It’s cutting season. With the UK summer school holidays, hundreds of girls could be at risk of being sent abroad and subjected to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Claire Dale asks if the world is finally starting to take action to prevent this act.
According to the World Health Organisation, FGM ‘comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.’ Medical complications, as well as the psychological and sexual trauma that this practice causes, remain with girls who are forced to endure it throughout their lives.
Despite being illegal since 1985 in the UK, FGM is still believed to be widely practiced on UK-born girls, at home or abroad. A landmark study by City University and Equality Now published a week and a half ago estimated that 137.000 women are affected by FGM throughout the UK.
The report also states that almost one in twenty women in the London Borough of Southwark are believed to have been subjected to FGM. Despite the incidence being lower in other parts of the country, the report finds that no locality in England and Wales is free from FGM.
Despite the efforts of NGOs , such as Daugthers of Eve or Forward uk, to change the mentalities of communities and families about FGM, the practice remains very much a reality in the UK. Until recently, it seemed that the Government’s commitment to eradicating FGM remained largely rhetorical. For instance, even though since 2003 anyone taking a child out of the UK to be cut faces 14 years in prison, there is yet to be a single prosecution.
It seems that the Government was reluctant to deal with what was perceived to be a ‘cultural practice’. According to the Huffington Post, ‘historically, UK doctors and social services have been hesitant to intervene when they see suspected FGM, for fear they would be called racist.’ However, as Plan UK, one of the largest children’s charities in the world, reminds us, not only is the practice carried out for ‘reasons with absolutely no basis in fact or evidence’, but it also ‘predates all major religions and is not specified in any religious text.’ FGM is not a cultural practice, nor is it a religious one. It is a violation of human rights. The UN goes so far as to define FGM as a form of torture.
This year, however, seems to be marking a turn in the fight against FGM in the UK. It seems that the Government is, finally, no longer willing to accept that cultural sensitivity should prevent fighting child abuse.
The Serious Crime Act 2015 that came into force last month allows judges to issue protection orders when concerns are raised about a girl being at risk of FGM. The Act also allows judges to remand people in custody, order mandatory medical checks and instruct girls believed to be at risk of the practice to live at a particular address so that authorities can check on whether they have been subjected to FGM.
Under this new Act, for example, a father has been forbidden from taking his three daughters aged 6 to 12 to Nigeria, as their mother claimed that they were to undergo FGM there. Bedfordshire police also seized the passports of two young girls who were believed to be set for the same fate. The Government is also looking into making it mandatory for medical professionals and teachers to report concerns about FGM where this involves minors.
The UK’s toughened stance towards FGM seems to be part of a global commitment towards eradicating the practice.
In France, not only is FGM punishable by 10-20 years in prison for the author of the practice as well as for the legal parent of the child, but any citizen (including professionals) is also legally obliged to report any concerns about a risk of FGM. Failure to do so is subject to criminal prosecution.
Further abroad, an increasing number of countries, including Bangladesh, are starting to change the legislation on FGM and in May this year, Nigeria made FGM illegal. However, even outlawing FGM is often not enough to change a community’s outlook on the practice. In Somalia, for example, despite FGM being illegal, over 97% of Somali girls are believed to be affected by the practice.
Plan UK states that FGM is ingrained in communities because it is believed that the practice equates purity, cleanliness and a necessary requirement for marriage.
UNICEF (link in French – see End FGM EU for an English list of the reasons for FGM) underlines that FGM is often perceived as indispensable for social cohesion and used as a means to control female sexual appetite. This is why community outreach and the training of social, medical and professionals in education are so crucial.
The UK is finally on the right track and the rest of the world seems to slowly be moving in the right direction. However, as Leyla Hussein, the co-founder of Daughters of Eve, an NGO that protects girls in FGM-practicing communities, claims, forcing people to report FGM, as long as there is no mandatory training for frontline professionals to deal with FGM, will yield little results.
FGM is a radical act of gender-based violence. It may even be the most extreme illustration of gender inequality, since it entails the mutilation of what precisely makes a woman a woman. The reality is that until we achieve gender equality in all areas of life, girls will not be safe from this intolerable practice both abroad and in the UK.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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