Eradicating Female Genital Mutilation: Book Launch (My Talk, 4 November 2015)
My book, Eradicating Female Genital Mutilation (Ashgate, 2015) was launched this evening at an event very generously hosted by Maggie O’Kane at the Guardian London offices. It was an occasion I will never forget, amongst colleagues, friends and family, all of them committed to eradicating female genital mutilation forever. I took advantage of the opportunity to share some thoughts about how the fight against FGM is developing, what needs to be done and why Public Health is critical…
Eradicating Female Genital Mutilation: A UK Perspective (Ashgate, 2015)
> Hilary Burrage has written the most definitive book ever on FGM. An invaluable tool to help eradicate it worldwide. A personal triumph.
> … Outraged at ineffective child protection, Burrage provides a comprehensive, scholarly yet accessible guide – the first ethically correct textbook in the world about FGM and among the best ever – to professionals and all people of conscience.
(Tobe Levin von Gleichen, Harvard and Oxford Universities)
In bookshops or from the publishers now.
The very first thing I want to say is thank you, to everyone who made this event possible, to you, my colleagues, friends and family who have taken time to join us tonight, to each person who helped and supported me so generously in writing this book over the past four long years, and of course very much to our hosts, Maggie O’Kane, Mary Carson, and their team, with whom I have the great good fortune of collaborating in the quest to protect girls in many places from the hideous harm of female genital mutilation.
I will return shortly to my appreciation of the contributions which every one of you has made to the emergence of my book; but please first bear with me whilst I share a few thoughts on the subject to hand….
Hilary and her mother, with Maggie O’Kane who hosted the book launch
In one real sense, we cannot ‘celebrate’ the publication of my book. It would have been infinitely better if there were no call for such a text. We all wish we had never had to know or think about FGM. And especially we wish that such blissful innocence were a reality for those whose lives have been closely touched by this irredeemably grim abuse of human rights and well-being.
But we are where we are; and I want to believe that ‘where we are’ is now on a path to the decisive eradication, forever, of FGM.
Getting to that decisive eradication in western nations is as you know the central theme of my book. There are many different views about how this objective might – or should – be achieved. All of these views are offered in good faith; and they all deserve respect and careful consideration. I have tried to cover as many of them as I could in the book.
But tonight’s event presents a special opportunity to share my particular ideas about how we can consign FGM and parallel cruelties to history. I am going to take that opportunity.
FGM is patriarchy incarnate
I start from the premise that FGM is an unfathomably cruel traditional practice. FGM is not part of ‘culture’; it’s a massively powerful tool of oppression.
FGM is the ultimate in patriarchy incarnate.
It is the imposition of (some) men’s will on the bodies of women and girls. Hence the inclusion in my book of the Feminist Statement on FGM, which I wrote with Tobe Levin and other colleagues in 2013.
I know full well that this is a very difficult message for those whose lives are directly touched by FGM, or who work in communities which still practise it.
I know too that it is generally women who inflict the actual bodily harm, and that often some of them will gain directly from FGM. Whether as FGM practitioners or as ‘bought and sold’ wives, the financial transaction can offer some women as well as men economic and social advantage in traditional societies. The alternative to FGM, of no husband and no adult standing, being unmarried and considered a ‘child’ forever, perhaps being ostracized and literally cast away, is both extremely perilous and anyway unthinkable in some parts of the world.
There has to be a better way. The socio-economics of FGM developed into a big theme in my book.
The tyranny of (some) traditional beliefs
Another theme in the book is the oppression which rigid traditional beliefs impose. In such societies group interest, not individual choices or entitlements, are paramount. For many across a range of claimed religious, traditional and animist beliefs, there is the tragic conviction that any respectable woman requires FGM to remain devout and pure.
[One might by the way see this focus on ‘purity’ as another version of the historical fear of ‘witches’ in Britain, the USA and elsewhere. Our history too is benighted by the persecution of women. And as we know, misogyny continues in various forms to this day.]
But, in traditional communities, who could tolerate the thought that your own mother, who knows herself, at first hand, the terrors of FGM, would put you through all this if it were not absolutely essential?
Surely, everyone insists, all girls must have FGM is they are to become real women?
This mindset presents campaigners in traditionally practising communities with a massive dilemma. How can you challenge FGM without yourself being shunned or even worse?
