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Sing And Shout Against FGM: Where The Arts, Human Rights, The ‘Old Days’ And A Big UN Announcement All Came Together

October 30, 2014

14.10.29 Garden Court NoFGM event  (2)cOn 29 October 2014 Garden Court Chambers in London hosted an evening organised by Dexter Dias QC in support of FGM survivors. The sold-out event comprised drama, music and talks. I was delighted to be asked to speak – and even more so to relay the news that the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, was in Kenya to announce a global initiative with the Guardian to stop FGM. Using the arts to focus on FGM is very important too, so listed here are the performers at our event, as well as my thoughts on the ‘old days’ of FGM campaigning.


FGM: The ‘Old Days’ – A Personal Story (with a wider point)

29 October 2014                                                                                             Garden Court Chambers, London


This is a sorry tale of what for years I didn’t know about FGM…

  • How could my colleagues, or I, have known better?    I wish we had.

Sometime during the 1980s my mother, a Quaker, mentioned a traditional practice called ‘female circumcision’ which apparently happened in some places in Africa.

We tried to find out more…



So, by the early 1990s I knew that Amnesty International was addressing matters ‘abroad’,  and (via an enquiry to my MP) that the UK had introduced legislation, the 1985 Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act, to stop FGM happening in Britain.

What a relief,  we all agreed;  everything was in hand.

  • How could most of us have known otherwise?  If only I had been aware of the realities….

By then

Efua Dorkenoo, now so sadly missed, had published a Minority Rights Group report on Female Genital Mutilation: Proposals for change.  That report says much the same things, and makes much the same recommendations, as reports a quarter century later.

By then

The Paris attorney Linda Weil-Curiel, had taken successful prosecutions against dozens of  excisors in France.

By then

Prof Tobe Levin in Germany, here with us tonight and also now a friend, had been publishing UnCut/Voices Press books with the stories of FGM survivors for many years.

  • But hardly anyone in Britain knew any of this.  There were no reports of FGM in British mainstream news.


Much other child abuse was also happening at that time, and no-one reported – or even believed – that either.   Jimmy Savile?  Abusers in religious orders or schools?

There have always been concerns about child safety (keeping children safe from what a PSHE colleague, Chris Brown, termed the ‘nightmares of adults‘),  but nothing about direct cruelty to children, or child abuse.

The PHSE focus was on issues such as drugs, HIV, teenage pregnancy…. risks to young people about which teachers were concerned on behalf of children, but for which the adults were not directly responsible.

And vehement political hostility to sex education in the 1980s /90s (Section 28, the Victoria Gillick case, the ‘moral panic’ over AIDS,  the Victoria Gillick case, etc), meant that few teachers, or others working with children, were willing to risk their jobs by talking to children openly about personal sexual matters.

Perhaps if ILEA, the Inner London Education Authority,  and always the effective national lead on health education and related issues, had not been closed down by the Conservatives in 1990, FGM would in due course have become a topic of generally accepted professional concern.

Who can say?



Before the Millennium the world-wide web hardly existed.  There was no Facebook, no Twitter, no search engines, not even email.

There was no way your average teacher,  nurse or  social worker could find out more, or check what others were doing, when it came to  uncharted aspects of child protection such as FGM.

  • Almost no-one thought FGM was a widespread problem in the UK – if they thought anything at all.



Nonetheless, there was (and still is) an All Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health.

In 2003 this APPG secured changes in UK legislation, the 2003 Female Genital Mutilation Act (2005 Act, in Scotland) to close some loopholes, bringing more focus, as the numbers of girls and women with FGM in the UK increased, along with the incoming diaspora.

…..    And at that same time, a powerful group of women in Africa did something amazing:

The Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (IAC) announced that  from 2003, on 6 February every year there would be an International Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM.



It took about 3 years for these developments to reach me.  It was not a book, newspaper article or radio programme which rang alarm bells. It was Google.

Something I was researching turned up an item about that  FGM Day of Zero Tolerance…..

But there were still obstacles along the way, as I tried to make sense of what I learned.

Some questions, in retrospect massive and embarrassingly naive distractions from (distortions of) the grim realities of FGM,  came up over and over again:

 Was FGM really ‘just a nick’, conducted as a rite of passage, as the apologists and some African nationalists seemed to imply? 

 Can it be true that girls submit to it willingly, and that they don’t cry?

 Why would they do that, if FGM is actually a cruel and sometimes deadly practice?

The anthr/apologists  have much to answer for.  Their misplaced relativism, along with westerners’ self-protecting squeamishness, is surely where the excuses about ‘culture’ come from.

Unless you’re a clinician, a close interest in what happens intimately to little girls is regarded as unhealthy.

But none of us would ever permit such abuse of children we know and love, so why should we excuse it for others?

