23 July 2013

What are you doing this summer?

Guest blog by a 28 Too Many volunteer.

Most of us hope our children’s summers will be filled with fun, laughter, the making of happy memories ….. now, stop a moment and think …. for thousands of young girls, the reality of summer will not be like this.  They may pack their suitcase, head for the airport, look forward to seeing family and friends, but that is where the similarities end.  Some girls will return to school in September with their lives changed forever…

The summer ‘Cutting Season’’

I had seen the term ‘cutting season’ used in the press and had a little understanding as to what it referred to.  I knew that girls at risk of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) could be taken abroad during the school holidays, that they may visit their countries of origin to ‘become a woman’, but I had no comprehension until recently as to the scale of the problem.

It is estimated that at least 20,000 schoolgirls under the age of 16 in Britain are at risk of undergoing FGM [Source: Forward UK]  Of these, it is possible that between 500 and 2,000 of them are subjected to FGM during the school summer holidays [Source: The Observer, 24 July 2010].  This is a staggering figure – equivalent to between 16 and 66 classes of girls at risk right at this moment in time.

Why so many at this time of year?  It is a simple but uncomfortable fact – this is the longest holiday in the school year and so parents feel it will give their daughters enough time to recover from the procedure.  If they fly out from the UK as the school term ends they can carry out FGM in their home countries and the girl will then have 6 weeks to heal.  This ‘healing’ process can mean binding the girls’ legs together for 2 - 4 of those weeks – not how girls would choose to spend their summer holidays.

Research carried out by the European Institute for Gender Equality found there were victims or potential victims in at least 13 EU countries. Britain had the most, followed by France and the Netherlands.  FGM was made illegal in the UK in 1985 and taking a child out of the country to perform the procedure in 2003.  And yet, why is it still going on in such potentially huge numbers?

UK – ‘The FGM Capital’?

In the UK we have large populations of communities who traditionally practise FGM, such as first generation immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers.  According to the NHS, they live not just in the largest cities such as London, Manchester and Birmingham, but also in towns such as Crawley, Reading and Milton Keynes.

As an example, it is estimated that 70,000 Somalis are living in London, the largest group of some 10,000 residing in Tower Hamlets [Source: Black Women’s Health & Family Support www.bwhafs.com]. Given that up to 98% of girls in Somalia undergo FGM, the tradition is clearly very deep rooted and one which it is very hard to dissuade the communities here in the UK to abandon.  Campaigners point out that the diaspora fear being seen as capitulating to Western values if they abandon their traditional practices and beliefs.

A Time for Celebration?

So in the summer, during the ‘cutting season’, young girls from these communities are at risk of being taken back to their home countries to visit extended family and undergo FGM during the long school holiday.  They may be told that they are going to have the procedure and that they will ‘become a woman’ following in the tradition of their mother and grandmothers before them.  Or they may not know what is planned for them, just a promise of seeing family, having a party, that there will be a special celebration in their honour.  I have read accounts by victims who recall how they would go into the ceremony excited, choosing the food, singing and dancing, seeing their grandma, aunties, many women waiting ….. followed by the realisation that all those present were sadly not there for entertainment – they were actually there to hold down the girl whilst FGM was performed.  I quote a survivor called Sarian, now in her 30s, who was subjected to FGM in Sierra Leone at the age of 11 and is now a community champion against the practice here in the UK:

“When they get us ready, it’s like a big party.  There will be singing and dancing, people beating the drums.  Every time they’re doing a cutting, the singing gets louder so you can’t hear the girls screaming.  We were blindfolded.  But trust me, at the time, I was dancing, because I was looking forward to it…….. Imagine the transformation, from someone who was smiling and dancing and happy, to lying on the floor with this big woman sitting on me … I still didn’t know what was going to happen to me, until I felt that sharp cut.” [Source: The Guardian, 28 June 2013]

The UK Government has recognised that children are taken out of the country to undergo FGM and as part of their response issued ‘A Statement Opposing Female Genital Mutilation’ in November 2012.   Also known as ‘A Health Passport’, this statement has been made available to take abroad and show families in other countries.  It makes it clear that FGM is a serious criminal offence in the UK and that even if someone is taken overseas for the procedure, it is still a crime if it is done by, or assisted by, a UK national or permanent UK resident.  Anyone found guilty faces a penalty of up to 14 years in prison, a fine, or both.  It is too early properly assess the impact of the ‘Health Passport’ but it is a welcome initiative.

There is a further, even more disturbing fact that it is becoming increasingly apparent that FGM is being performed right here in the UK.  Back in April I watched, along with 5 million other viewers, the ground breaking episodes of BBC’s ‘Casualty’ which brought the subject of FGM to prime time television for the first time.  I wondered how many of those viewers actually believed that what they were watching could really be going on right here in the UK – a scene in a house with two little girls who had been cut by a grandmother, one on a bed unconscious in a pool of blood. It was both alarming and very thought provoking.

There have been reports that parents, particularly in recession-hit times in the UK, are getting together to pay for a circumciser to be flown into the UK from countries such as Somalia and Sudan.  By minimising costs of travel and accommodation, one circumciser can then perform the procedure on a large number of girls during ‘cutting parties’ in private homes.  It is even suggested that families from European countries such as France and Sweden (where legislation and checks are more tightly enforced) may be bringing girls to the UK for FGM in the belief that they will escape prosecution.  The Observer also recently reported that there may be some doctors in the UK who can be bribed by richer families to carry out FGM using anaesthetic and sterilised instruments.  

So, the ‘cutting season’ is not just something taking place in distant countries – we need to understand that so-called ‘FGM holidays’ could be taking place right here on our doorsteps.

What can we do?

There is a huge amount of debate as to how to tackle these problems. In some countries there is a far more robust approach to FGM.  For instance, in France convictions have been made under child protection legislation rather than FGM laws.  Compulsory inspections of girls actually take place.  Such measures are unlikely to be introduced in the UK, however, as the law gives children the right to make their own decisions about submitting to medical examination.  So, in the absence of any prosecutions to date in the UK, it would appear that the successes of other elements of the anti-FGM campaign are vital.

The main approach that seems to be the best way forward here, and which charities such as 28 Too Many are working on with others, is to raise public awareness and encourage Government leadership on this issue.  Ahead of the ‘cutting season’ it is often key professionals such as teachers, social workers and doctors who are in the strongest position to identify girls at risk of FGM.  An NSPCC survey identified that 83% of teachers questioned said that they had not had child protection training about girls at risk of FGM and that 1 in 6 did not know that the practice is illegal in this country [Source: Evening Standard, 18 March 2013].  This is a real concern. Teachers particularly need to be prepared and educated to recognise the signs – a girl mentioning that she is going on holiday for a special celebration should be considered in the context of her family background and procedures put in place for teachers to follow if they are concerned.  

It is encouraging to read that in some schools workshops are now being held for girls and assemblies taking place to raise awareness ahead of the holidays.  Children aged between 10 and 11 in St Werburgh school in Bristol have been among the first to discuss the subject as part of their health care lessons.  This is a hugely encouraging step in the right direction.  Important topics to include in such sessions are revision of the different parts of female reproductive organs (genitalia), an explanation of what FGM is and knowing that it is illegal.  Girls who think they are at risk or know someone who may be should also be shown how they can get confidential help.

In addition, there are also various initiatives to write to head teachers ahead of the school holidays or produce information films and use social media to raise awareness.  For instance, 28 Too Many, in partnership with Daughters of Eve and other anti-FGM organisations, orgainsed a live Twitter debate on Thursday 18th July.  A hugely positive development has also been the introduction of the dedicated NSPCC helpline for FGM (0800 028 3550) which it is reported has already received 41 calls since its launch in June this year.

We should not forget, however, that everyone should remain vigilant after the ‘cutting season’ as well. It is vitally important to raise awareness about signs to look out for when girls return to school after the summer holidays.  What they have been through is life changing, they may be suffering huge physical and psychological trauma.  Their silence and subdued nature should not be just put down to ‘teenage hormones’.  Again teachers, in particular, need to be trained to spot the signs such as absence from school, going to the lavatory more often than usual or taking a long time, being unable to sit cross legged on the floor or clutching her body in discomfort.

So, what did you do this summer?

When school returns in September and children are asked this question, we need to understand that not all of them will have a happy answer. This does not mean that girls who have FGM are not loved. As the NHS explains, FGM is often mistakenly considered a necessary part of raising a girl properly and the way to prepare her for adulthood and marriage. But, whatever the reasons it is child abuse and we should not see girls return from their summers subdued, in pain, with a lifetime of potential health problems ahead of them. These are children, they have rights and their summers should be filled with the fun and innocence of youth, not the cutting knife

If you would like to help in the fight to end FGM please support 28 Too Many. Donate to support our work, like our Facebook page or follow us on Twitter.