Many people, men as well as women, have risked a great deal in their determination to spare girls and women the agony and dangers of FGM. Their work demands our unreserved respect and support. We must never forget, simply because it preceded the internet and the world wide web, that there’s a lot of FGM history, going back a century or so. I managed to get some of this history into my book.
Whatever we can do to take things forward, from the safe side-lines where many of us are situated, we must do.
That’s one of the many reasons I’m so pleased to work with Maggie and her team, as they develop new methods and employ new technologies to stop FGM in Kenya, the Gambia, Nigeria and elsewhere.
Prevention in the modern world: FGM as child / gendered abuse
But my book focuses largely on FGM in so-called ‘modern’ or ‘developed’ societies, not on the ‘developing’ or ‘third’ world, albeit that increasingly these worlds merge.
In Britain and other modern western nations there can be no ‘rationale’, ‘traditionally’ based or otherwise, for any harmful physical measure or constraint on the lives and futures of our fellow-citizens.
But what to do? When it comes to FGM there are several issues and measures which I see as critical.
It is imperative that we perceive FGM as child abuse and nothing else. Of course, in doing so, we need to know very clearly ‘why’ FGM continues; but child abuse, like all other cruelty to children, it is. And all child abuse, or indeed physical harm to anyone, is illegal.
I therefore welcome the new mandatory FGM reporting rule which applies to under-18s. It’s something I amongst many other have lobbied hard to secure.
But I want much more emphasis too on explaining to parents (especially mothers) how this reporting can protect them as well.
If parents genuinely do not intend to harm their daughters, they must be made to feel they are welcome partners in measures to ensure this never happens. It’s not ‘only’ parents who want girls to undergo FGM, as we know; sometimes it’s not the parents at all.
And the mandatory reporting rule for professionals in regulated activity must apply equally and overtly to all forms of child abuse. That way there is no suspicion of special stigma concerning FGM; and that way too all vulnerable children can be properly protected.
But getting there will require much better reporting systems and much better training than at present for teachers, clinicians, care and legal professionals and the like. Telling professionals what to do without providing adequate properly joined-up reporting tools and good training and support is a recipe for poor services and occupational stress.
The current systems – sadly, there are several – are not fit for purpose.
Supporting community activism
I also want to see real commitment to supporting people within communities who choose to challenge FGM.
Why are nearly all community activists against FGM ‘merely’ volunteers, or at best seriously under-funded, whilst those who ‘supervise’ are accorded professional status and salaries? Let’s even the playing field and create a better reciprocity.
Why do these small activist groups have to fight for tiny crumbs under the table, as though the sums involved were significant? We might almost think there’s political advantage to be bought here at low cost.
And why, most especially of all, do we not take real care and concern for the Survivors who so bravely challenge FGM?
In other areas of this sort of work we provide health care, co-counselling, and protection, not to mention training and salaries….
I could go on… What about support and health service provision for those harmed by this crime? Or reconciliation support for affected families, if the children are to thrive?
Are we serious about collaboration and delivery of work to eradicate FGM, or are we not?
FGM as an indicator of disadvantage
I also want to see recognition of some obvious facts about many diaspora and other marginalized communities. Politicians and policy-makers must acknowledge that, as things stand, for many children in these communities, the future is not bright.
There is a real danger of forced or early marriage (rape), there is FGM, there are other harmful traditional practices. Isolation, radicalisation and psychiatric illness are also significant risks for these marginalised or conflicted children.
And we are not yet good at stopping any of this, whether these are distinctively perils to which girls are exposed, or risks to which all marginalised young people are particularly exposed. It would be a mistake to focus only on FGM and, say, early and forced marriage.
If we are serious and truthful about caring for young people at risk we will put in place proper measures to protect and nurture them all; and that means seeing FGM as one, very critical, aspect of a wider spectrum of vulnerabilities. Anything less than acknowledging the whole picture is playing to the gallery, it’s stop-gap, tokenistic and insincere.
And, much more importantly, it’s failing to nurture or care for many who will comprise the next generation in our communities. How irresponsible is that?
In other words, it is essential that no child or parent in Britain can any more believe that the old traditional ways are a ‘reasonable’ bet for the future.
