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Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) affects 140 million women worldwide. In the UK, an estimated 24 000 women every year are at risk of Type III FGM, the most extreme form of the practice. The UK’s Female Genital Mutilation Act is ten years old this year—yet not a single conviction has been made under the act. It is clear that significant barriers still exist to implementing top-down measures to stamp out this barbaric practice.
FORWARD UK are an action group with a different approach. They work with diasporic African communities in the UK, talking directly with the families of young girls who are at risk of mutilation. And according to Rukayah Sarumi, who represented FORWARD at the Women’s Day panel at King’s College last Friday, they are having some remarkable successes.
Challenges to eradicating FGM in the UK
Though the clandestine nature of FGM makes it difficult to say for sure, it is believed that mutilation is sometimes carried out by older community members, and sometimes by medically-trained individuals. For girls residing in the UK, FGM might occur in the UK, or during a visit to the country of origin or heritage.
Families often feel a great deal of community pressure to carry out FGM on their daughters. Reasons given include tradition and cultural heritage (FGM is NOT a religious requirement, though it is sometimes misunderstood to be); cleanliness; proof of a woman’s modesty; a prerequisite for marriageability; and the family’s fear of ostracism if they choose not to “circumcise” their daughters.
The UK government has been able to overlook FGM for too long, because the scale of the problem was not recognised. However, the government has recently pledged £35 million “to end FGM within a generation.” This is the most significant sum that has yet been dedicated to the problem, and activist groups like FORWARD are tentatively encouraged by this show of institutional support. But lack of funding has not been the only barrier to ending FGM in the UK.
According to Sarumi, many people still hesitate to prosecute suspected cases of FGM because they worry that “children don’t want to incriminate their families.” Sarumi argues that this is cultural relativism, pure and simple, and must be overcome. Children at risk of other forms of physical and sexual abuse are not ignored, though they face similar problems with bringing shame on their families. The law has found solutions to help protect children in these situations from violence, and the same must be done in the case of FGM.
Neither is it acceptable to claim that the practice cannot be eradicated because it is “ingrained in these cultures” or because it continues to be practices in the countries of origin and heritage. Sarumi argued that such an attitude ignores the courageous efforts of women and men in African countries affected by FGM to end the practice at home; and it also ignores the legal powers the UK does have to protect children from being taken abroad to be mutilated. The Home Office is already empowered to issue special passports to families whose children might be at risk of FGM, explicitly stating that children are not to be taken out of the UK for this purpose, and that criminal prosecution will result if they are.
Sarumi also pointed out a problem I wouldn’t have thought of—that the medicalisation of FGM in anti-FGM campaigns may be working against the interests of at-risk women. Activist campaigns often focus on the unsanitary conditions in which FGM is carried out, and the risk of infection and other health complications. But there is evidence to suggest that some FGM might be carried out in sanitary conditions by medically-trained individuals. Which doesn’t make it right. Sarumi argued we need to be opposing FGM as a human rights violation, not a health issue.
What FORWARD is doing differently
FORWARD has had positive results with working directly with the diasporic communities in which FGM still occurs. One aspect of their work is to talk directly with the mothers, grandmothers and aunts who condone the practice and allow it to continue. Rather than taking a “top-down” approach, giving women a checklist of reasons to discontinue FGM and threatening prosecution, an open dialogue is encouraged, in which women discuss their reasons (often complex, and embedded in their broader community life) for favouring FGM. The conversation can then be opened up to consider alternatives to the practice. These women are then trained in community leadership skills, and can raise voices of dissent against older, male, often religious, community figureheads who pressure families to continue to “circumcise” their daughters.
FORWARD also reaches out to school-age children in diasporic communities, again starting from a position of open dialogue and exploring alternatives. Sarumi reported that the children often become impassioned opponents of the practice, willing to address the government directly about the need to end FGM. They also become forces of resistance in the home, Sarumi says, and will tell their families: “You did this to me, but it was wrong. If you do it to my sister, I will report you.” It seems likely, too, that when these young people grow up and have children of their own, they will feel able to make different decisions for the next generation.
In the discussion that followed Sarumi’s and the other panelists’ presentations, it became clear that this model of open dialogue might be successfully applied to other activist interventions, beyond FGM. One audience member who works with young people spoke about the problem of widespread ignorance about sexual consent, and complained that “it’s particularly hard to get through to the boys about this.” It can be challenging to listen to attitudes we find offensive, especially if we think the speaker is just parroting things she or he has heard elsewhere. But Sarumi argued that this is precisely what makes listening openly so important. Opinions which are ignored, silenced or talked over can be pushed underground, and continue to be held in secret. Whereas if they are openly discussed, and the limitations and alternatives considered in a non-aggressive way, the power of such viewpoints to control behaviour can be challenged, and the space for new thought can be created.
What’s next for the anti-FGM movement?
The practical impact of the government’s recent £35 million pledge toward ending FGM are yet to be seen, but the scale of support represented by this sum is unprecedented, and seems to indicate a turning of the tide in public and institutional attitudes to this problem. Perhaps anti-FGM initiatives will gain more public support with the rising awareness of gendered violence and exploitation, especially of minors, in the UK at this time. Though the subject is distressing, it simply cannot remain taboo.
The anti-FGM movement has also had a recent boost thanks the UN’s resolution last December to outlaw FGM. This is a strong statement from the international community that FGM is not a “traditional cultural practice” beyond the reach of legislation and international rights discourse. I would add that anything labelled “traditional” usually turns out to imply a much longer unbroken heritage than, in fact, it has. This uplifting documentary about young Kenyan women’s opposition to FGM points out that girls are being “cut” younger and younger, leading to horrific birth complications, because, as opposition to the practice grows, there is pressure to mutilate the girls before they’re old enough to offer informed resistance. We need to support the efforts of these brave women to choose a different future for themselves, whether they be from rural Kenya or suburban London. Working with communities rather than from outside, as FORWARD is doing, seems to be having a significant positive impact.
More information on the activities of FORWARD and on the practice and prevention of FGM can be found at their website, forwarduk.org.uk.