Parents to sign contract against genital mutilation

Traditional surgeon holds razor blades before carrying out female genital mutilation on teenage girls from the Sebei tribe in Uganda.
By our news staff

Dutch deputy health minister Jet Bussemaker is trying to clamp down on female genital mutilation for daughters of African immigrants. She has proposed that all parents need to sign a contract before they take their daughters traveling to 'high-risk' countries, stating that they will not allow their daughter to be circumcised.

These countries include Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan - where genital mutilation is considered a rite of passage. It is unclear how many girls in the Netherlands have undergone the ritual.

The contract must be presented before families can travel to their country of origin, the justice ministry explained on Wednesday. The contract is intended to prevent parents and foreign family members from undertaking the procedure. Genital mutilation is currently against the law in the Netherlands.

French experience

The idea came during a working visit to France, said a justice ministry spokesman. There, a medical contract exists "with stamps and signatures and a translation. Thereby the parents can make it clear to the family: if you circumcise our child, you are hurting not only her, but also us." The French experience could indicate that many parents approve of such a contract. "The pressure from the extended family can be huge. It can happen that foreign parents living here will not undertake the circumcision themselves, but let an aunt undertake it," the spokesperson said.

In the Netherlands there are about 16,000 girls and around 34,000 women from these high-risk countries, according to the ministry. A national child abuse reporting organisation counted a total of 44 cases between July 2007 and March 2008. Bussemaker said the government will set up an electronic registry, whereby all daughters from these high-risk groups will be registered. The parents should sign the contract, with assistance from social welfare organisations.

The spokesman said that checking on compliance is "difficult." "It is really about supervision by those involved. For instance, a girl at school can say to her teacher that 'I am going on vacation back to my land of origin and there will be a big party.' The teacher would then think: 'is it only about a party or is there something else involved?' She can then move to report the incident. Physical checks of girls is not planned. "Especially when girls are 12 and above, this is difficult to imagine."

The health minister is currently discussing the proposal with justice minister Ernst Hirsch Ballin regarding the content of the contract. A letter with further explanation to parliament was announced for later this week.

Psychological pressure tool

Yet, according to Dirk Engberts, professor of law and the ethics of healthcare at Leiden University, no legal 'contract' can exist in this context. "What are the penalties if you break it? Female circumcision is punishable in the Netherlands. Such a contract seems to me to be a psychological pressure tool - an instrument to rub the noses of the parents on the potential penalties for offending it." Egberts compares the contract with that of a suicide pact. "Suicidal people agree not to, in the coming days, commit suicide. It can work well as a pressure tool, but you can't call it a real contract."

The justice ministry could not say what eventual sanctions might be attached to the breaking of the contract, according to the spokesman. "We've researched it and concluded there are a number of reports of circumcision, but little or no prosecution thereof. How is that possible, we asked ourselves, and how can we solve that? In principle the maximum sentence for circumcision as a form of severe child abuse is up to 15 years."

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