8 April 2014

"We owe it to the children. We can make a difference."

Blog by Amy Hurn, 28 Too Many Research Project Manager.

When I was first asked to attend this Metropolitan Police Project Azure Conference in London on 29th March 2014, I knew it would be an excellent opportunity to hear more about the current position of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in the UK.  The day was certainly one full of hugely inspiring and informative speakers who explained how they fit into the complex network of tackling FGM.  From social workers to survivors, there was indeed a lot of information on offer.  What I did not realise perhaps is how the day would also include both laughter and tears, and even singing and dancing!

Project Azure is the Metropolitan Police team responsible for responding to the issue of FGM.  It works with partner agencies to raise awareness among practitioners and the community to develop preventative strategies and intelligence opportunities.  As part of its plan to tackle FGM the Project Azure Conference was put on with the aim to bring together individuals and organisations for a clear reason, as explained in the opening comments by Detective Chief Superintendent Keith Niven, “We are here because we are committed to protect children”

He, and his colleagues at Project Azure, reiterated throughout the day that we can only achieve our vision to bring about the eradication of FGM if all agencies work together, that we must collectively educate others and that we must empower girls.  Whilst the first charge being made by the CPS will send out a clear message in the UK, the underlying theme is clearly that the Metropolitan Police are actually following a more subtle approach – they want to prevent, eradicate, engage, educate and to achieve this in partnership with all agencies in the field.  

They face a number of barriers, as reported elsewhere, including lack of information, few referrals and the fact that FGM does not present itself through the usual signs that trigger child abuse investigations.  The team at Project Azure are dependent on the community in tackling FGM and they realise the importance of building trust to achieve this.  The Metropolitan Police need to know the identity of the cutters, for instance, as they move forward and there are mechanisms in place for the community to use in complete confidence (eg through the NSPCC helpline).  

We were also reminded throughout the day of the courage and bravery shown by the survivors of FGM.  We heard from Alimatu Dimonekene, Hoda Ali and Aissa Edon about their experiences as young girls and the long term effects that they suffer as a result of FGM.  For me, it made the FGM issue so very real and the emotion in that conference room was almost palpable.  In addition, Sarian Kamara outlined the tradition of the Bondo ceremony that takes place in Sierra Leone and the highly respected role played by the Sampa in initiating young girls.

We were also honoured to hear from a husband’s perspective – Siaka Charles pointed out so poignantly how men too are victims of FGM, that through his faith and love for his wife he has learnt how to cope with and support her through the pain and complications it has brought.  He was proud that they have found a way together when so many marriages fall victim to FGM and its consequences.

I did not expect my tears to turn to laughter through a talk on women’s rights in Islam, but Dr Mohammed Fahim achieved this through his message regarding the position of FGM and religion.  We were also entertained with song and dance by Christina Oshunniyi who demonstrated her creativity in using the performing arts to raise awareness of issues such as FGM (as well as audience participation from the Metropolitan Police!).

The conference was given an insight into the development of Child Protection Law and the processes that are in place regarding referrals to Children’s Social Care.  We were also reminded throughout the day that FGM is widespread, it is a global issue and we need to be aware of the extent of its reach into communities within the UK.  This message was clear from the talk given by Diana Nammi of the Iranian & Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO).  Whilst there was much discussion on the prevalence of FGM amongst African communities, we learnt that although there is very little research on FGM in the Middle East the problem is known to be huge in some areas (for example, some 73% amongst Iraq-Kurds, 80% in Oman and up to 97% in parts of Yemen).  IKWRO provides advice, counselling and training for Middle Eastern women and girls in the UK and Diana emphasized the importance of identifying and understanding how FGM is viewed and practised by all these communities as current child protection laws do not make these distinctions as they stand at present.

In conclusion, therefore, if the Metropolitan Police did indeed set out to bring together a mixed and varied audience to learn about and discuss the issues surrounding FGM in the UK, then I feel that they did achieve this at the Project Azure conference.  It is clearly such a complex issue and they feel passionately that they can tackle it with the support and engagement of all agencies and the community.  As Detective Superintendent Jason Ashwood stated in his concluding remarks, “We owe it to the children.  We can make a difference”

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