International Development Law Organization

Emma Bonino: Opening a Pandora's Box of Women's Rights

In the run-up to International Women’s Day, the Italian senator and veteran feminist talks to IDLO news editor Andre Vornic.

Crammed in under the rafters of Rome’s Palazzo Madama, Emma Bonino’s office feels anything but stately. Angular yet pleasant, the space fits the bracing informality of its occupant. That said, Emma Bonino isn’t sticking around: two boxes of her possessions are awaiting pickup. The week leading up to March 8 is also the week she leaves her job as vice-president of the Italian Senate. 

It’s days before her sixty-fifth birthday, and Ms. Bonino says she’s tired from spending more than half her years in politics. You might take her at her word, if it weren’t for the insistent buzz that she might be, quite possibly, the next President of the Republic. The election, by parliament, is due this spring – assuming Italy conjures a working majority out of last month’s inconclusive vote. Never has a woman held the Italian presidency: there is a notion that one should. La Bonino has international stature. She also has more political support than she’ll own up to.

This soon-to-be ex-senator, in fact, doesn’t look remotely tired – or cowed. She’s furiously typing an email, in English, to an undisclosed recipient: she turns around once in a while, seeking help with a verbal structure or other, and it soon becomes clear that the email is rather sharply worded. Which is no surprise: Emma Bonino’s voice – whether as activist, Radical national politician, member of the European Parliament, or European Commissioner – has always been strong and final. A great deal of the time, it’s been raised in defense of civil rights.

For more than a decade now, Ms. Bonino has lent her name to the fight against female genital mutilation (FGM). She’d just stepped down from the EU executive (in 1999’s mass resignation of the Jacques Santer Commission) when she was approached by Arab and African women living in Europe. All of them had been mutilated. All wanted to end the practice.

The name of Ms. Bonino’s movement, No Peace without Justice, is self-explanatory: she’s not one to turn down a progressive cause. But here, she says, she knew her limitations: as a ‘blonde European,’ it wasn’t for her to ‘walk into African homes and tell people what to do’. She also knew that the strategy of raising awareness locally, one village at a time, wasn’t working, or not much. Things had to be taken to another level.

“I went to a ceremony in Mali,” she recalls, “where the community had been persuaded away from FGM. Instead of ‘cutting’ the girls to mark their passage to adulthood, the practitioners symbolically handed their tools over to the village headman. There was a feast, and chanting. This impressed me very much. But six months later, we got word that FGM was back. Local girls had married boys from the next village, and those boys didn’t want uncircumcised girls: they considered them impure. Mutilation crept back in.” So FGM was, to a large extent, a matter of supply and demand. And part of the demand for FGM was driven by religious justifications. The ‘faith alibi’ had to be demolished. 

Ms. Bonino went on to put institutional and PR heft behind the anti-FGM movement. She was well-regarded and well connected; she was still a member of the European Parliament. As EU Commissioner, she’d run the health and humanitarian affairs portfolios. If she couldn’t walk in on African villagers, she could certainly walk in on government ministers – with activists in tow. And she did, tirelessly. In 2003, at a conference in Cairo, the tipping point was reached. 

“What made this event important was a speech by Imam Al-Tantawi of Al-Azhar [Sunni Islam’s highest authority]. He stated that ‘cutting’ was not a religious practice. The Koran didn’t condone it. ‘If you want to continue doing this,’ he said, ‘find another excuse’. This was crystal-clear, and made a big impact in Muslim countries.”

Ms. Bonino’s previous health mandate in Brussels certainly opened doors. But FGM wasn’t a health issue, any more than a religious one. Or if it was, it shouldn’t have been. “Campaigning on the health aspect meant governments would often come back and say, ‘OK, if there are complications with infections and suchlike, very well: have the cutting performed in hospitals.’ In some countries, this resulted in a medicalization of FGM – as is the case now in Indonesia, for example. So we realized that approach too was wrong.” 

FGM therefore had to be squarely repositioned in the public consciousness as a violation of human rights. And it largely was, helped along by articulate spokeswomen like Senegal-born Bonino ally Khady Koita: her 2005 memoir of circumcision, Mutilée, is a remarkably graphic account of the ‘intimate wound’ that never heals. (Other FGM autobiographies had shied away from full descriptions of the procedure.) That FGM was a crime against women, rather than a risky medical act, might not have been a wholly novel idea. But as a universal policy stance, it was a brave thing to argue. This emphasis on the rights-negating dimension of FGM, and on the law as an abolitionist tool, is one Ms. Bonino shares with IDLO. The Rome-based rule-of-law body is closely involved with the state-building effort in Somalia, where it has helped write an FGM ban into the new constitution. This doesn’t mean, of course, that the cutting of Somali girls will miraculously cease. But it does mean there is a legal, iron-clad basis for spreading the notion that it is wrong. Not surprisingly, IDLO and Ms. Bonino are now looking to work together, blending the legal expertise of the one with political clout of the other. 

Through a decade of knocking on doors, advocating national bans, Ms. Bonino and her fellow activists learned many lessons. They learned, for example, that although banning FGM in one country was a good thing per se, it risked displacing the problem: families seeking the practice would move to the next country along – hopping across borders, as it were, for stuff unavailable at home. A global ban was needed. Efforts redoubled. Petitions flew. Accretion prevailed. Last December, in a unanimous resolution by the UN General Assembly, FGM was outlawed. 

Is it enough? Of course not. Countries must translate the ban into national legislation. Many haven’t. Many won’t for a while yet. But the resolution’s effects, Ms. Bonino says, are already being felt. She points to Liberia: there, “you couldn’t even talk about FGM. Much like in Sierra Leone, it was still very dangerous for activists to go public on the issue. Well, after the UN resolution, we got a message from the Liberian government saying, ‘We are ready to open a debate. We are ready to say we have such a problem, and we need to address it.’” 

FGM isn’t the last stop, either. For Ms. Bonino and her friends, no sooner does a case look close to winning than a new one is made. With her support, the Euronet-FGM activist network is now impatient to connect FGM to other societal ills – especially child marriage. 

“Look at what happened in my own country with the divorce law: the Pandora’s box of women’s rights was opened. A few years later [in 1978], abortion was legalized. Then came family planning. And so on. What I would like to see is that the FGM resolution, and its implementation, not only reduces the practice as much as possible, but that it is also a tool to open other dossiers that are difficult to talk about.”

Talk, for this great talker, is the first step to progress. Indeed, when asked what she most treasures about her involvement with the anti-FGM campaign, she talks of all the talking. “We had so many discussions as I toured Africa and Arab countries, we heard so many stories... Women felt the need to talk to other women about their pain and their oppression. I remember in the 1970s, in my pro-choice campaigning years, it was the same feeling, that women just wanted to talk to somebody. Someone who’d listen without judging. It was like going back. It made me feel younger…” 

Young, Emma Bonino is not. Which is just as well: to lead Italy, you need to be at least fifty years of age. There is no guarantee that she’ll get the job – far from it. If she does, she’ll likely be the first Italian head of state with a habit of sending spirited emails in English. But she’ll also be the first for whom women’s rights – talked out of their box, swirling, multiplying – are the very stuff of democracy.