FGM: When The Deeply Personal Is Fundamentally Political
This post, first published in the Morning Star, is in response to the Prime Minister’s announcement on International Women’s Day 2013 that the UK will donate £35 million towards the United Nation’s work (research and delivery) on eliminating female genital mutilation.
Political and policy aspects of this commitment are examined, along with some suggestions about how the issue can be brought into focus in Britain, where top-level formal responses to FGM until now have been very slow.
There’s no easy or nice way to introduce the topic of female genital mutilation.
FGM is a truly hideous, cruel practice; and it’s happening now, in the UK, to possibly 50 babies and girls every day (yes, averaged over the year…. every day).
Cases of FGM in Europe, North America and Australia have increased as more people from the African and Middle East/ Southern Asian diasporas travel West. About half a million women and girls in Europe have been subjected to FGM, and around 180,000 more girls are at risk annually, perhaps 24,000+ of them in the UK.
Just one little girl mutilated is infinitely too many. People don’t like to think of such things. Mass barbarism on this scale is more than most of us can credit.
But make no mistake. Whilst there’s also legitimate cause to question non-medically required male circumcision, FGM is different. Both are human rights issues, but FGM is rarely ‘just a nick’. It often entails removal of the external female genitalia – usually in grossly unhygienic conditions, without pain relief.
Mortality rates for FGM are uncertain. Perhaps 10-30% of victims die from immediate or later (obstetric) impacts. It also permanently damages health and well-being – everything from post-traumatic conditions to kidney failure and obstetric fistula. (This link provides further information about FGM.)
Small wonder that in practising countries charitable refuges now exist where girls old enough to anticipate the (often unannounced, secretive) ‘procedure’ flee to avoid the unspeakable pain, inflicted with their parents’ consent by force, and the horrors which follow FGM.
So why-ever does FGM occur?
The answer is patriarchy. Whilst FGM has been connected at some level with religions and customs for hundreds of years, at base it is a way for men to control ‘their’ women.
FGM mythology around female sexual organs and sexuality involves beliefs variously that if a male sexual partner, or a baby during birth, touches the clitoris, s/he will die – and sometimes also that this organ will grow to become a ‘third leg’ if not removed.
Then there’s fear that teenage girls will become sexually rampant if their clitoris remains and/or, if not infibulated – a belief serving economic requirements for a good price for a ‘pure’ bride whose tightened anatomy will also, it’s said, enhance her husband’s pleasure.
Grand/mothers often arrange the mutilation, but daughters are property passed very young from father to husband. Unmarried – and / or without FGM – adult women in traditional communities are ‘unclean’, sometimes forbidden even to collect water or prepare food. They may not survive.
This is a far cry from contemporary Western ideals of sexuality, marriage and individual rights; but residual customs may persist, especially in isolated diaspora communities.
FGM rates globally are slowly diminishing, especially amongst younger and more educated women. Nonetheless, despite the landmark UN Declaration of December condemning FGM, children continue to be tortured because of ‘tradition’, (misplaced) religious observance and economic patriarchy.
The UK can help stop this.
We have one of the largest European FGM-vulnerable diasporas, and legislation unequivocally forbidding female genital mutilation, whether in the UK or procured elsewhere by or for British residents and citizens.
Nonetheless, not a single person from the hundred-thousand or more in the UK who have probably been involved in delivering FGM to British children has been prosecuted. Dedicated policing is almost non-existent.
But in late 2012 Keir Starmer, UK Director of Public Prosecutions, announced he will spearhead legal action, and various Government bodies revisited their directives and guidelines on departmental websites.
And now the Prime Minister has appointed International Development Minister Lynne Featherstone to lead an international initiative, announced on International Women’s Day 2013, to make FGM history.
If Lynne Featherstone knows how to abolish FGM and has resources to achieve this, she must have full backing.
But inevitably there are concerns, not least because in 2011 the Coalition Government abolished the national FGM Co-ordinator role which the previous administration had just established. Will they get it right this time?
We must watch and wait, but for now some thoughts:
- Let’s stop agonising over current UK FGM legislation and just use it. Other child abuse, honour killings, rape, breast ironing and domestic violence are similar policing challenges. Consider gross bodily harm (GBH) charges, on the statute book since 1861, if it helps.
- Focus absolutely on (potential and actual) child victims. That means proper health care, education and realistic opportunities for future economic independence, as well as safeguarding.
- Remember, FGM’s root cause is patriarchy – thriving still in mainstream British society, too.
- Acknowledge that if we isolate diaspora communities they may adhere to traditional ways. To eradicate FGM globally we must validate the message that open societies, fostering good health, well-being and economic independence, don’t and won’t countenance (or ‘need’) such desperate measures
- Be vigilant against racialist ‘overspill’. Avoid talk of FGM-linked deportation: deportation can apply to all non-national serious criminals. Some FGM perpetrators are UK citizens. And most UK Muslims, like followers of other religions and none, abhor it.
- Understand that FGM will stop only when professionals on the ground know what to do. Teachers, medics, legal practitioners and the rest need proper training (not just website ‘Guidance’) and the assurance they will be supported in testing circumstances. Currently, many are poorly informed and fear being hung out to dry if things get difficult.
This is a beginning, not an end.
Life doesn’t stop in the absence of proper policy. Thousands more British girls have been harmed since the FGM Co-ordinator role, eventually established by the previous Government, was abolished. The new Coalition initiative must make up rapidly for that awful loss of impetus.
And, finally, female genital mutilation is the ultimate in personal politics.
Let’s strengthen public pressure towards eradication.
A version of this article, Deeply Personal, Fundamentally Political, was first published in the Morning Star on 9 March 2013.
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FURTHER INFORMATION AND ACTION
Readers are invited to support these two FGM e-petitions:
[See also HM Government e-petition, No. 35313, to STOP Female Genital Mutilation (FGM / ‘cutting’) in Britain (for UK citizens and residents – now closed).]
There is a free FGM hotline for anyone in the UK: 0800 028 3550, or email: email@example.com
The #NoFGM Daily News carries reports of all items shared on Twitter that day about FGM – brings many organisations and developments into focus.
For more on FGM please see here.
Facebook page: #NoFGM – a crime against humanity
More info on FGM in the UK here.
Email contact: NoFGM email
** Hilary Burrage is currently writing a book, Eradicating Female Genital Mutilation: A UK Perspective