Summer Holidays Are The Time Girls Are Most At Risk Of FGM. So What's Being Done?
The Debrief: Thousands of British girls will spend their summer being taken abroad to be 'cut' as part of a tradition David Cameron calls 'disgusting'. But a year on from his promise to eradicate it, what's being done to stop it?
School’s out and Britain’s playgrounds, beaches, libraries and museums are now besieged with hundreds of thousands of children larking about, eating ice creams, timidly flirting with each other and doing whatever other childhood-affirming sort of things kids do in the summer. But for 65,000 British girls under the age of 15, summer spells cutting season.
Cutting season is when girls are flown abroad (mainly to countries in Africa, countries their parents or grandparents might call home) to have female genital mutilation (FGM) performed on them.
The practice, which involves the partial or total removal of a girl’s external genitalia is thought to affect between 110 and 140 million young women worldwide.
There’s a ‘season’ for it because those facilitating and inflicting the FGM know to take the girls away for long enough to ‘heal’ after their procedure before being brought back to the UK. Under the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003, it is illegal to perform FGM on a girl in the UK or to take her abroad to have the practice inflicted on her. Yet, every year, countless girls are taken out of their home country and have their bodily – and sexual – autonomy stripped.
And while not one person has been convicted in the UK of FGM offences, steps are being taken to stop it being done, because prevention is more important than a prosecution.
Last week, Bedfordshire police issued an FGM protection order and seized the passports of two girls they feared would be taken abroad to undergo the practice. The police have done well to focus on the dangers of cutting season, but just like any form of child abuse and violence against women, FGM happens all year round, and abusers will adjust their behaviour to escape punishment.
‘We cannot slip back into thinking that it’s only in the summer or only in certain communities,’ says Nimko Ali, a co-founder of Daughters of Eve, a non-profit organisation to protect girls in FGM-practicing communities. ‘We have to be on guard all the time because the perpetrators are very smart. If they think we’re only looking at this issue around the summer, then they’ll change it to another time.’
We cannot slip back into thinking that it’s only in the summer or only in certain communities
As we celebrate the first anniversary of the Girl Summit, an event co-hosted by the UK government and UNICEF with the sole focus of mobilising efforts to end FGM and child marriage in a generation, the statistics don’t look great. But still, the momentum to end this practice continues. More and more girls are speaking out.
The Coalition brought in the Serious Crime Bill which meant that people planning FGM and those frontline workers (doctors, nurses, teachers) who know about it and don’t report it can all be prosecuted. We also saw continued commitment from MPs such as Jane Ellison and Justine Greening, and continued support from former MP Lynne Featherstone.
However, stumbling blocks have been set out. To end FGM, and to break the cycle of violence, education is paramount. Yet, the Conservatives have refused to make Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) statutory in all schools, or to make it mandatory for all frontline professionals to be trained on how to deal with FGM.
This is at odds with David Cameron’s Girl Summit promise that: ‘We shouldn’t rest until we have seen some people go through the courts, get prosecuted and get convicted for this absolutely disgusting practice.’
‘We are finally starting to have dialogues about FGM that connect FGM to the rights of the girl,’ says Leyla Hussein, another co-founder of Daughters of Eve. But it’s not all hopeful: ‘The language has changed drastically. But there is still no mandatory training for frontline professionals who play a key role. Until that happens, nothing will change.’
Plus, at the moment, the rules have it so that the youngest victims of FGM are going to be pitted against their parents for speaking out. Leyla says: ‘I’m still waiting for a concrete legislation change from the government; where we do not expect children to give evidence against their parents in court. We cannot expect a five-year-old to say, “My parents made me undergo the practice of FGM”. It just won’t happen.’
The lack of governmental effort to combat FGM leaves people like Lisa Zimmerman, the project manager of youth charity Integrate Bristol to pick up the slack. This year alone, the charity’s young people have delivered FGM awareness and prevention training to 4,000 frontline professionals. But it shouldn’t be up to them to do so.
‘The government makes it mandatory for frontline professionals to report cases of FGM, but how can they be fully equipped to do that with little or no training?’ Lisa tells The Debrief: ‘If we want to end FGM for good, then we have to educate all frontline professionals, so they feel empowered to talk about not just FGM, but gender-based violence. And to break the cycle we must engage with young people, too. The only way we can do that is if we educate, educate, educate.’
If we want to end FGM for good, then we have to educate all frontline professionals, so they feel empowered to talk about not just FGM, but gender-based violence
Lisa speaks with a great passion and drive, but it’s her point on making sure that all professionals have adequate training that particularly resonates with me. A new study by Equality Now and City University has found that no locality in England and Wales is free from FGM.
And in the London borough of Southwark, just 10 minutes’ drive from the Houses of Parliament or the Square Mile, it’s estimated that one in 20 women are survivors of the practice.
But ultimately, to end the practice of FGM, we must see it embedded within the fight to end violence against women and girls. Girls may not be subject to the practice in the UK, but we cannot be complacent or ignore the fact that two women are killed every week by a current or former partner.
When I spoke to Fatima Awil, a young person working with #YouthForChange, a group of young people supported by Plan UK and the Department of International Development, she said: ‘We all just need to act – and quickly’.
She’s right. We have a very long way to go before FGM and all forms of gender-based violence are eliminated. And we all need to act quickly to protect girls from undergoing this practice and stripping them of their basic human rights.
But in order to be the ‘moral authority’ in other countries (David Cameron’s words at the Girl Summit, not ours), we also need to act to ensure we have gender equality over here. What use are our demands of other countries, if we can’t lead by example?
The harsh reality is that FGM – and other gender-based violence acts – will never end until all girls are seen to be equal human beings with equal rights and are not valued or devalued for what’s between their legs, and are granted their inalienable rights to be safe from violence and free.
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