Female Genital Mutilation (FGM): The View From Westminster?
Today I attended two meetings on FGM in Westminster. One was as a member of the informal FGM group which Sarah Champion MP convenes, and the other was as an observer at the Home Affairs Select Committee FGM Roundtable Discussion. Some general issues come up regularly: the need for an FGM National Action Plan, questions about mandatory reporting, the effectiveness of the multi-agency guidelines. To these we should add broadening FGM to include other child / gendered abuse, using the Public Health approach and, vitally, recognizing human rights.
There have been some encouraging recent developments on tackling FGM, but there is still a long way to go. These are my thoughts on where we in the UK are at the moment:
Mandatory reporting isn’t effective because it has no proper routing, and each local area has its own remit. Only a single, fully recorded (and confidential) national system will work, as e.g. I said here: UK Home Office Consultation On Mandatory Reporting Of FGM – My Response. It’s not the concept which is at fault, it’s the failure of establish a reporting route which takes account of both the need to protect all children, and the requirement that those reporting feel confident they can do it properly.The lack of a National Action Plan is self-evidently a very serious matter; are those at the top fully committed to eradicating FGM? If this is not to be in effect a wish rather than a determination, a top-level politician must take the issue fully on board, establish objectives and criteria (and timescales) by which these can be evaluated, decide which agencies, communities etc will receive whatever levels of resource are required to deliver which aspects of the eradication programme. Then this top-level person must accept transparent responsibility for the outcomes.
The question of female genital cosmetic surgery (FGCS) and related procedures must be clarified. It may even be that once women (and men) reach adulthood, and provided they can demonstrate they are under no pressure from others in regard to their choice, the wish to undergo genital or the cosmetic surgery must be theirs alone. This necessarily however comes with provisions, first, that all children (under 18) may have genital surgery only if both the parent / guardian and all the clinicians concerned agree it is necessary (the relevant professional college has recently provided guidance on this); and secondly with the reservation that clinicians are without exception bound to the juncture to ‘do no harm’.
Multi-agency provision is a necessary but not an adequate requirement for eradication. The need for top-level accountability alongside a NAP is also roughly the message at the end of both my books, as you know; and I am increasingly convinced it is the only viable way forward. Multi-agency alone will necessarily lead to inter-disciplinary tensions; it requires a firm hand at the top making transparent, evidence-based decisions about who will do what. The role of Public Health in eradicating FGM has been overlooked systematically. This should be the main vehicle via which public education / awareness, prevention, protection and application of the law (prosecution) is conducted. As I have stressed on several occasions, there is a pressing need to examine how Public Health should be aligned with FGM eradication in order for programmes to be effective.
FGM is an economic crime, like for instance human trafficking and, indeed, child, early and forced marriage; to tackle it we must recognise that it is fundamentally predicated on financial gain. It is time to drop references to ‘culture’ and so forth, and focus on the still largely unrecognised fact that, at every level, FGM is connected with the idea that girls and women are chattels, to be sold and also used as a substitute (in communities where traditionally pensions have not existed) for parental pension-planning. Further, the very mechanism – FGM – which by tradition has enabled the transition for girls into adulthood becomes, in the context of western societies, the patriarchal mode by which young women are denied opportunities for education and autonomy, and thereby disempowered.
It is time to move away from a focus solely on FGM, or on forced marriage or other similar traditions. The focus must be widened to encompass all Harmful Traditional Practices / HTPs (including, as soon as possible, those inflicted on boys and young men). This requirement, whilst necessary, will require some very clear thinking, and careful connection with practising communities, especially in regard to issues such as policing.
The link cited immediately above reminds us that policing and other legal provision is, for the reasons here given and doubtless more as well, at present fundamentally ill-equipped for the tasks of prevention, protection and prosecution.
FGM and all other HTPs must be placed in the context of human rights. The Bar (lawyers) FGM committee recently asserted that the UK is failing in its duty to uphold the human rights of those experiencing or at risk of FGM; and the same was said by UN Special Rapporteur Prof Rashida Manjoo when recently she visited the UK.
There is still a very great deal to be done, but we can indeed address FGM and other HTPs in the UK properly and finally if we really decide to do so.
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Hilary Burrage is author of
ERADICATING FEMALE GENITAL MUTILATION (Ashgate/Routledge 2015)
FEMALE MUTILATION (New Holland Publishers 2016)