Sunday 25 November 2012 marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Whilst you sit at home, with your children, your family, your friends, perhaps enjoying a Sunday Roast, thousands of women in the UK, millions of women worldwide, are at risk of enduring violence and torture at the hands of their family. Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is the act of intentionally altering or injuring the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. FGM is not just a problem that happens elsewhere – it happens right here, in the UK. But despite being introduced as a specific criminal offence in 1985 not a single prosecution has occurred in the UK. Recently, the Crown Prosecution Service unveiled an action plan to tackle the problem of FGM in the UK.
Describing FGM as a ‘problem’ seems wholly inappropriate. When you hear what the victims of this practice endure, it is far more than a ‘problem’. Now, brace yourself…FGM, at the very least, involves cutting away part of the clitoris. In its most extreme form all of the external exposed genitalia are removed. Older female family members tend to undertake the procedure using razors, scissors and sharp knives; the girl is then stitched up to leave only a small opening to allow for urination and menstruation. Horrific isn’t it? Yet, this is accepted practice in the Middle East and in Africa where it is estimated 22 million girls aged over 10 have been victims of FGM. It is believed that FGM will reduce a woman’s libido making her less likely to stray outside of her marriage. Or perhaps it is just a way of making her look and feel ugly, destroying her self-esteem in such a way that she would never consider herself attractive or desirable to any man.
What I want to stress is that there is no medical benefit to FGM. None whatsoever. It can cause severe bleeding, significant issues with urinating, potential childbirth complications and newborn deaths. It can happen to girls from infancy to 15 years old and it is estimated that between 100 million and 140 million girls are living with the consequences worldwide.
Why is it an issue in the UK?
If you were to take notice of the reported prosecution figures you would not consider FGM an issue the UK needs to be concerned with. But this is not the reality. The UK has large immigrant communities from countries where FGM is considered acceptable. In these areas of the UK it is not unheard of for FGM parties to take place, for girls to be brought together so that each of them can have their genitalia mutilated at the same time, to save time and money. The girls of course, have no idea what is about to happen to them. Imagine arriving to learn that this is what is to happen to you at the ‘party’.
Families will often take their daughters abroad to a country where FGM is accepted practice during the school holidays. The UK legislation does in fact make it illegal to take British Nationals, or permanent residents of the UK, abroad for FGM whether or not it is lawful in that country. But it happens – 24000 women in the UK are considered ‘at risk’ every year – an incredible number when you consider not a single prosecution has taken place in over 25 years.
Will a stronger sense of prosecution actually change anything?
What appears to have happened in the UK is a dismissive attitude based on cultural respect. We seem to be a country too polite or perhaps too ignorant, to protect the girls this appalling act is happening to.
Action points in the CPS action plan include
1) To gather more robust data on allegation to gauge the scale of the problem.
2) To identify what issues have hindered investigations and prosecutions.
But with 24000 girls aged below 15 at risk of FGM in the UK, you can’t help but ask is this not too little, too late? Whilst it’s easy to place the blame on the CPS, the police, and other responsible bodies who have come into contact with victims of FGM for their apathetic attitude, will the action plan actually change anything? And can we as a country do very much if incidences of FGM are not reported?
Of the three cases referred to the CPS, none has made it to court. This appears to be due to inconsistencies in victim and witness statements making it difficult for the cases to stand up in court.
How can we overcome it?
How many of you reading this already knew about Female Genital Mutilation in the UK? I suspect not many – you probably thought it was a problem for other countries but not for the UK, right? Well, I hope you can now see that you are wrong.
Firstly, I believe we need to talk about it more. UK citizens generally have very little knowledge on FGM, and that’s not necessarily our fault. If the government and responsible services have turned a relative blind eye to it, how is Joe Public to know much about it? The fact is, without increased awareness, things won’t change. We need to ensure we train the individuals who work with women to identify FGM, but most importantly we need to ensure they will act on it and support the victim – not turn a blind eye to it as a cultural issue.
As Labour MP, Diane Abbott is reported as saying in The Guardian “The issue has lurked in the shadows for far too long.”
Too scared and too ashamed to ask for help, the victims – young girls, live in agony. By increasing our awareness of FGM, by talking about it and acknowledging it happens, by claiming it is abominable, by putting in place support networks and legal processes which provide necessary protective outcomes for victims, we give these girls a voice. We need victims to know the UK considers FGM horrific; we need victims to know the UK has a supportive system in place which will act on their reports and protect them. Perhaps then, victims will feel able to come forward and speak about what has happened to them. Perhaps they will feel safer in implicating their families and not afraid of the consequences, which after all, is what they must deal with to report FGM.
So if you’ve cared enough to still be reading this, please do something to help raise awareness about Female Genital Mutilation in the UK. Tweet the link to this post, share it on facebook or whatever social media forum you use, shout about it from the roof-tops…do whatever you can to increase awareness of this abhorrent crime and to stop these girls suffering in silence.