Some 130 million women and girls in Africa have been genitally mutilated as have millions of others in parts of the Middle East, Asia and certain immigrant communities in Europe, North America and Australasia. It is one of the most widespread attacks on the human rights of women.

One of the results of the Cairo Conference was to give fresh impetus to efforts to eliminate the practice and efforts to change long-standing practices are beginning to show results in other countries. In the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, governments agreed to put in to place laws to prohibit female genital mutilation and to bring anyone who practices it to justice. Unfortunately, some governments fail in their obligations to stop abuses of the rights of women. They lack the political will to prosecute the perpetrators of violations against women. The consequence is that some women have to flee their own country because their government has failed to protect them from abuses of their basic human rights.

The UNHCR's guidelines on the protection of women say the governments should: "Promote recognition that there may be a basis for granting refugee status where a government cannot or will not protect women who are subject to abuse."

United Kingdom: the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act was adopted in 1985. Measures against FGM have also been included in the child protection procedures at local authority levels.

United States of America: the Federal Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act was under consideration by the House of Representatives in early 1995.

Sweden: the Act on Prohibition of Female Circumcision was passed in 1982. It not only seeks to bring to justice those breaking Swedish laws, but also any person living in Sweden who assists in carrying out FGM in another country which also has prohibitive laws.

A number of countries which have not yet passed specific laws use existing national legislation to prohibit the practice of female genital mutilation.

France: no specific law exists, but article 312-3 of the Penal Code is applied to prosecute persons exercising violence against or seriously assaulting a child under 15, "if the result has been mutilation, amputation or loss of an eye or other permanent disabilities, or death not intentionally caused by the perpetrator". The Criminal Division of the Cour de Cassation decided, by a judgement of 20 August 1983, that ablation of the clitoris resulting from willful violence constituted a mutilation under article 312-3 of the Penal Code. While the term "female genital mutilation" is not used in the Penal Code, this decision makes it quite clear that such practices fall within the purview of the enactment.

Norway: all hospitals were alerted in 1985 to the practice of female genital mutilation.

All the above Governments have also acknowledged the importance of education and awareness raising among both the practicing communities and service providers. Practical steps are being taken in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Djibouti, Egypt, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Somalia, the Sudan, Sweden and the United Kingdom to ensure that relevant information is disseminated. Lack of information from Africa and Asia makes it difficult to ascertain what recent action has been taken at national and grass-roots levels.

Some African countries are in the process of formulating national legislation against FGM, including Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Egypt, Ghana and Nigeria. In Burkina Faso, Kenya and Senegal, statements have been made by heads of state expressing the need to eliminate FGM.

A motion seeking to ban female circumcision was defeated 
in the Kenyan parliament on November 13, 1996

Egypt has banned the practice in state hospitals.

The Inter-Africa Committee (IAC) campaign against harmful traditional practices was established in 1984. After years of massive efforts, 24 African committees were established and affiliated to Inter-African Committee; all work for the eradication of FGM by the year 2000. The Sudan National Committee (SNCTP) was established in 1985 immediately after the Nairobi Women's Conference.

SNCTP has conducted several activities, ranging from training of community leaders, information for higher education students' associations and religious leaders, a mass media campaign and public group discussions. It runs alternative employment programmes for traditional birth attendants and nurse midwives, and training and information for health workers at all levels. A major obstacle to eradication is that traditional birth attendants, nurses, midwives and health visitors use FGM fees to subsidise their salaries, so eradication would bring financial hardship to some of them. One health visitor reported that before SNCTP training she could double her monthly salary by circumcising two or three girls a month. She has given up performing FGM and now herself teaches paramedicals about harmful practices.

Sudan: In 1946, under the British Colonial Administration, a law was passed prohibiting the practice of infibulation.

Togo: there is no law which prohibits female genital mutilation. Few steps have been taken by the authorities to prevent and punish this practice.

A small minority of women refugees seek asylum in industrialised countries. In many countries, immigration officials oppose asylum for women who fear reprisals at home if they have transgressed strict moral codes. For example they may turn away women who are in danger because of their family connections, or who have fled the threat of female genital mutilation.

"It's tradition", says Fauziya's uncle. His wife says, "I have to do what my husband says. I remember what happened to my body. I remember my suffering. But I cannot prevent it for my daughter." "It was for me to decide what was best for her", said Fauziya's aunt. Fauziya knew that no one could stop her aunt from forcing her to undergo genital mutilation. So she fled. She was granted asylum in the US in June 1996. The ruling recognised that the genital mutilation she was threatened with constituted persecution.

Fauziya escaped the practice when she was young because her father opposed it. He died when she was 15. She was left in the care of his sister, who accepted a proposal of marriage on Fauziya's behalf. The condition of the marriage was that Fauziya would be genitally mutilated. Fauziya refused. Whilst the women who had come to assist the mutilation were in the kitchen, her sister helped her flee.

Women fleeing because the authorities fail in their obligations to protect them from female genital mutilation must be protected as refugees escaping gender-based persecution. If Fauziya were to return to Togo, her uncle has said that her family will "make her do it."

Even when treated with respect, many women asylum seekers are too frightened to describe their humiliating experience in front of strangers.