FGM is expensive, and some make a living off it.  |  Picture credit: picture alliance
FGM is expensive, and some make a living off it. | Picture credit: picture alliance

Women and young girls facing the threat of female genital mutilation (FGM) can seek asylum through a special procedure in France. InfoMigrants explains how.

Maryam, an Ivorian mother of five, feared what would happen to her daughter if she did not leave home.

Since the child’s first birthday, Maryam's in-laws had been pressuring her to carry out FGM on her daughter.

“When she turned 3, we had to leave because that was the age limit for mutilating girls,” the mother told InfoMigrants.

Each year, thousands of women like Maryam seek asylum in France -- either for themselves or their daughters -- to avoid this custom.

Performing female genital mutilation is a crime in France that carries a prison sentence. In 2012, France’s highest court ruled that all people fleeing FGM can be protected under the Geneva convention.

Different profiles

“Most profiles are of a young girl born in her home country, or while migrating, or in France, coming with her mother -- who went under FGM or not -- or both her parents,” Annalou Kleinschmidt, violence against women specialist at the French asylum agency (OFPRA) told InfoMigrants

Kleinschmidt said the agency also sees women who did not undergo FGM as children, but find themselves in a forced marriage with a man who, upon realizing his new wife hasn't undergone FGM, pressure them to undergo it.

Another typical situation: “Women who benefited from reconstructive surgery and ask for their asylum request to be reconsidered because they fear being mutilated again [if they are deported to their home country].”

The OFPRA also receives girls under 18 who arrived alone in France fleeing their country to escape FGM.

Read more: Almost 2,000 FGM cases identified in Germany last year -- study

Mandatory medical proof for girls under 18

Most FGM-based asylum applications are made by a mother or parents on behalf of their child. 

“They’re understood as legal representatives,” Kleinschmidt told InfoMigrants.

Presenting medical proof is mandatory for FGM-based asylum applications for girls under 18.

The document is given to the child’s legal representatives after the facilitation of a medical examination conducted in one of the medical-legal facilities listed on the OFPRA website.

“It’s the only case in all asylum applications where OFPRA pays for a medical examination,” Annalou Kleinschmidt said. “The idea is for it to be done by doctors trained in that kind of examination because receiving a girl under 18 for a gynecological examination isn’t like just any medical act.”

Medical proof is mandatory whether the girl underwent FGM or not. 

Proof is not mandatory for women over 18. If asylum seekers wish to provide medical proof of FGM or the absence of FGM, they can get it from the doctor they wish (general practitioner, gynecologist or midwife).

'A combination of clues'

After the examination, asylum seekers are interviewed by an OFPRA agent.

During the talk, “we try to find as many objective elements as possible” proving the existence of a threat, Kleinschmidt said, adding that interviews revolve around topics like family, relatives and family environment.

She said interviewers will ask questions like: “Is the person in a family practicing FGM? Did the sisters undergo FGM? What is the social environment of the person? Are they from a city or the countryside?”

Agents make their decisions based on a "combination of clues, never a single explanation,” she said.

If OFPRA grants asylum to a girl, her mother or parents can then obtain a “private and family life” residency permit to stay with her in France. 

As long as the girl is under 18 and even after obtaining residency, she needs to be examined every five years by a medical-legal facility to verify she did not undergo FGM for example during holidays abroad or during a family visit in France.

She remains under the parents’ responsibility to protect her against mutilation. If the child underwent FGM while she was protected by asylum, her parents can be fined and imprisoned. 

Read more: Female genital mutilation feels 'like living in a dead body'

Victims of misinformation

In spite of her story, Maryam did not manage to get asylum protection for her daughter, losing at both OFPRA and the National Court of Asylum (CNDA) appeals court.

The Ivorian mother thinks these rejections are the result of struggles to properly express herself during her interview and court date. 

According to Ioana Barbu, an asylum rights lawyer in Paris who often defends FGM-based asylum cases, most rejections come from lack of preparation.

Women who ask for FGM-based asylum are often “victims of misinformation from organized people who tell them to say certain things when actually having one’s own original story can lead to protection,” Barbu said. 

Some people also need to be helped because “they didn’t stress things the way they needed to be or they gave details that aren’t necessarily important.” 

For these often marginalized and poor women, asylum application challenges start as soon as they get their file from the prefecture.

“Often these women do not speak French or struggle to file their application if they do not have housing or if they have a child, for example,” Barbu told InfoMigrants.

Read more: 'I've suffered so much'

Stereotypical questions

Ioana Barbu often assists asylum seekers who were rejected after the OFPRA interview in their appeals at the CNDA. As a lawyer, she has access to their OFPRA interview transcript.

Although the lawyer says the interview climate is often well-meaning, some questions are too standardized and stereotypical.

“For example, agents have to ask details of the person’s journey to France,” even though that might not always be relevant, she said.

Specific questions on FGM are mostly about the person’s relationship to their family. “If you go back to your country, what are you afraid of? Do you get along with your mother, your father?” Barbu said. “But a woman can have good relationships with her family even if it becomes conflictual whenever they are talking about traditions [like FGM]," she said.

In 2022, around 3,000 girls under 18 were granted asylum on FGM-based claims. Those numbers could rise because FGM figures have been growing since the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Because many schools closed [during lockdowns], there was forced marriage of women under 16,” Isabelle Gillette-Faye, director of the Group for the Abolition of Sexual Mutilations (GAMS), told le Figaro, a French daily newspaper, in 2021.

“These unions led to sexual mutilation for girls to be “pure” women. Finally, facing economic hardship during lockdown, people who used to perform FGM saw an opportunity to practice again to make some money, to feed their families,” she added.

In 2020, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimated around two million girls will undergo FGM by 2030 because of the pandemic.


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