7 August 2014

The Girl Summit looked to a better future but what about girls facing FGM this summer?

Blog by 28 Too Many Volunteer Shirelle Salem.

Thinking back to the school summer holidays as a child I remember long, carefree, sunny days; endless weeks of freedom and not a care in the world. In fact, this is probably how many of us remember our summer holidays and today we feel slightly envious as children embark on their 6 weeks of freedom. But for 24,000 UK girls their summer holiday experience may be somewhat different. Their summer holiday may involve their genitals being cut.

The start of the school summer holidays also marks the start of 'cutting season.' This is a time when girls are most at risk of female genital mutilation (FGM) due to the long period of time for the girls to heal before returning to school in September and thus the practise is likely to go undetected by others. The arrests of two people in London on 26th July 2014 (both currently on bail pending further investigation) served to highlight the start of 'cutting season.'  Girls are often flown to their ancestral countries for the procedure but according to the Metropolitan Police, equally large numbers of girls are being mutilated here in the UK during the summer break. With flight prices on the rise, people are pooling together resources to fly over a 'cutter' to mutilate their girls at what has been dubbed 'FGM parties.' This is all despite the fact that FGM was made illegal in the UK in 1985 and in 2003 it became illegal for girls to be taken abroad for FGM, with a penalty of up to 14 years imprisonment. According to reports, it is estimated that 170,000 females have undergone FGM in the UK and a further 65,000 girls aged 13 and under are at risk and yet to date, there has not been a single conviction.

So why is UK failing to effectively tackle FGM and protect girls at risk? Yes, FGM is a difficult issue to tackle but so are all forms of child abuse. Many campaigners have expressed frustration at excessive cultural sensitivity and say that a fear of being seen as racist has been a barrier to action against FGM. Others point out that those affected are often reluctant to talk about their experience since this is such a private matter and they will face censure from others in their community for speaking out. Another problem is that it is not reasonable to place the burden for proving FGM has taken place on young girls when this involves speaking out against their families. In addition girls may not understand what has happened to them until many years later. It is likely that all of these and other factors all play a part in the UK’s failure to effectively deal with FGM but whatever the reasons this is unacceptable and it is truly shocking that so many girls and women continue to suffer.

On 22nd July 2014 the UK hosted the first Girl Summit which brought together individuals from across the globe to tackle two of the biggest challenges faced by girls today; female genital mutilation (FGM) and early forced child marriage (EFM). The UK Government announced a £1.4 million FGM prevention programme, launched in partnership with the NHS, aimed to care for FGM survivors and safeguard those at risk; parents who fail to protect their daughters from FGM will face prosecution under new legislation; and survivors of FGM will also receive lifelong anonymity from the time they make the allegation. Furthermore, the government also announced the launch of a FGM specialist service, new police guidance and that all frontline professionals working in the public sector will receive compulsory training on FGM. Currently frontline professionals receive no routine training on how to respond to FGM and such could be a missing link on tackling FGM in the UK.

Earlier this year, then Education Secretary, Michael Gove, wrote to every headteacher in England alerting them of the dangers of FGM and providing guidelines for appropriate response. Worryingly, less than half of the headteachers read these guidelines; only 56% of Heads opened the email and only 45% then 'clicked through' the email. These Schools are failing to protect girls at risk. So why were these emails ignored? Is this due to an ignorance of the subject, despite an average of 3 articles per week appearing in the British press and FGM having been raised in Parliament on over 45 occasions (source: Justice for FGM Victims UK). Yet, can we criticise these teachers for failing to respond to an issue they have received no formal guidance or training on? These teachers are not adequately equipped to deal with FGM. All professionals need practice guidance and the confidence to intervene at the earliest stage and ideally prevent FGM from taking place and therefore these new plans have been welcomed by campaigners on this issue. FGM needs to be brought out in the open and we need to break the cycle.

But is it only front-line workers who need to be educated on FGM? 'The Cruel Cut' aired by Channel 4 demonstrated Leyla Hussain (FGM survivor and campaigner) taking to the streets as part of an experiment and asking passers-by to sign her petition in favour of FGM saying it was part of her cultural beliefs and rights. Within 30 minutes Leyla had 19 signatures with only one member of the public refusing as she didn't agree with the young children being forced to go through it. It would appear that some of the British public think that FGM is OK since it is part of someone's culture. Are the British public afraid of offending? Naive? Or are we simply passing the responsibility? More awareness needs to be raised, people need to be educated and attitudes need to change because we all share a duty to protect every girl. The UK has the highest levels of FGM in Europe and the UK can no longer stand by as girls experience this horrific form of child abuse.

Indeed, France's zero-tolerance attitude has seen 100 successful prosecutions in 29 cases, despite having no specific FGM laws in place. Instead these cases have been brought to court under existing child abuse and cruelty legislations. Successful convictions send a clear message that society will not tolerate FGM and act as a deterrent. It could be argued that the UK's so-called 'cultural sensitivity' and lack of successful prosecutions has sent out the wrong message. Reports suggest that the UK has been viewed as a 'soft-touch' with immigrants in France said to be sending girls to the UK to be cut. Further to this, France carries out regular medical checks on young girls and also on their return from family holidays, a controversial yet effective strategy. However, France's strict approach is far from perfect and such screening measures raise a number of welfare and human rights issues and it is doubtful the UK would adopt such strategies. It is important to learn from other but each country must develop an approach appropriate to its own needs.

Since 2012, the UK has issued 'health passports' which girls or their relatives can carry abroad with them. These booklets explain that FGM carries a maximum 14 year sentence even when carried out abroad and hope to act as a preventative method. However, these are not compulsory. In May this year the Metropolitan Police and Border force carried out a week long initiative 'Operation Limelight' aimed at preventing at-risk girls being taken out of the country for FGM. This anti-FGM campaign was carried out at 7 major UK airports, including London's Heathrow where police focused on flights to and from countries where FGM is widespread. However, after 7 days of intelligence-led checks, only one arrest was made after the FGM had been carried out. The start of the summer holidays saw this operation re-launch across all major UK airports and border crossings, with all officers issued with official guidance and informed to put aside cultural sensitivities and fears of being branded racist in order to pursue investigations into FGM. They will be focusing on flights to and from countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Dubai, Egypt and Turkey. It is believed that this will send out a clear message to everyone that FGM will not be tolerated and that those involved will be held to account.

The current attention from the government and public is encouraging. With the Girl Summit behind us and the announcement of new measures to end FGM we must all continue to pursue this change to ensure that in the future young girls will not fear the summer holidays and 'cutting season' will cease to exist. It is important, however, to remember that it is not only the summer when girls are cut. Girls need protecting every day from FGM.

If you have concerns about FGM and think a girl is at risk please contact the police or health services. In an emergency situation please ring 999.

You can also contact Crime Stoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111 or via their website.

The NSPCC also has a confidential helpline to offer advice on FGM on 0800 028 3550.

28 Too Many works to end FGM through research, networking and advocacy to provide knowledge, tools, support and connections to help those working in communities. You can donate to support our research and campaign to protect girls and end this practice. Please also follow us on Facebook and Twitter for updates on the global movement to end FGM. Please also get in touch if you would like more information about CED.