9 October 2013

A commitment to change: why it is important to provide asylum to those at risk of FGM

Guest blog by Vivien Cohen.

Commonly known as ‘female circumcision’, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is, as Caitlin Moran puts it, as different to its male counterpart as “merely pruning the branches of a tree and coming at it with a bulldozer and taking the roots up.”  The World Health Organisation classifies FGM as “procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons,” and there are currently thirty million girls at risk of it worldwide. In its least aggressive form, FGM might involve piercing, pricking or cauterisation.  The most severe form, known as infibulation, involves narrowing the vaginal opening, sometimes to the size of a match head, often with the total excision of the clitoris as well.

Following the United Nation’s ban on FGM in December last year, the message, were it not so before, is now loud and clear: FGM is a violation, total and absolute, of women’s human rights. The onus then, as laid out under the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, is on other countries to protect women and girls who are at risk. The United Kingdom Border Agency cites its commitment to providing asylum for “genuine refugees”; they also state that to be considered a refugee, a person must be unable to return to their own country due to a “well-founded fear of persecution”.

The UK and indeed much of the global community who abide by the same rules, have already pledged, by default, to provide asylum for women who fear FGM for themselves or their children. It is our duty to uphold our vow to those vulnerable members of the international community who are reaching out to us to save them from often unimaginable horror.

Yet although the Home Office claims to have a genuine commitment towards helping “prevent women and girls from becoming victims”, it would seem that hundreds of women are having their applications rejected and are therefore being exposed to very real danger.

Sue Lloyd-Roberts recently completed a Newsnight report which explored the dangers which women and girls face if their applications are rejected. She met with 23 year old Fatima, who sought asylum in order to protect her three year old, British born daughter, from having to return to the Gambia and inevitably being cut. Her claim- despite being both genuine and desperate- was rejected and, having exhausted the appeals process, all she could do was await deportation.

By not providing asylum, we are sinking further into a culture that ignores the suffering of others, and does so easily because their suffering is far removed from our own. Yet FGM is not far removed, it is already on our doorstep. People often fall into the trap of believing FGM to be a ‘foreign problem’, which arguably makes it easier to ignore. Yet in addition to the estimated 1,000 worldwide asylum claims each year that are related to FGM, approximately 22,000 British girls are at risk annually.

If FGM could be viewed as a problem which is alien to our own country and culture then perhaps we could more easily bury our heads in the sand, though morally we should not. Yet it is ludicrous to try and ignore something which is clearly everyone’s problem. Perhaps the nearness of FGM is academic.  How much we can relate to it should not affect our desire to protect those in danger of it. If we cannot empathise, this does not in any way mean that we should not sympathise. 

Arguably the greatest weapon in the fight against FGM comes in the form of the new generations who refuse to be subjected to it, and who refuse to subject their children to it. Change is coming, slowly and steadily; yet new generations must be saved in order for this momentum to keep going. The fight against FGM cannot move forward if potential victims have the motivation to refuse mutilation but are not provided with the means to escape it. As often is the case with FGM, if we cannot be part of the solution then we are fated to become part of the problem. 

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