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Norway Arrest in Gambia Mutilation Case Raises Concerns

Norwegian authorities are calling for three Norwegian-born girls subjected to female genital mutilation in the Gambia to return to Europe. The father of the girls has been arrested in Norway following an investigation by local human rights workers. But activists in Africa say that rather than criminalizing the problem, it should be resolved at the community level. For VOA, Ricci Shryock has more from Dakar.

A spokeswoman for Oslo-based Human Rights Service Hege Storhaug says finding out about the girl's circumcision was part of an investigation to end the practice.

She says this led to her group finding out girls were being sent back to the Gambia to undergo what she calls a mutilation.

"They have been sent back in 2003," she said. "And all through 2003 they were circumcised. And this is the big battle now for the Norwegian authorities, how to get these girls back home to Norway."

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is legal in the Gambia, but the daughters in the Gambia are also Norwegian citizens. They are living with family in a rural part of the small country.

President Yayah Jammeh endorses the practice, and says it is an important part of local culture.

Storhaug says if Norwegian authorities take the girls back to Norway, they will most likely be put in foster care under the auspices of Norway's Child Protection Agency.

The father was arrested last week in Norway. The mother of the three girls is pregnant with her seventh child and Norwegian authorities judged her to be too weak to be behind bars.

As the director for Tostan, a non-profit in Dakar, Senegal that has been working with West African populations to eliminate FGM in the region for decades, Molly Melching says that it is important for the Gambian family to uphold Norwegian laws, but the fight to stop FGM must also take into consideration that this practice has been around for hundreds of years.

She adds advocacy must focus on changing people's minds rather than criminalizing it, because the community as a whole must decide to abandon the practice.

Idrisa Keita, a Tostan program officer in the Gambia, also works with the Gambian government woman's bureau. He says the group focuses on community-based education.

"Unless and until we educate them to know the human rights, democracy and the health implications of this practice, they will not easily abandon the practice," he explained.

Storhaug, the Norwegian spokeswoman, says she met the girls in the Gambia, and she thinks they are unhappy and suffering.

"These girls they are human beings," she added. "That's number one. They are not Gambians. They are not Norwegians. They are human beings and we have some standards here in Norway."

Melching says that through Tostan's experience, West African residents were much more likely to abandon the practice when approached from an internal, grassroots level, rather than when they are forced into it.

Groups such as Tostan work with villages to encourage the entire communities to make a declaration that puts an end to FGM. Melching says this method has worked with more than 3,000 villages in the Gambia's neighbor, Senegal.