Thousands of Canadian girls are at risk of female genital mutilation: officials
Canada is lagging far behind other developed countries in their efforts to prevent “vacation cutting,” experts say.
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Thousands of Canadian girls are at risk of female genital mutilation, government officials believe. And some are being taken overseas to have the dangerous procedure done — an illegal act known as “vacation cutting.”
Officials from the federal government’s Global Affairs Ministry warn that, as with forced marriage, the “one chance rule” applies to these cases, meaning a professional might get only one opportunity to speak to a potential victim and save her, according to documents obtained by the Star.
And yet Canada has done little to understand the scope of the problem and is lagging far behind other developed countries in efforts to prevent it, experts say.
“Based on the limited information available, it is possible that a few thousand Canadian girls are at risk, some of whom will be taken overseas for the procedure,” wrote Elaine Cukeric of the federal government’s Vulnerable Children’s Unit in a June 2015 email to a Canadian consular official in Nairobi, Kenya. At the time, the unit — tasked with dealing with issues related to Canadian children abroad — was reaching out to consulates in Africa, the Middle East, India and Pakistan where cutting is prevalent and asking for their experience dealing with the practice so that “we might develop an effective strategy.”
In a statement to the Star, a Global Affairs spokesperson said the federal government “recognizes that female genital mutilation/cutting is one of the most severe violations of the human rights of women and girls” and when made aware of a case they provide “appropriate consular services.” The spokesperson could not say how many cases her ministry has dealt with in recent years because they “do not have a specific category to track cases of (FGM)” and, further, are “not aware of any updated statistics on the issue of Canadian girls at risk.”
Female genital mutilation (FGM) — also known as female genital cutting or female circumcision — is a procedure that intentionally alters or causes injury to external female organs. It can be inflicted on girls as young as 1 and varies in severity from partial removal of the clitoris, to excising the clitoris and labia and stitching up the walls of the vulva to leave only a tiny opening — known as infibulation.
FGM has no health benefits for girls and women. It can cause severe bleeding, problems with urination and later cysts, infections, as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths, according to the World Health Organization. It can also deny women sexual pleasure. FGM affects more than 200 million women worldwide, according to UNICEF. It is a crime in Canada, as is sending a child elsewhere to have the procedure done.
What is unknown — beyond anecdotal evidence — is whether FGM is happening within Canadian borders. In the U.S., a doctor in Michigan was recently charged with carrying out the practice on up to 100 young girls, according to federal prosecutors, who say that no Canadian victims have been identified yet. There have also been cases in the U.K., France and Australia.
Cukeric’s email correspondence, and dozens of additional emails sent by government employees over the past three years and released to the Star through an access to information request, reference multiple cases the government is aware of in which Canadian girls have undergone or are alleged to have undergone cutting abroad.
Government officials reference summaries of specific cases they are aware of, which are housed in internal servers. Many of the cases arose because “a relative (aunt/cousin) was the complainant,” said a Nairobi official. A different consular official in Nairobi wrote that their office had seen “several cases, not all of them successful.” Other officials mention known cases in Somalia and Pakistan — where it is “understood they have a lot of experience dealing with” FGM cases.
In one email chain from September 2015, officials reference a case in which a “little girl” was “alleged to be removed from Canada for the purposes of female circumcision.” (The child’s location in Canada and the country she was allegedly taken to have both been redacted to protect her privacy.)
Local police and children’s services “were unable to prevent the girl from leaving,” said one email.
FGM is practised in 29 countries, mainly in Africa, the Middle East, India and other parts of Asia. It is seen by some as a rite of passage into womanhood or a condition of marriage. Though it is not considered an Islamic practice — it predates the religion — for some, it is a religious ritual or requirement and there is tremendous societal pressure placed on families to have it done.
In another document from June 2015 summarizing an hour-long phone call with a senior consular officer in Nairobi, the official describes the “very delicate cases” and focuses on Somalia as an example.
The official explains that many Somali families relocated to Canada during the civil war in the 1990s, and some grew “concerned about the development of Canadian values.” In one example, a family might tell their children they are going on vacation to Australia, but instead, according to the documents, they travel to a small, remote village in Somalia for the girls to be cut. The official adds that the Canadian government has found out about these cases because “having grown up in Canada, the girls know their rights” and use social media to tell a friend, who in turn contacts Canadian authorities.
