Schools Must Safeguard Girls From FGM; But How?
Simply Child Safe, a new publication edited by Denise Fergus (mother of murdered toddler James Bulger), addresses current UK child safeguarding issues. As a fellow Liverpudlian I was pleased to be asked to write about child protection and female genital mutilation (FGM) for Issue No 2 of this magazine. My message, at last it seems being heard, remains that mandatory reporting, training for all professionals in regulated activities, and proper channels for concerns, are all critical. Here’s what I wrote:
Female genital mutilation (FGM) combines all the conventional taboos in a single, cruel and sometimes lethal act.
Whatever aspect of FGM one considers, the discomfort is there: the interference with a child’s genitals; the overtly intended de-sexualisation of the girl (or even baby); the frequent reluctance to discuss “private parts”; the supposed connections between various religious and cultural beliefs; the secrecy around the subject imposed by perpetrators on their victims, and the gross cruelty of the act itself. All these combine to make FGM a topic which few are willing to discuss.
But discuss FGM we must. It is known now to be a serious risk, perhaps a reality, for well over 20,000 girls in Britain every year, and it is thought that nearly 70,000 women in the UK have experienced it.
What exactly is FGM?
The World Health Organisation defines it as three main types:
Type 1 involves nicking or cutting out the clitoris;
Type 2 is excision of the (visible) clitoris plus cutting of the tissue around the labia;
Type 3 is all that plus sewing up the wound so only a (single) small hole for urine and menstrual blood remains.
Traditionally the mutilation is undertaken whilst the child is pinned down (by her female relatives). It is conducted in insanitary conditions and without any pain relief, leading to between ten and thirty percent dying as a result; either immediately because of haemorrhage, shock and infection, or later due to complications in pregnancy and childbirth, or to obstetric fistula (a leaking tear between the bladder and the vagina or rectum, or both).
It is arranged and delivered in secret, usually without even discussion between the concerned parties, and the psychological impact can be vast: post-traumatic syndrome, lack of trust, flashbacks, inability to concentrate and many other issues.
FGM isn’t the only form of cruelty inflicted on girls to (supposedly) constrain their sexuality. Breast “ironing” (to flatten the emerging bosom) and “beading” (a form of permitted premature sexual activity by young men on girls) are other types of harmful traditional practice, as is early marriage (sexual slavery) and child-bearing; sometimes for girls barely in their teens.
And all this is done in the name of patriarchy – the oppression of women by men to make them totally dependent on their fathers, and later, their husbands. In some communities a girl cannot attain adult status or marry without the “procedure”; hence the acquiescence and even promotion of FGM by women who already bear the scars.
FGM reflects a way of life established over eons, even longer ago than the establishment of global religions.
For all these reasons, FGM – which arrives via various diasporas from Africa, parts of the Middle East and Asia – is extraordinarily difficult to tackle in modern communities. What many perceive as a particularly grim form of child abuse, by others it is seen as an important element of “cultural identity”.
Many who practise FGM are ignorant of, or disregard, UK legislation which provides for imprisonment of up to 14 years for perpetrators and their abettors, whether the offence is committed on British soil or elsewhere. In such contexts it might seem that schools cannot do much to protect children in their care.
Such an assumption would be mistaken.
Earlier this year (February 2014) a Guardian- promoted petition signed by more than a quarter of a million people persuaded secretary of state Michael Gove to write to all English schools reminding them of their responsibilities around FGM. (The Welsh and Scottish education secretaries did the same.) Specifically, schools should ensure that all children know what to do if they fear that they (girls), or a family member or friend, may be taken somewhere to undergo FGM. This is particularly important as summer holidays approach, because the long break is often the time when excisors operate so that (mostly) children will recover before the next school year.
Sometimes the mutilators travel to the UK for so-called “cutting parties” (several girls harmed at one address) and sometimes the girl is sent to the country of origin of her family, or, more recently, to countries where clinicians offer a medicalised, allegedly safer, version of the mutilation (but that option too is punishable under UK and many other nations’ laws).
Schools must therefore take a lead in providing, in an age-appropriate way, both the basic facts about FGM and a simple, well-recognised route for children to report concerns.
The role of the school’s designated safeguarding lead in matters around FGM is obviously central. In some schools it may be that s/he is the direct report for any safeguarding worries which children have; in others it may be that form tutors, counsellors or perhaps (should there actually be one) a school nurse are the most likely staff to be approached. It depends on the age of the children, the size of the school, how it is structured and the way the school liaises with others outside its direct remit.
And whatever the formal arrangements, it must always be remembered that children will approach whom they please – the visiting drama teacher encouraging children to open up about themselves may be as likely as the class teacher to learn of children’s fears.
All staff need to understand how to respond to unscheduled disclosures of this sort, and to know what they must then do; which in the first instance is to turn to the designated safeguarding lead.
Schools and associated organisations must be clear that they need a named, visible person, to take responsibility for reporting children at risk.
Such a person must co-ordinate information for pupils, students and parents, and ensure teachers are confident to cope with situations that may arise. They must also be fully appraised of the local support pathways available to safeguard and protect any child at risk.
But what happens after that is contested ground.
Who has professional responsibility?
In 2013 the NSPCC introduced an advisory helpline for FGM, but only for adults (ChildLine is still the avenue for children).
More formally, every local authority in England is required to have in place a Local Safeguarding Children Board (LSCB) tasked with the express objective of “developing policies and procedures for safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children in the area of the authority”.
There is also a professional responsibility on everyone in regulated activities (teachers, nurses, youth workers) to report concerns about child abuse.
But to whom? The police? Social services? The LSCB? Who?
Rarely is this actually done. Everyone is concerned they may be misjudging the situation, or inflaming sensitivities, or think it (at best) to be a bit odd.
In the medium term there will have to be a much clearer reporting pathway. Reporting must be made mandatory as soon as possible, with responsibility taken away from the professional who first identifies the risk. (This is roughly the way things happen in France, where an officer is appointed immediately to look after the child’s legal interests.)
The case should then handled by a trained officer with powers to make decisions on the basis of the evidence. This would seem a good role for the LSCBs to develop, using national data and a reporting base so that children do not slip out of the net if they are relocated.
With some reason, the Mandate Now lobby for compulsory reporting of at-risk situations or abuse notes that, whilst there are guidelines, there is no training or nationally-designated routes for taking issues forward; and they call the policies “flat pack”; i.e. construct it yourself.
While this may save government money now, and relieve it of ultimate responsibility when things go wrong, vulnerable children deserve infinitely better.
It’s up to us all, as professionals in the field, to move this agenda on as quickly as possible. Mandatory reporting and national routes to do it are the best, indeed the only, responsible way forward.
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PS Here is the recently published statutory guidance for schools:
Warning signs that FGM may be about to take place, or may have already taken place, can be found on pages 11-12 of the Multi-Agency Practice Guidelines referred to previously. Staff should activate local safeguarding procedures, using existing national and local protocols for multi-agency liaison with police and children’s social care.
In other words, find out what to do if you’re worried about a child for yourself…..
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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.
Also available to follow is daily news from NoFGM_USA.
For more on FGM please see here.
Facebook page: #NoFGM – a crime against humanity
** Hilary Burrage is currently writing a book, Eradicating Female Genital Mutilation: A UK Perspective