At least, as an independent researcher learning more by the day, I was free to write and blog and shout however I wished, with no responsibility for anyone other than myself and those at risk of FGM.

That’s how I have come to know so many people; people who have worked far longer and harder than me to eradicate FGM and other terrible acts inflicted on little girls by adults bound, unknowing of any other way, to harmful traditional practices which blight their lives and their futures.

It took quite a long time to discover the truth, and for me to understand that FGM is hideously dangerous.

FGM is the ultimate physical manifestation of patriarchy.



And so with other activists we produced the Feminist Statement on FGM – an opportunity (still open for signatories) for everyone to align behind a fundamental analysis and refutation of this human rights abomination and the damage it inflicts on women, their men and their communities.


 … which brings us to the present.

Consider these three publications:

One is a book on so-called ‘child marriage’ – perhaps better named licensed paedophilia – and  a subject very much associated with FGM.

Child Marriage: the Indian minotaur was written by Eleanor Rathbone in 1934.

The second is Efua Dorkenoo’s report: Female Genital Mutilation: proposals for change, written with Scilla Elworthy and published by Minority Rights Group International in 1980 (with revisions in 1985 and 1992) some 50+ years later.

Both Eleanor Rathbone and Efua Dorkenoo were formidable activists who gave much of their lives to improving the fate of other women.  They lobbied, they researched, they produced detailed and  cogent, deliverable strategies.

But like us all, they were victims of their historical era.

What they lacked, which came only to Efua just in time for her to see her dream of the Girl Generation: Together to end FGM global movement launched a few weeks ago, was a way to reach out to the mainstream, to make others with influence understand and have the confidence and backing to deliver what must be done.

This third little book, Confronting FGM: the Role of Youth and ICTs in Changing Africa (Think Africa Press, Marie-Helene Mottin-Sylla and Joelle Palmieri) was published relatively unnoticed in 2011.  It is about direct citizenship, young people, and modern communications, in Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal; and it provides the connection with the future which gives us hope that a step-change has been achieved.


Looking to the future

That modern communications perspective is an approach now being encouraged around the globe, in western and non-western countries, by the United Nations, and indeed by the Secretary General himself, liaising with the Guardian on work to eradicate FGM in the UK, America and now Africa throughout this year .

In fact, a global initiative to eradicate FGM will be announced by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, with Maggie O’Kane of the Guardian, in Kenya tomorrow morning, 30 October 2014.


I hope we in Britain will together be able to scale this programme to do the same thing in the UK, as the UN is now doing globally.

All it will take is the skills and commitment of people such as those present, plus sufficient proper funding, in the UK, to make it happen….

  • Now at last there will be no excuse for anyone to say,  ‘I didn’t know’.


PS  Thank you, Tobe Levin, for this brilliant account of the whole evening. 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~


An evening of music by Sarah Jane Morris and drama by Little Stitches  in support of FGM survivors.

Garden Court Chambers invites you to join us on 29 October for an evening devoted to supporting survivors of female genital mutilation (FGM).The evening will feature live music from internationally acclaimed modern jazz and soul singer Sarah Jane Morris and short plays on FGM by the BAREtruth Theatre company from their celebrated production Little Stitches (‘piercingly eloquent’ – The Independent).  As well as music and drama, there will be short talks by survivors [from the Dahlia project], human rights lawyers [Dexter Dias] and activists [from Integrate Bristol, plus Alice Greenlees and Hilary Burrage].

FGM is the mutilation of the genitals of young women and girls for non-medical reasons. In the UK, 170,000 women are living with the legacy of this harmful social practice and 65,000 girls under the age of 13 are at risk of mutilation.  Members of Garden Court have been prominent in writing reports to the Parliamentary Inquiry into FGM and to the UN arguing for more effective protection for girls against mutilation. We are proud to collaborate with Sarah Jane and the cast of BAREtruth to keep up the pressure for further change.

The BAREtruth Theatre Company perform ‘Little Stitches’

Entry to the event is free. There will be a voluntary collection for one of the foremost FGM survivors’ charities, The Dahlia Project, created by leading anti-FGM activist Leyla Hussein. Dahlia creates safe spaces for survivors of mutilation, and provides counselling and psychological support. Part of the proceeds will also be donated to BAREtruth to aid their ambition of raising awareness of FGM by touring with their production.

 ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


Readers are invited to support these two FGM e-petitions:

UK Government: Enforce the UK law which forbids FGM (Female Genital so-called ‘Cutting’)    ..

and FGM abolitionists internationally: Support the Feminist Statement on Female Genital Mutilation

[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

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.

Twitter accounts: @NoFGM1  @NoFGMBookUK  @FGMStatement  @NoFGM_USA   [tag for all: #NoFGM]

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

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 2, 2014 02:32

    Reblogged this on No FGM Australia.

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