25 November 2013

Female Genital Mutilation: Just a Women's Issue?

Guest blog by Winnie Cheung. 

The campaign against the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) within the UK has gained significant momentum in the last few years. The increasing popularity and usage of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, alongside coverage of the topic from national newspapers and television channels has greatly bolstered the efforts of various FGM charities and NGO’s to combat the issue. While there is undeniably a great commitment from charitable institutions and news outlets to tackle FGM in the UK, can the same be said for the British Government?

Legislation concerning the practice of Female Genital Mutilation has existed in the UK as far back as 1985, when the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act was passed, which has since been replaced by the Female Genital Mutilation Act of 2003. However, there has not been a single prosecution in the UK for a Female Genital Mutilation related offence since it became illegal almost thirty years ago. Many have attributed the lack of progress by the British Government on the basis that Female Genital Mutilation poses difficulties for the legal system to convict those suspected of the practice as it is seen as a “culturally sensitive” issue, that is, one that is challenging to approach for fear of appearing racially insensitive or ignorant.  While it is indeed a complex subject and one that is fraught with difficulties given that those involved with cutting the girls are most often close relatives, some 100 successful convictions in France prove that Female Genital Mutilation is something which can be handled within the legal framework. These convictions are  significant and symbolise the potential for successful convictions in the UK also.

The British Government has put forward several initiatives alongside passing legislation on FGM and there is now a cross party All Party Parliamentary Group for FGM. The Metropolitan Police Service has developed Project Azure in an effort to prevent Female Genital Mutilation, especially during the summer holidays, raising awareness by disseminating information packs to organisations who have contact with children. The gov.uk website shows examples of the posters, leaflets and information packs which have been distributed nationwide to hospitals, social workers and schools. Speeches and statements have been made by political figures, yet the developments that we see regarding Female Genital Mutilation come not from the government, but from the charities, NGOs and news outlets. I became aware of the practice not from a government initiative, but rather an article in the London Evening Standard. Many people I speak to regarding FGM have little knowledge or have never heard of the practice, there is an undeniable lack of awareness about the topic from the British public, which begs the question, how concerned are the British government about Female Genital Mutilation?

FGM charities such as 28 Too Many, Daughters of Eve, Equality Now, Forward and Orchid Project have made significant steps to challenge the practice of Female Genital Mutilation. Ongoing research, such as 28 Too Many’s most recent country profile on FGM in Ethiopia which shows FGM prevalence reducing in Ethiopia, also highlight that globally there has been substantial advances to ending Female Genital Mutilation. However, this has not been reflected in the UK. While independent institutions such as charities and news outlets continue to contribute to raising awareness of FGM, as evidenced most recently by Channel 4’s uncompromising documentary The Cruel Cut, it would appear as if the efforts of the charities, newspapers and television channels are not being matched by the Coalition Government.

Though many have argued the “culturally sensitive aspect” of FGM is the main hindrance to tackling the practice in the UK, I argue that within the British political landscape, it is also seen as a “women’s” issue, which renders it an exclusive subject matter which may be passed over by the men who dominate the cabinet and politics in general. It is incredibly significant that our Minister for Women and Equalities, Maria Miller, also doubles up as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Thus, if FGM is seen as a “women’s” issue by the men in government, in that it effects women exclusively and is campaigned against mainly by women (though that is not to say men are not involved), the fact that Miller has to divide her time and attention between two separate responsibilities suggests that there is less time and attention being devoted to women’s issues, and to an extension, FGM.

Female Genital Mutilation is not just an exclusive issue which effects a small proportion of the women in the UK, it is in fact a societal concern, one that causes lasting and damaging physical and psychological effects on those who are subjected to it. It is crucial that the men who dominate British politics see FGM as a problem which affects our whole society, as more could be achieved in combatting Female Genital Mutilation. A recent documentary, A Handful of Ash, by the Guardian and BBC Arabic, which investigated the practice in Kurdistan shows how Female Genital Mutilation was transformed from a taboo subject which no one discussed, to one which all members of society, men and women alike, confronted the practice. It is significant to highlight that the documentary shows when filming was completed and aired to the members of the Kurdish government, only female members of parliament turned up. However, the practice of Female Genital Mutilation was then given a higher social and political platform, which culminated in a change in the law in Kurdistan and numbers of girls undergoing FGM falling by more than half. If those in British politics were to come to the realisation, like the Kurdish politicians, that Female Genital Mutilation was not merely a women’s issue, but a social issue, then the efforts and achievements of charities and NGOs could be capitalised and maximised, and more could be done worldwide as well as in the UK to stop girls being cut.

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