Everyone, in each and every UK community, needs to realise that education and good health are always the best way forward for all our children. Old customs like FGM are not ‘only’ illegal and horribly harmful, they are also plain absurd.
A negative synergy: FGM and poor life chances
Whether it’s in Britain, America, Australia, continental Europe or any other first-world nation FGM can be seen as a marker of low status and low opportunity and often also of marginalisation.
There is a negative synergy between harmful practices like FGM, and poor life outcomes. It’s that synergy which must be broken, and soon.
But to do that we must bring together all the professional disciplines and public services involved. Talking ‘multi-agency’ won’t work on its own.
The approach has to be inter-disciplinary as well. There has to be a shared understanding of the issue as a whole not just toolkits for dealing with individual parts of it or special pleading (even turf wars) for resources for particular services.
Leadership, the inter-disciplinary paradigm and Public Health
There is a pressing need for co-ordination at the highest level; something which the previous Coalition Government set back very seriously when they dismantled the original nascent national FGM Unit, now some six years ago. It is very good news that a new FGM national facility is now being developed under the guidance of experienced and respected leaders.
The challenge now for the professional bodies and academia is therefore to match this new focus on the delivery of skills and good practice with a concerted effort at developing a united discipline – a paradigm – to bring together all the knowledge and research skills now required to inform and develop further progress towards eradication.
And surely one promising way to start developing this united academic endeavour is to align it with Public Health. That’s where the legal, medical, educational, social and community issues can be combined effectively into a cohesive field of study and good practice with greater integrity and much more clout.
But Public Health is seen by some as the Cinderella science, ignored and underfunded. Here’s yet another reason to recognise its vital importance for us all.
‘Austerity’ does not excuse inaction
The UK, like other similar countries, has strong legal and policy infrastructures; and we are amongst the very wealthiest nations in the world.
The notion in Britain of ‘austerity’ as an excuse not to take full and effective action is unconscionable and incomprehensible in the context of grim child abuse. What’s the state actually for, if not to protect its youngest and most vulnerable?
We don’t have to wait for any other nation. In places like the UK there is absolutely no excuse for failing to eradicate FGM, now.
We know what we need to do, and we must get on and do it.
.. and Thank You all
Which takes us back to my book, tonight.
I have no doubt said quite enough about what I think. Now I’d like to say who I especially want to thank.
And I’ll start – so I don’t embarrass him by mentioning him last – with my husband, Tony Burrage (known to others as the classical violinist Martin Anthony Burrage).
Without Tony’s unerring support there would be no book. He has kept me going in every possible way, always bearing with me, even though this has never been a comfortable ride.
And then there’s my Mother – the Quaker who first alerted me to FGM many years ago – and my daughter Anna Burrage, who with others in the family have offered tremendous and loyal practical and moral support. Some of them are here tonight, and all are due much love and appreciation.
I also want to mention a few other people – there are really dozens, but I’ll be brief – who have become true friends and colleagues in the course of my work.
Especially, thanks are due to Tobe Levin and Linda Weil-Curiel, who helped to set me on my way and have always willingly shared all that they know, as of course have lots of very good friends and generous colleagues, most of whom I also managed to acknowledge in the book.
I must mention too my excellent publishers at Ashgate; despite the many setbacks, they have steadfastly believed I could complete my task, and helped me do so in every way they could. I shall miss them.
And finally…to Maggie O’Kane and Mary Carson and their colleagues here at The Guardian. I will simply say, Thank You… for involving me in your work, and much more importantly, for the amazing campaigns you are conducting to make FGM history….
The Guardian #EndFGM team
Back in 1980-something I wrote to my then-MP to express the concern my mother and I had about stories of FGM occurring in Britain.
He responded by assuring me I need worry no more. The new Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985 would ensure henceforth that FGM was history.
So perhaps on reflection this is the point where we should express our appreciation and thanks all round.
My MP then was sincere but tragically mistaken. Now we know the truth; but we also know that, finally, real progress is being made.
And the reason for that lies with everyone in this room, and with many others too. Thank you, all of you who fight against FGM, from me. And thank you, very much indeed, Maggie, Mary and the team, from all of us.
You are taking the fight to places which no-one could previously hope to reach. Now, that really is something to celebrate.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
FURTHER INFORMATION AND ACTION
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
Readers are invited to support these FGM e-petitions: