weil-Curiel.
Despite the relative success of France's efforts against FGM, Weil-Curiel still sees the need to raise public awareness about the issue.
Although Weil-Curiel was instrumental in getting Gréou sentenced to eight years in prison, the two women have since teamed up to write a book telling Gréou's story, and they are now working on a film together.
Gréou told Weil-Curiel she had been trained to carry out circumcision by her grandmother and had thought she was doing her duty. But in prison, her revulsion at hearing of an ancient Nigerian custom in which twins were killed because they were seen as a curse had helped her understand why FGM is abhorrent to many French people.
"It is called a cultural act ... but it is not a beneficial one for the child,” says Weil-Curiel. “To cut them, to make them suffer, it is not an act of love – I can never accept that."
(Editing by Alex Whiting)
For more information on FGM in France and the book "Exciseuse", by Hawa Gréou, Linda Weil-Curiel and journalist Natacha Henry, visit the Commission to Abolish Sexual Mutilation website. Work is in progress on an English translation of the book.
Linda Weil-Curiel will be speaking about FGM at Trust Women, a global women’s rights conference hosted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and International Herald Tribune in London in December.
This article is part of a Thomson Reuters Foundation multimedia package on FGM.