UNCUT: The War Against Female Genital Mutilation

When Migrants Carry Scars, Female Genital Mutilation In Europe

Still life of the instruments used in the practice of FGM in Kenya.
Still life of the instruments used in the practice of FGM in Kenya.
Emanuela Zuccalà

LONDON â€" According to a new British law, any teacher, doctor, nurse or social care professional who comes across a case of a girl who has undergone genital mutilation has the duty to report it to the police.

This law, which took effect on Oct. 31 and applies to any victim under the age of 18, can result in sanctions and job termination if a case is not reported. It is just the latest legislation passed in Europe to deal with the issue of female genital mutilation (FGM), a phenomenon that until recently was thought to be limited to faraway countries.

But as can be seen by the below interactive map, FGM is surprisingly widespread in Europe as well, amid migrant communities from Somalia, Eritrea, Nigeria, Senegal, Gambia, Egypt.

Actually, Europe has its own, fortunately brief, history of “the cut.” The first case of clitoridectomy was reported in 1825 by the medical journal The Lancet: In Berlin, the surgeon Karl Ferdinand von Gräfe believed it could be the perfect cure for the excessive masturbating of a 15-year-old girl. For decades, cutting female genitals was thought to heal hysteria and certain sexual deviations, even in France and England. Then scientific societies imposed a ban on the procedure, which soon fell into oblivion and seemed to have been eliminated once and for all in Europe.

Today, following decades of migratory waves, the problem has resurfaced with a different aspect, forcing European countries to confront a societal wound as complex to fight as it is to understand.

The first challenge is measuring the scope of the problem. The only official statistic about FGM in Europe is a registered increase in women asking for asylum who come from countries where FGM is practiced: from 18,110 in 2008 to more than 25,000 in 2013. According to the UN Refugee Agency, this is due to a rise in the number of women asylum seekers from Eritrea, Guinea, Egypt and Mali, where FGM prevalence is over 89%. On the map you can see how many women were granted asylum from 2008 to 2011: from 2,225 in Britain to 75 in Italy. The reasons for fleeing from their countries varied, but in 2011 more than 2,000 girls and women were escaping precisely the threat of being forced to undergo circumcision.

Apart from refugees, it is difficult to calculate exactly how many FGM victims are living in Europe: The available data of member States, as well as Norway and Switzerland, only supplies us with a rough estimate.

The European Parliament has long cited the estimate of 500,000 victims and some 180,000 girls at risk, “but we really don’t know what’s the source of these numbers,” notes Jurgita Pečiūrienė from the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) in Lithuania, author of the only two existing comprehensive European studies on the issue. “But our main problem was that statistics gathering methods vary in each member State,” points out the expert. “Some use immigration data and others use health registrations so it is impossible to compare the results, and therefore the figures remain approximate.”

At the request of the European Commission, the EIGE is now working to provide a method, already tested in Sweden, Ireland and Portugal, which starting in 2016 will allow all the member States to assess FGM prevalence with more precision.

In the meantime, even though the actual extent of the phenomenon is unknown, the EU continues to invest in projects to raise awareness of and limit the practice of FGM in Europe. In addition to allocating almost 10 million euros in 2009 for 26 programs against FGM in 15 countries throughout Africa and the Middle East, the European Commission has invested generous sums to study and stop the “foreign ritual” from being practiced inside our own borders.

Some 800,000 euros has recently been earmarked for a web platform that will train health care, social workers and legal professionals in nine countries. “But at a time of economic crisis, we should be able to understand where our resources are required most urgently,” says Els Leye, a senior expert on FGM at Ghent University in Belgium. “I get the impression that the issue of FGM is being exploited by politicians because they believe that by pointing fingers at ethnic minorities, they will strike a chord with the audience.”

A special program has been launched in the UK, which has the largest Somali community in Europe (approximately 103,000 people). Taking into consideration that in Somalia the FGM prevalence is 98%, and exploring other communities from countries at risk, the House of Commons estimates that there are 170,000 victims and 65,000 girls at risk of FGM in UK.

The spokesperson for the massive anti-FGM campaign sponsored by The Guardian, Fahma Mohamed, a student of Somali origin, demanded that the government alerts all schools in order to prevent the female migrant students from undergoing the torture of the cut during travels to their countries of origin. “It has taken us this long just to get people talking about it,” she says. “We don't care how long it takes to make people listen.”

Female genital mutilation is a taboo, clandestine by definition, and elusive to those carrying out surveys: Little girls are “fixed” by traditional circumcisers or during holidays abroad, “and migrant communities don’t report cases due to their internal loyalty,” adds Els Leye.

There was an uproar in Sweden in June 2014 when it was discovered that 60 girls originating from Africa and attending an elementary school in the city of Norrköping had been cut: One of them was taken to the emergency room due to lacerating menstrual cramps. Yet Sweden was the first country in Europe to be on the look-out for similar cases, having passed a law abolishing FGM as far back as 1982: Today it counts 42,000 victims and thousands of girls at risk of FGM.

France, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain and Portugal have invested resources to fight against the practice, as has Cyprus, where an estimated 1,500 victims reside, and Hungary which counts a maximum of 350 victims. A few member States have established a national database; Belgium is the only EU country to have developed a method for constant monitoring; France depends on police registers and data from the Public Prosecutor’s offices, NGOs and a Department for FGM data collection begun in 2008; Portugal (even with only 43 victims) and Ireland gather data from hospitals.

“We have to study the migrant attitudes more deeply,” points out Leye, who is now involved in an international project on FGM in Belgium, France and Italy. “There are huge differences between ethnic groups in each African country. Furthermore, migration has a great influence on the practice of FGM, in two very opposite senses: Some groups abandon it because, living now in Europe, they don’t feel the social pressure from their societies anymore; for others, genital mutilation becomes a mark of cultural identity, believed to preserve their daughters from customs considered “too Westener” or leading to promiscuousness.”

Despite the increase in anti-FGM legislation, cases that have actually made it to court are quite rare, with only about 60 convictions, 50 of which are in France alone.

Elsewhere, beyond the silence that envelops the cutting tradition, there are few social care professionals or doctors with enough knowledge or expertise to assist victims. In UK, for instance, a law criminalizing FGM was passed in 1985 and in the past five years the police have investigated 200 cases. Still, the only trial that has ever been held took place last February and ended with an acquittal: He was a doctor, accused of re-sewing up after childbirth a Somali woman who had been a victim of infibulation.

On February 6, on the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, the European Commission will release the results of a new study into whether current national anti-FGM laws are effective enough in curbing ritual cutting. The findings may push authorities to look for whole new strategies to combat an inevitably complex problem, which includes such factors as gender inequality and migrant integration.

*Photography: Simona Ghizzoni, Maps and graphic: Alessandro D’Alfonso, Data research: Emanuela Zuccalà, Valeria De Berardinis, Video: Emanuela Zuccalà, Simona Ghizzoni, Video editing: Paolo Turla

**This report is part of the UNCUT project on female genital mutilations (FGM). Produced with the support of the “Innovation in Development Reporting Grant Program” of the European Journalism Centre (EJC), funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and carried out in partnership with ActionAid NGO and the cultural association Zona.

Copyright: Emanuela Zuccalà Simona Ghizzoni - Zona.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport


Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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