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MGF in Portugal: research provides insights into strategies for elimination of the ritual

FCT and the Portuguese Commission for Citizenships and Gender Equality (CIG) co-funded a study that has produced the first scientific data on the prevalence of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Portugal. The team, led by sociologist Manuel Lisboa, at CESNOVA (Universidade Nova de Lisboa) also looked into the views and awareness of communities and health professionals regarding the practice of FGM, on the one hand, and the available clinical support and public policies for the elimination of FGM, on the other. Their findings, and related recommendations on the effort to prevent and eliminate FGM, is considered a much needed started point for the work to be carried out in the third action plan of the Portuguese nationwide plan to fight against and prevent domestic and gender violence (Plano Nacional de Combate e Prevenção da Violência Doméstica e de Género).

In the communities where it is found, FGM is carried out mainly on young girls - from newborn to 15 - but also, in some environments, on adult women. It is unequivocally recognized as a violation of women's rights, whatever the age, and is manifestly condemned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and by several other international conventions. Portugal receives migrants from several countries where FGM is carried out (Guinea-Bissau, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, amongst others) but, until now, there was no solid data on how prevalent the ritual is in Portugal.

In an approach that has been used in recent studies, in other countries, the researchers extrapolated known data on the prevalence of MGF in each country to the number of women originally from these countries currently living in Portugal. After an initial approach applied to women aged between 15 and 49, the team extended their analysis to over 50s. The findings suggest that more than 6 500 women living in Portugal may have been subjected to MGF. The majority of these women live in the districts of Lisbon and Setúbal, followed by Faro, in the South. The geographical breakdown of the prevalence data is considered particularly useful in informing local efforts to identify cases, with a view to eliminate occurrences, as well as in developing local information and prevention campaigns.

To understand the social contexts and the characteristics associated to the practice of MGF, the team carried out a questionnaire-based survey of 123 members of the communities affected by MGF (87 women and 36 men). The vast majority of respondents do not consider MGF to be "a good practice" (99% of women; 94% of men). Amongst the women, 40% know of other girls in their family that has been subjected to FGM; amongst men, this number was 18%. Of the women, 5% believe they would want their daughters to go through FGM, while 6% of the men claimed they would like their future wife to be excised.

The issues in the questionnaires were further explored through in-depth interviews with women who either had or had not been subjected to FGM, with men form countries where the ritual is carried out, with health professionals and leaders of immigrant communities. The women acknowledge the brutality of FGM, and that it is a deeply cultural and religious ritual. The men are somewhat ambivalent towards the practice: although clearly a cruel practice, it is the "women's business", and important for the inclusion of girls and woman in the community.

This was a multidisciplinary study, bringing together expertise form sociology, anthropology, psychology, women's studies, gynaecology, sexology, public health, law and statistics. The project was selected by an international panel of experts, in a call for proposals launched by FCT in 2013, as part of the protocol signed with the Portuguese Commission for Citizenships and Gender Equality (CIG).

The report of the study, Female Genital Mutilation : prevalence, sociocultural dynamics and recommendations for its elimination, was released this month, and is available here, and on the CIG website.