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Co-ordinating Developments To Stop FGM

July 4, 2012

Much praise to you Hilary for launching this e-petition and purpose-specific website and, generally, for your initiative and huge investment of time and effort to increase awareness of female genital mutilation (FGM) in the UK, urging the Government to do everything possible to eradicate this practice.
I’m sure your articles and tireless tweets on the subject [@NoFGM_UK / #NoFGM] have brought this issue to the attention of many people who would not otherwise have been aware of FGM or troubled themselves with it.

You’ve certainly helped to bring it to the forefront of my mind and, together with the Sunday Times exposure in April, got me thinking about the extent to which it happens close to home, and wanting to do something to stop the needless suffering – even if it is only signing a petition.

I am aware that you had made an earlier attempt to post an e-petition which was strangely rejected, especially when one reads the many specious and crudely worded e-petitions which have been accepted. I admire your persistence in asking for an explanation and in getting it eventually accepted.

When I first started reading and looking into what was being done to prevent the practice here in this country, I did wonder if you were pushing at an open door. It appeared that quite a lot had been put in place, notably the following (I’ve put in links for anyone who wants to get more background on these):

  • The Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 which repealed and re-enacted the Female Circumcision Act 1985 to prosecute anyone aiding and abetting FGM and giving it extra-territorial effect in order to prosecute those taking or sending girls abroad for that purpose.
  • The publication and promotion in 2011 of HM Government’s Multi-Agency Practice Guidelines: Female Genital Mutilation (56 pages)
  • In December 2011, the setting up an All-Party Parliamentary Group on FGM, ‘to raise awareness of the problems caused by female genital mutilation in the UK and across the world, in such a way as to make its eradication more likely’.
  • More recently, an Open Letter from the Chief Medical Officer and other high level health service executives, addressed to all health care professionals (GPs, nurses, health visitors) telling health professionals to ensure that they are familiar with safeguarding procedures and know who to contact when they suspect that a child may be at risk of FGM.

I also wondered if it might be seen as duplicating effort when I discovered that, on the website, there is already a petition Stop female genital mutilation in the UK!,   which is supported by the Campaign Against Female Genital Mutilation (CAGeM) and Waris Dirie on her website Desert Flower.

However, you rightly pointed out (to me) a few important differences and advantages to posting this separate e-petition on the HM Govt website. It might be useful for you to put those arguments on the front page, in encouraging UK citizens who might have signed the Avaaz petition, to sign this one too. We should not be quiet about a subject that matters so much and from which people understandably may turn away because of its private nature.

It is good to see that you have focused, in the petition, on calling for the reinstatement of the FGM Co-ordinator post in the e-petition. It is troubling that, despite the legislation and child protection procedures, there have so far been no prosecutions for FGM in this country.

The estimated statistics and other research indicate that FGM is on the increase among those communities in the UK from a cultural background that continues to expect and value ‘cutting’. Baroness Kennedy in a House of Lords discussion about FGM, 30 June 2011, said “The absence of prosecutions is usually an indicator that something is not happening here” in comparison to other countries where cases are being prosecuted.

Under the circumstances, abolishing the post of cross-government FGM Co-ordinator does not seem to have been a wise move. Reinstating that post would be one way for this government to show its commitment to eradicating this harmful practice.

For me though, I have to admit to some discomfort and a conflict of interest in calling for prosecutions, with the likely imprisonment of those who are convicted. Some high profile convictions with imprisonment would be likely to act as a deterrent to others, though they might have some unwanted effects too. As a criminologist who has researched the negative effects of imprisonment on offenders and their families, and who champions the humane treatment, inclusion and support of law-breakers, I’m aware of the damage that can result and I would prefer alternative punishments which are communicative and reparative.

The worst outcome of a successful campaign to prosecute anyone thought to be aiding and abetting FGMs would be some kind of witch hunt. If someone is forcibly holding down a child while others take a knife to them and hack off their flesh, that seems a clear case for prosecution. But it seems that some types of FGM are less mutilating and less traumatising than others; and how and when the deed is done should make a difference to our response.

Also, ‘aiding and abetting’ can be widely interpreted; and a worst case scenario is that overzealous policing would result in wrongful prosecutions and convictions, or the imprisonment of parents and children being taken into care, each of which would likely hurt the victims of FGM even more.

I think it is Efua Dorkenoo (Equality Now) who has advocated a ‘health passport’ for girls, such as is used by French and Dutch governments, so that prosecutors can arrange for at risk girls without such ‘passports’ to be examined. That too is problematic though, in that being examined ‘down there’ can also be a traumatic experience depending on the context in which it occurs.

But all preventative approaches need to be explored. In this regard, the work of Professor Hazel Barrett and colleagues, Coventry University and colleagues on the REPLACE FGM team looks valuable. One of their arguments is that it is vital to engage and work with men if this traditional practice is to be ceased.

Perhaps the emphasis needs to be more on communicating with communities to encourage change, so that they themselves choose to abandon it. I’ve recently come across an evaluation being led by Joanne Hemmings of Options UK of the a three-year project Tackling FGM, jointly funded the Trust for London, Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and the Rosa Fund, to support community based, preventative work. It is good to see charitable bodies putting money into this, in contrast to the Government. The London Trust alone has invested £554,000 in this.

Any of us who have read the accounts of female genital mutilation in, for example, The Caged Virgin by Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Desert Flower by Waris Dirie, or have seen campaigning videos featuring screaming little girls, cannot fail to be horrified at such grievous bodily harm, terror, pain, degrading treatment and life-long health effects.

Thankfully, there is a worldwide movement to end FGM led by several influential campaigning organisations, and supported by  international government bodies, such as the European Parliament’s resolution on 14 June 2012 calling for an end to FGM in Europe and abroad through prevention, protection measures and legislation.

But these are only a start; change needs to come from within the cultures which believe that FGM is beneficial or necessary, not least from those women whose livelihood depends on carrying out the procedure and men who condone it because it perpetuates male control over female sexuality. There needs to be a coordinated international strategy, but alongside that a more urgent national stance for the UK.

It is good to see that you have links to various excellent charitable bodies involved in campaigning for prevention of FGM and support of those affected. I have no doubt that you would want your own efforts to be seen as complementary to the excellent work of FORWARD, the Orchid Project, Daughters of Eve, EndFGM, Equality Now, ACCM and others.

More research is needed but such evidence as does exist suggests that it is a growing not a diminishing problem for girls in the UK, following the migration policies of recent decades and the diasporas from less safe countries. Given that it is illegal and therefore hidden, hard evidence is obviously not available, but there is likely to be a substantial ‘dark figure’ of unreported FGM.

As well as girls being taken back to the countries of their family’s origin, as a special treat during the school summer holiday, we hear reports of ‘cutters’ being flown in from other countries to operate in rites-of-passage parties.

As this year’s summer holidays are about to commence this is a particularly appropriate time to publicise the problem and to petition the government for a greater financial and strategic investment in preventing FGM and supporting those girls and women already affected.

by Ros Burnett, University of Oxford

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