Women's Rights 
Letting Down Women at Home and Abroad

Jessica Parker Humphreys explores Western attitudes to Female Genital Mutilation

“Sometimes it’s tucked into itself, sewn up like the lips of a prisoner.
After the procedure, the girls learn how to walk again, mermaids with new legs, soft knees buckling under their new stainless, sinless bodies.” Girls by Warsan Shire

Anti-FGM campaigner, Leyla Hussein, presenting a false petition to members of the public

Anti-FGM campaigner, Leyla Hussein, presenting a false petition to members of the public to demonstrate the ease with which people accept the practice.

130 million women in the world are living with the repercussions of female genital mutilation. An estimated 25,000 teenage girls in the UK are thought to be at risk.[1] The practice has been illegal since 1985. There have been no prosecutions in that time.

It was recently the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation, prompting widespread worldwide discussion of a subject whose damaging effect continues to be underestimated by governments and cultures globally. The origins of the practice as an ethnic ritual means that it has often been handled delicately by Western countries, afraid of invalidating their brand of multiculturalism, whilst ignoring the millions of lives that are being ruined annually. Why is the legislation in place not working in Britain, and how can it be altered to protect women at risk of FGM?

The practice of FGM seems to originate in Africa, with historical evidence being found in hieroglyphics, as well as accounts of it being used within the slave trade. However, historically, FGM has not been limited solely to these geographical areas, with 19th century gynaecologists carrying out the removal of the clitoris in Europe and the United States in order to treat female masturbation. Despite the fact that FGM appears to have as many roots close to home as it does further afield, it has become associated in the Western media with families of African, Asian or the Middle Eastern origin. Efforts to maintain political correctness, and thus ensure Western societies are embracing of varying cultural traditions, has resulted in confusion over how best to solve this problem. For many, ‘multiculturalism’ suggests allowing individuals to act as they wish in private, in accordance with their particular ethnic practices, whilst buying into an overall attitude of tolerance. The extent of this mindless acceptance of FGM was revealed in 2013, when an FGM campaigner started a fake pro-FGM petition in Northampton, resulting in 19 signatures in half an hour, with only one refusal, and many agreeing that “Yes, it was just mutilation”[2].

The tacit consent British inaction provides is simply unacceptable. FGM concerns the lives of vulnerable girls who are forced to undergo a humiliating, damaging and dangerous process, to which they do not consent. It begs the question, is government inaction actually the result of a cultural clash, or just a failure to know what to do? The racial implications cannot be ignored: it seems hard to believe legislation would be so problematic if it was white, blonde girls who were primarily affected. According to UNICEF, up to 90% of women are likely to be cut in some parts of Africa where FGM is a societally ingrained practice. As immigration increases, and with it the likelihood of increased FGM in Britain, it is part of a government’s duty of care to its citizens to help end the struggle against female genital mutilation.

A clear problem with how female genital mutilation is dealt with in the UK is the uncertainty of frontline healthcare professionals in tackling the issue. It is estimated that hospitals only report 5 – 10% of FGM cases to local authorities,[3] often due to a lack of training, a lack understanding of the law, and fear of accusations of racism. The inherent nature of the problem affects young girls, who are unlikely to be willing to come forward with this information, when knowing it would involve going directly against their parents or other family members. This places the onus on adults in positions of care to take action. Michael Gove, as minister for education, has been reluctant to make any definitive statements about how teachers should be dealing with the problem, but this would be a step in the right direction. The amount of time teachers spend with their pupils makes them a useful tool in aiding vulnerable girls, at risk from FGM.  The Scottish government have taken a more proactive approach by writing to every head teacher in the country and asking them to help train staff to deal with female genital mutilation. A similar act in Britain would raise awareness in the classroom and allow teachers to be better prepared to help and support young girls who may be facing this problem alone.

The French approach has differed significantly from Britain’s, recognising the need for a more proactive approach. French legislation has been in place for a similar amount of time but has been much more effective, and this is almost certainly due to the fact that people are being prosecuted and given prison sentences for their part in the mutilation, be it mothers, fathers or the cutters themselves. Altogether there have been about 40 trials on the issue.[4] Whilst female genital mutilation has not stopped in France, the problem has seemingly diminished. This shows how easily Britain could start to tackle the problem, if it was willing to apply the legislation which is already in place.

The government is lagging behind on this global issue. It needs to show that young women and girls are safe to grow up in Britain, free from the risk of FGM. Only then will it finally be able to join the conversation about how female genital mutilation can be eradicated from the world altogether.

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/feb/06/female-genital-mutilation-facts

[2] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2478822/Female-circumcision-campaigner-horrified-shoppers-sign-pro-cutting-petition–theyre-scared-culturally-insensitive.html

[3] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/07/fgm-female-genital-mutilation-prosecutions-law-failed

[4] http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/feb/10/france-tough-stance-female-genital-mutilation-fgm