17 September 2014

FGM in the UK

Guest blog by Jade Botha. 

My name is Jade Botha, and I am originally from South Africa but have been living in the UK for over five years. I’m finishing my MA in Education Studies at the end of this month (September 2014). In March 2014 I had to decide on a topic for my 20,000 word dissertation. Originally I was going to look at citizenship and education, but then I decided on FGM. For my undergraduate dissertation I researched HIV/AIDS in South Africa and I wanted to research something along the lines of social work again, so I was keen to start researching FGM immediately.

I had never heard of FGM until I got an email which invited me to sign the petition which was started by Fahma Mohamed from Integrate Bristol. At first I was shocked and confused, and I couldn’t understand why FGM happens. I knew then that I had to learn more about it and what can be done to help the girls who are at risk. So I decided I would look at FGM in the UK for my dissertation. In particular, I focused on three areas: 

  • the perceptions surrounding FGM and the general knowledge of the public; 
  • media attention and campaigns; 
  • and the role of education and NGOs.

In order to gather my data I sent out a questionnaire in order to find out what the public know about FGM, and also their feelings about the practice – do they think it is a human rights violation, and a form of child abuse? I interviewed four people as a follow up to the questionnaire. 

I also interviewed three NGOs – one being 28TooMany. 

I had planned on interviewing head teachers from six schools across the country, but after contacting over twenty schools and not receiving a single response besides one ‘no’, I had to accept the fact that I wasn’t going to find out the teachers’ thoughts about introducing FGM onto the UK curriculum. Unfortunately I had contacted them at a very busy time – six weeks before the end of the school year, so I can understand why they didn’t respond, but I also have a feeling that for some of them the topic was just too controversial. This was particularly evident when during one of my follow-up calls I spoke to a deputy head teacher from a school in Hackney, and when I explained my research to him he had never heard of FGM. This really shocked me…because is a very multicultural area and therefore I expect teachers to know about various cultural practices – especially the harmful ones!

Although the education bit was one of my most important research areas, I had to integrate it differently through speculation and by using the responses from the NGOs.

The results of my research were not surprising. I found out that although the majority of questionnaire and interview respondents had heard of FGM (in fact 95% of them), they were unsure of the exact details and had many misconceptions – such as the belief that it is linked to religion. I was also not surprised to learn that all of them expressed feelings of anger/disgust/shock/sadness and agreed that FGM is a violation of human rights. One of my questions asked whether they think FGM should be taught to pupils, and only two of the respondents said no. One of them, a female respondent, said that she did not want her daughter being exposed to it, and she admitted that her reasoning was selfish. The other, a male, felt that it doesn’t affect enough of the UK population to warrant it being a part of the curriculum. Of course, I and many others would disagree with that belief. Nonetheless, it was interesting to know that while the majority of people who responded would be willing to support the introduction of FGM onto the curriculum, we do need to consider the opinions of the others – and use it as an opportunity to explain the benefits of teaching FGM to children in school.

Through my interviews with NGOs I learnt that I was not alone in trying to get responses from schools, as apparently it is difficult to get them to talk about FGM. This made me sad, because there is absolutely no reason why a person should avoid the topic… I understand all the taboos and the embarrassment of discussing such a thing, but surely we’ve moved on from that? Surely, especially in the UK, we are able to have open discussions about controversial issues? But when I looked at a survey by the NSPCC (2013) which found that 83 per cent of teachers did not have any training in the area of FGM, and as many as sixteen per cent were unaware that FGM is a criminal offence in the UK, I wasn’t surprised anymore. I guess most people, when confronted by an issue they know nothing about, prefer to ignore it because it’s easier than tackling it. Therefore, the UK government needs to make raising awareness about FGM a priority. The former Education Secretary Michael Gove did send out a letter to headteachers (an email which many ignored and didn’t bother to read) but that was all he did. He never followed up the email, and there was no effort in ensuring FGM continued to be discussed in the media. If FGM were to be secured as a topic that is taught to pupils, I personally believe that many lives could be saved – and I say saved because even though death may not occur as a result of FGM, the girls’ entire lives are affected and FGM is likely to haunt them forever. 

Overall, I found that the work of NGOs like 28 Too Many is invaluable in helping the women and girls affected by FGM, and also in ensuring that future victims are protected. They have resources available for schools which are useful and informative, and they also have the knowledge and expertise needed to deal with FGM. Therefore, I believe that government needs to work closely with NGOs to train people in the various sectors – health, education and police services, so that they will be able to deal with cases of FGM more thoroughly. Furthermore, they need to create a structured network which would allow them to share information, which in turn would help the women and girls affected by FGM. Lastly, it is highly advisable that a task team is set up specifically for dealing with cases of FGM. If this can be done, and a network is created, it is more likely that people will be caught and prosecuted for carrying out (or attempting to carry out) FGM.

Whatever happens, I hope that more people begin to learn about the horrors of FGM like I did, because until this year I knew nothing about it – but now I want to help raise awareness in any way possible. I believe it is wrong, and no human being should have to endure such suffering.

Join 28 Too Many and be part of the campiagn to end FGM. You can support our work by donating to fund our research and keep up to date with our progress by liking our page on Facebook and following us on Twitter.