The consular official then listed a series of challenges associated with intervening, including the “right of the father to prohibit movement” and the fact that locally engaged staff overseas “may be less concerned with FGM and therefore less likely to act.”
It is also very difficult for victims of FGM to speak out against their families, the official said, adding that telling the embassy their story means they might never see their parents or siblings again. “It becomes the most difficult decision of their young lives,” she said.
In another summary of a discussion about FGM with a Toronto-based expert whose identity has been censored, the expert tells the Vulnerable Children’s Unit that Global Affairs had previously received accounts of “some girls who have been severely beaten and/or sexually abused by family members prior to (FGM), sometimes due to the girl’s attempt to contact authorities for assistance.”
At the same time, officials acknowledge they likely aren’t seeing the majority of cases.
“I think (FGM) is highly under-reported at the consular level, as most victims are young … and often not in a position to help themselves,” said yet another consular official in Nairobi in an email sent in March of this year. She added that for older girls, “it is often done in conjunction with a forced marriage, so the two issues are closely linked and might be reported as (forced marriage) instead of (FGM).”
In 1997, the Criminal Code was amended to include female genital mutilation as a form of aggravated assault. It’s not just the person performing the mutilation who could face justice. Provisions in the code also allow for others to be charged, for example, if a parent actively participates in the offence by holding a child’s hands or requests that someone perform it. And the amendments make it illegal to remove a child from Canada for the purpose of female genital mutilation.
There has never been a criminal conviction for female genital mutilation in Canada.
In its statement to the Star, Global Affairs say efforts to prevent FGM “remain collaborative,” and it also sent statements on behalf of the RCMP; the Department of Justice; Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada; and Status of Women Canada. They reference various steps taken by government agencies. For example, the RCMP is currently in the midst of developing an internal policy to deal with FGM. The Justice Department has given nearly $350,000 in funding to an organization in Quebec, RAFIQ, to develop “tools on the physical and psychological consequences of FGM.”
“The purpose of this project is to try to empower other women to denounce this kind of practice and to help young women to understand why it is not a good practice,” said Maria Montejo, chair of the board of RAFIQ.
The statement from Global Affairs also says that, “going forward, we will do more work with local women’s organizations.”
While there is some progress being made, Canada’s efforts fall short of what other countries are actively doing, said Corinne Packer, a senior researcher at the University of Ottawa’s school of public health. Packer co-authored a 2015 report on Canada’s response to FGM for the Canadian Medical Association Journal and reviewed the government responses provided to the Star.
“We’re behind the ball. We’re putting our head in the ground like an ostrich,” she said, adding that by the time a girl is overseas, it’s often too late. More work needs to done on prevention in Canada, Packer said.
Earlier this summer, U.S. Homeland Security launched a pilot program to help prevent vacation cutting. The program is based on an initiative at London’s Heathrow airport, where security agents are trained to identify girls who are risk.
Canada’s Justice Department, in a 2014 internal memo also obtained by the Star through an access to information request, acknowledges that the U.K. has “recently initiated a more proactive approach to FGM with a view to increased prosecutions.”
Kowser Omer-Hashi, a former Somali refugee now living in Toronto, was subjected to FGM. She is a former midwife who has been campaigning against the practice for more than two decades.
“We have a prime minister who declared himself a feminist and has a daughter the same age as children who could be losing their lives at this moment,” Omer-Hashi said. “If that doesn’t touch his heart to do something about FGM, I think there is no hope.”
In the internal emails obtained by the Star, government officials speaking amongst themselves suggest, and at times admit, that the Canadian response has not been adequate.
In the 2015 email chain discussing the case in which the “little girl” was alleged to have been removed from Canada for the purpose of FGM and neither local police nor children’s services believed they were able to intervene, one official from Global Affairs asks for an update on how the case unfolded.
“I believe we never heard back from local partners (CAS and others),” said one response.
But in the same chain, another official said that at a recent meeting about FGM, the Department of Justice and the RCMP said local authorities “had jurisdiction to do more to prevent removal” under Canada’s laws.
In yet another email in the chain, which is largely censored, Sean Blane, deputy director of the Consular Operations Bureau, said: “I think this speaks to our need for policy of process.”
Blane said at another point in the thread, “I honestly think if we’re going to do any work on FGM it could be on prevention while in Canada.”