It was the first ever such sentence in Switzerland, where female genital mutilation was made a crime in 2011 under Article 124.
The young Somali girls were genitally mutilated while living with their mother in Somalia and Ethiopia between 2013 and 2015, a fact the mother did not deny in the Neuchâtel regional court.
Article 124 states: “Anyone who mutilates the genitals of a female person, significantly impairing her in her natural function or in any other way, will be imprisoned for up to ten years.” The law stipulates that “anyone who commits the crime abroad is also liable in Switzerland.”
“I do not think I can change things. But perhaps this verdict will help eliminate the suffering of millions of girls,” said Nathalie Kocherhans, the judge at the presiding regional court, according to Swiss national news portal SRF.
While the court acknowledged that the mother, who is illiterate, was placed under considerable societal pressure to force her daughter to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM), the judge nevertheless deemed a prison sentence necessary. The mother had been denounced in Switzerland by the daughters' Somali father.
“Any case that highlights FGM and how much of a human rights abuse it is is important,” Fiona Coyle, director of End FGM European Network – based in Brussels – told The Local.
But Coyle also cautioned that while prosecution is important, prevention is also key. “We welcome judgements but we also place a caveat that there need to be preventive measures too,” added Coyle.
End FGM European Network's campaign: 'FGM is #MyIssueToo'. Photo: End FGM European Network.
End FGM Europe Network's director also highlighted the importance of the specific nature of the recent Swiss sentence and indeed, Article 124. “It is important that it does not have to have happened in Switzerland, that it can have occurred outside of the country. That is unique,” Coyle told The Local.
Each year, nearly 180,000 women and girls in Europe are estimated to be at risk of FGM, according to the End FGM European Network, an advocacy group.
“In the EU, there are more than half a million women who are survivors of this procedure,” Coyle told The Local. She emphasized that best practice in combatting the damaging cultural ritual is a holistic approach, needed “to ensure we are not stigmatizing or re-traumatizing the affected women as they are survivors.”
France has taken a strong legal position on FGM, with approximately 30 cases taken to court in the last 15 years, according to Coyle. “Each country has a different approach,” she said.
Coyle also highlighted Finland and Portugal's 'national plan' to combat FGM, which include a dedicated budget and an intergovernmental committee, among other measures. Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands also have specific legislation to combat FGM.
FGM affects between 130 and 200 million women worldwide in at least 28 countries, according to the UN. “The practice itself often takes place in remote rural areas by untrained village midwives who use instruments such as knives, razors or even broken glass,” asserts a UNICEF study on the practice.
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— End FGM EU Network (@ENDFGM_Network) May 17, 2018
Besides psychological issues, genital mutilation often leads to severe medical conditions, such as tetanus, an inability to urinate, septicemia and other complications, besides stigma in communities. This is why Coyle says it is vital that education and awareness be at the forefront of all campaigns to end the practice and that communities be involved.
The centuries old tradition of female circumcision, also known as female genital mutilation (FGM), is on the decline in northern Somalia, though the country in the Horn of Africa continues to have some of the highest rates of women who have undergone the practice in the world, according to AFP.