28 February 2013

FGM in the UK - a case for renewed optimism?

Guest Blog by Marianna Ryan, 28 Too Many Social Media Volunteer.

It is sobering that over 20,000 young girls and women are at risk of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) each year in the UK- a developed nation with a commitment to human rights, as well as a comprehensive child protection framework. More worrying is that this statistic is, at best, an educated estimate, since FGM often takes place undetected. Figures published in London Evening Standard  in early 2012 gave some indication of the prevalence of the practice: since 2006, 2,167 women have received hospital treatment in London for FGM. The problem is that many more have undoubtedly endured the medical and psychological repercussions in silence.

Most disconcerting, however, is this practice remains prevalent despite the ostensible protections in place within the UK’s legal framework. FGM was declared illegal in the UK in 1985, and legislation was strengthened in 2003 covering residents travelling abroad for FGM, and yet not one prosecution has taken place for FGM. Only three suspected cases of FGM have been referred to the Crown Prosecution Service over 27 years. It is painfully evident that the legal protection of girls and young women at-risk is not, in practice, remotely being upheld.

Why is this the case? What is the root cause of inaction preventing us from righting this wrong? Although a number of factors contribute, one of the most convincing argument hinges upon a reticence to intervene. It is an uncomfortable truth that the practice occurs most commonly in certain immigrant communities within the UK, in which age-old cultural traditions serve as the framework in which the violation occurs. The most common motivation is the belief that FGM ensures daughters remain chaste and worthy of marriage. Culture is, by its very nature, one of the most sensitive and personal aspects of a person’s life, particularly in relation to sexual and familial norms and behaviour. Changing practices which are seemingly intrinsic to certain cultures becomes all the more daunting a prospect in the contemporary climate of debate concerning the UK’s multiethnic landscape and immigration policy. In this climate, a fear of accusations of cultural insensitivity, or worse, of racism, is understandable.

Such fears, however, cannot continue to amount to a passive tolerance of FGM within the UK. Such fears prevent the key individuals with the greatest capacity to intervene– police, health workers, schoolteachers and politicians, from acting upon their suspicions. By failing to tackle FGM are we not indirectly complicit in violations to the human rights of the girls involved? This begs the question powerfully posed by Jane Ellison MP in recent parliamentary debates: “If this abhorrent practice were happening routinely to white, middle-class girls from long-settled parts of the community, would there not be a greater outcry among professionals, politicians and the media?” It is difficult to argue with her presumption: if this were the case, there would be headlines every week. Although it is difficult, it seems that the FGM in the UK has, up until this point, been shrouded in irony: a fear of demonstrating ‘cultural prejudice’ has meant that the rights of young girls in at-risk communities are accorded less significance than those of the wider British community.

Despite this dispiriting state of affairs, recent developments in the UK lead me to suggest, with cautious optimism, that the tides may now be changing. Following the formation of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on FGM in December 2011, chaired by Jane Ellison MP, the importance of eliminating FGM and the actions required to achieve this goal have been the focus of numerous parliamentary discussions. The tangible products of this parliamentary dialogue have included the formation of a cross-Government Steering Group to oversee the government’s FGM work, and the recent production of a new educational leaflet by the Home Office.

Progress, too, has recently been made in the legal sphere. At the end of 2012, KierStarmer QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, published an action plan to improve prosecutions in FGM, including researching how other jurisdictions prosecute the crime, and identifying the issues which has so far hindered investigations. The Crown Prosecution Service is also finally recognising that effective regulation requires current and comprehensive statistics, and has thus included the promise to gather more robust data as a key action point. Notwithstanding the distinct lack of its implementation, the law in itself presents an essential framework for prosecuting perpetrators of FGM in the UK. It is reassuring to know that the CPS is taking stock of the safeguards necessary to ensure such legislation is effective.

Perhaps most significant, however, is the recent introduction of the Statement Opposing Female Genital Mutilation in November 2012. The Statement, based on Holland’s acclaimed ‘Health Passport’, is a one year pilot scheme aiming to drastically reduce the number of girls being taken abroad to undergo the procedure. Under the initiative, parents and at-risk girls are provided with a Government-issued leaflet to carry with their passports, stating that residents of the UK can face up to 14 years imprisonment if FGM is performed abroad. It therefore acts as a disincentive for parents, as well as a tangible justification for both parents and girls to rebuff familial and community pressures to take part in FGM.

It seems, therefore, that there is some cause for optimism. A number of key stakeholders are now engaged in stepping up to the standard of engagement set by 28 Too Many and affiliate organisations in the NGO sector.  This momentum must now be consolidated and carried forward. The sustained occurrence of FGM in the UK has deep-seated implications for the global drive to eliminate the practice worldwide, and we have a responsibility to set a precedent of zero tolerance in the months ahead.

At a minimum, this demands a robust commitment on the part of parliamentarians to prioritise FGM on the political agenda, the intent and ability of different factions of civil society to work collaboratively to identify at-risk girls,and the ongoing injection of resources. The announcement on 7 February 2013 of a three-year £1.6m initiative was a promising start. However, it is only with an ongoing and stable injection of funding that the long-term objective of eradication will be realised.

In addition, a definitive move away from a culture-oriented discourse will be integral to ensuring that the fight against FGM gains further momentum. It is worth concluding with a statement released on the 2013 International Day Against FGM by the EU Commission which articulates the facts most powerfully: “Violence toward women and girls is not cultural. It is criminal”. Tackling FGM  is not the same as cultural prejudice. It does not automatically conflate the issue with wider cultural or racial assumptions.

I therefore hope that 2013 will bear witness to a concerted move, at all levels of society, towards recognising FGM for exactly what it entails: a blatant and violent human rights violation, which neither girls in immigrant communities nor in the wider community should ever have to endure. If recent progress can be maintained, the months ahead have the potential to mark a significant milestone in the effort to eliminate FGM in the UK, and to catalyse comprehensive attitudinal change in the wider international community. Let’s see this happen.

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