Citizen Action In Support Of Zero Tolerance To FGM Day
Today, 6th February, is the 13th annual International Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation Day.
To mark this milestone the Morning Star asked me to write a piece in response to the question, ‘Yes, that’s good; but what are we as ordinary citizens actually supposed to do about it?’. I hope that the suggestions I shared (below) help to move forward on that very important matter.
Everyone can do something.
On 6 February 2003 Stella Obananjo, then spokesperson for the Campaign Against Female Genital Mutilation and First Lady of Nigeria, declared that delegates had reached consensus on the abolition of female genital mutilation (FGM). At a conference organised by the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (the ‘IAC’ – also founded on 6 February, in 1984), Mrs Obasanjo announced that 6 February would henceforth be observed annually by the United Nations as the International Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM.
Later events such as the Maputo Protocol (an African Union agreement, later in 2003), the Bamako Declaration (IAC, 2005) and the United Nations Declaration (Commission of the Status of Women, 2012) have reaffirmed this steadfast determination of traditionally practising communities to have done with FGM.
Way back, I was assured that the UK Parliament’s Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985 would see FGM banished, at least in Britain. Few had any accurate idea of the prevalence of FGM. The message that FGM must cease has been amplified massively by the worldwide web, but still, we now know, at least 140 million people currently alive have been subjected to this cruel abuse of human rights. Five or six girls around the world are mutilated every minute of every day – that’s three million a year, of whom perhaps 140-170 thousand are British, and half a million plus each are continental Europeans and North Americans. [Update, February 2016: the global figures are now said to be even higher .]
It was the first inklings of this message a decade ago that prompted my own small contribution to campaigns against FGM – a textbook finally published in late 2015: Eradicating Female Genital Mutilation and then, in early 2016, another book, Female Mutilation, which contains dozens of narratives (stories and case studies) from people around the world who are survivors, campaigners, communities and professionals with a concern in this field.
And so on Saturday 6 February 2016 we celebrate the 13th annual Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM.
The precise significance of this day is as varied as the sorts of people who observe it; but for most of us away from the direct horror of the practice itself, perhaps it can carry these messages:
- FGM will only become history when and if we all insist that it must do so. Eradication costs money, demands political will and is dependent on skillful planning. As electors, we have a duty to keep the prevention of FGM and other child abuse at the forefront of political thinking.
- FGM – indeed, all child abuse – also requires vigilance by everyone on behalf of those who may be at risk. We all need to know what must be done if a child (or woman) in our community may be vulnerable. That means insisting that local services – schools, clinics, police and so forth- are prepared and equipped to keep vulnerable people safe.
- FGM will only stop when better ‘alternatives’ are genuine prospects, and widely perceived as on offer. Where girls and/or their parents believe that bride price and early marriage is the best way to adulthood, FGM will continue. People in traditionally practising communities, whether in original locations or the diaspora, must know that education and, as adults, employment and economic autonomy, are available to girls who would otherwise experience FGM. Propagating this message is one of the several ways, alongside safeguarding their sisters and friends, in which young people in traditional communities can help each other. Our duty as citizens is to ensure these promised future prospects are valid and delivered.
- FGM is hugely harmful to women’s health and also adds considerable risk obstetrically; but even in the UK many women who have undergone FGM remain unaware that FGM is a cause of their ill-health. We need, however we can, to ensure that information – alongside a parallel insistence that help is made available to those who need it – reaches both FGM survivors who need support and, via suitable teaching, all children in school, who must also learn where girls at risk can go for safety (and the rest of us must make sure such provision is available).
- FGM is still a significant risk to young girls in some families where it has traditionally been practised. It is important that the issue is always addressed where a survivor has daughters, sisters or other potentially at-risk children. The default position for those who must raise the matter should be that mothers (and fathers) are presumed to be allies in ensuring their daughter comes to no harm – but with the caveat that everyone knows permitting FGM will have very serious consequences. Our job as citizens is to make sure that is the case.
But still at every turn we encounter obstacles. The relativist argument – we can’t ‘interfere’ with other communities’ or nations’ ‘customs’ – was until recently maintained by some who now regret that stance. During 2010 the then-Labour Government introduced a nascent national FGM Unit to tackle UK problems, but in 2011 the new Coalition Government closed it (it was reinstated in late 2015). Later, we were told that FGM won’t stop in Britain until it stops in ‘Africa’. And it is only recently, as the Statement on Female Genital Mutilation insists, that people have understood how euphemisms (words like ‘cutting’) in formal contexts avoid the hard truths which must be confronted if FGM is to be eradicated…. And so it goes on.
February the 6th, the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation, reminds us powerfully that this brutal abuse of human rights, the ultimate in patriarchy incarnate, must end. No-one need stand aside. The prevention of FGM is something in which, in our own ways, we can all help to achieve.
[NB The Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children, which has a primary focus on FGM, is clear that in formal discourse any term other than ‘mutilation’ concedes damagingly to the cultural relativists – though the terms employed may of necessity vary in informal discussion with those who by tradition use alternative vocabulary. See the Feminist Statement on the Naming and Abolition of Female Genital Mutilation, The Bamako Declaration: Female Genital Mutilation Terminology and the debate about Anthr/Apologists on this website.]
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Books by Hilary Burrage on female genital mutilation
For more detail and discussion of female genital mutilation please see my textbook, which considers in some detail the situation globally, but also explores the issues relating specifically to Western nations: Eradicating Female Genital Mutilation: A UK Perspective (Ashgate/Routledge, 2015). My second book, Female Mutilation: The truth behind the horrifying global practice of female genital mutilation (New Holland Publishers, 2016), contains narrative ‘stories’ (case studies) from about seventy people across five continents who have experienced FGM, either as survivors and/or as campaigners and activists against this harmful traditional practice.
FURTHER INFORMATION AND ACTION
There is a free FGM hotline for anyone in the UK: 0800 028 3550, or email:firstname.lastname@example.org
The (free) #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 at no cost or obligation is the #NoFGM_USA Daily News.
Facebook page: #NoFGM – a crime against humanity
This article concerns approaches to the eradication specifically of FGM. I am also categorically opposed to MGM, but that is not the focus of this particular piece.
Anyone wishing to offer additional comment on more general considerations around infant and juvenile genital mutilation is asked please to do so on the relevant dedicated thread, originally developed in June 2012:
Pending further notice (of a planned new blog, sometime after February 2016), discussion of the general issues re M/FGM will not be published unless they are posted on this dedicated page. Thanks.