22 February 2011

What purpose do commemorative days hold for us? Time to raise awareness and celebrate past successes or a guilt trip by activists?

With over 130 commemorative days, International Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM (6th February) falls between Family Literacy and Valentine’s Day! FGM has been illegal since the FGM Act 2003, yet it has done little to change the reality for 24,000 UK girls under 15 who are at risk. We have seen laws are not enough. So what next?

In 2009, I attend the International CEDAW Conference in London with delegates from Ghana, Malawi, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. I even asked Theresa May, Shadow Minister for Women, what she was doing for refugees suffering after FGM in the UK. Two days later I received their manifesto for change!

4 years ago, CEDAW (eliminating discrimination against women) recommended the UK government to ‘increase it’s efforts to design/implement targeted preventative strategies and education/awareness raising programmes involving community and religious leaders, women’s organisations and the general public’. So what has the government done? Lynne Featherstone, Minster for Equalities, said this month ‘FGM is a clear, extreme and indefensible violation of this rights of women. For the thousands ‘cut’ every day, the physical and emotional consequences can last a life time. We are committed to prevent and tackle this terrible practice wherever it may take place’.

Where I work as a volunteer, FORWARD’s Executive Director calls for an ‘integrated, non-discrimatory strategy to support those living with FGM and protect those at risk’. So what’s happening at grassroots level?

In Bristol, the NHS Safeguarding Children’s Board estimates 200 girls are at risk of FGM and 6 cases a year are referred by teachers or nurses. NHS Bristol and FORWARD organised an event to discuss women’s rights, access to services and the implications of FGM on mental heath. Jackie Mathers, Designated Nurse, said ‘Bristol has come a long way in getting FGM discussed more widely but often a leap in confidence is needed to get women and girls to come forward. It’s a very sensitive topic’. This event was attended by 40 agency representatives, including the Police – but more importantly – 30 community women. Last summer 30 women marched through Bristol waving banners and chanting for an end to FGM.

In the end, only communities can end this practice, but we have our place to educate, empower, lobby and champion causes. Does a ‘day’ matter? If we asked that to the 8219 cut ‘that day’ (3m per year), I guess they’d say ‘yes!’. As such, I will be marking this event in my calendar for however many years it takes to help this practice end.