Articles on Shifting Sands
FGM: Trophy Hunting at British Airports
Like trophy hunters in search of elective game, members of Operation Limelight, policed some of England’s busiest airports recently, evangelical about the need to raise awareness of harmful traditional practices like female genital mutilation (FGM), breast ironing, forced marriage, and honour based abuse. Airside operations considered inbound and outbound flights to ‘countries of prevalence’ during the summer holidays – the so called FGM ‘cutting season’.
For some time now propaganda by activists and organisations like Plan UK, promote the existence of a summer ‘cutting season’, a time when ‘girls are flown abroad, often under the pretence of a holiday visiting relatives. On arrival they are then subjected to mutilation, sometimes at the hands of someone with no medical training, with non-sterile instruments including razor blades, scissors or shards of glass.’ This propaganda is nearly always illustrated by images of elderly women hovering over forcibly restrained and screaming children. The long summer holidays are chosen to allow the girls time to recover from their ‘mutilation’ before returning to school.
Behind all of this is a presumption that targeted families have sinister ulterior motives under the guise of visiting families, relatives and friends. This belief is now so entrenched that Baroness Tonge falsely reported that 50 girls were being taken on a flight to Somalia to undergo FGM there in July 2015.
There is no evidence to suggest that this happens. No more than there is evidence of ‘cutters’ flying to the UK to perform the practice here. If there was the propagandists would have produced it.
On Sept 6th, passengers travelling from or via Sierra Leone, Somalia and Nigeria and specifically on one of two flights from Nigeria and one from Casablanca were of particular interest to the operation being conducted at London Heathrow.
Operation Limelight included specialist officers from the Metropolitan Police Service Sexual Offences, Exploitation and Child Abuse Command, supported by a group of anti-FGM activists. The latter included women who had been subjected to the process and men speaking out against it. Representatives from nearby Hillingdon Children’s Services and the children’s charity Barnardo’s, were also involved.
As the passengers disembarked they ran a gauntlet that included a passport check, a sniffer dog and a line of Border Force and plainclothes officers waiting to speak to specific families. They were taken aside by Operation Limelight representatives and ‘were spoken to and provided with information on the risks of FGM and the illegal status of the practice.’
Those involved in the operation were on the look out for signs that FGM might have taken place whilst children/young girls were out of the country. Evidence sought included behavioural changes, difficulty in walking or sitting, health problems including bladder and menstrual issues and complaints about pain.
At London’s Heathrow, 49 families totaling 138 people were spoken to that day. It was reported that 22 families knew that FGM was illegal. The remaining 27 were supplied with literature and information relating to the illegal status of the practice.
That day also resulted in the high profile arrest of a 33-year-old woman from Milton Keynes and a 26-year-old man from south-east London, on suspicion of conspiracy to commit child cruelty. An 11 year old girl travelling with them was taken into care. The incident made national headlines.
Police officers were also on duty at Luton airport, part of a dedicated team operating during the nationwide week of action tackling FGM. Detective Sergeant Elaine Cook, who led the operation there, demonstrated her prejudice and lack of understanding of the issue in saying: “Put simply, FGM is child abuse. It is a tortuous crime that inflicts needless pain and abuse on young women, physically and mentally scarring them for life.”
Additionally, some passengers who flew out of Manchester between July 21st and 25th and those on incoming flights between 30th Aug and 2nd Sept encountered Detective Inspector Nathan Percival, Greater Manchester’s Police (GMP) lead on FGM and his team.
Their work coincided with the school holidays covering Greater Manchester and the surrounding areas of Liverpool, Yorkshire and Lancashire. It provided a chance “to raise awareness of FGM as well as speaking to families returning from countries where FGM is more commonly practised in case they had any concerns or knowledge of the procedure taking place while they were away.”
Prior to the Heathrow arrests, there had been only five since the operation began in August 2013. This is despite the country having been deluged with propaganda, for example statements such as ‘more than 20,000 girls under the age of 15 are considered at risk of FGM every year.’
Being such a high profile issue, the Police are under pressure from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to identify FGM crimes. The CPS, in turn, is under pressure from the FGM Home Affairs Committee to secure a potential prosecution. But the unit acknowledges that it’s challenged ‘because of difficulties in obtaining evidence from the victim’. Despite amendments to the Serious Crime Act 2015, additional cases referred for early investigative advice have not been taken forward. The CPS is currently reviewing three cases and some hope they will go to trial.
Few seem to consider another option: that FGM may not be the issue it has been made out to be. That support for it has declined and substantial change in regard to it has occurred among migrants across Europe as is evidenced here.
The frontline Police approach has been modified over the three years however. Detective Inspector Percival told the Guardian “For so many years the police have gone off and done their own thing but we don’t do that anymore. We don’t charge in, but have a softly, softly approach. We’re learning each day from charities and voluntary sectors on how to approach – police shouldn’t be the baddies.’’
The new policing approach was commended by Angie Marriott, a former nurse and independent consultant in honour based violence, forced marriage and FGM. She worked with the Manchester police on Operation Limelight this year and said “To see the police embrace a sensitive issue openly is remarkable, and Greater Manchester’s Police need to be commended for the outstanding work they’re doing here today.”
Sensitive to the accusation that they might be racially profiling passengers, DCS Ivan Balatchet, head of the Met’s child abuse command denied it, saying that a European family on a targeted flight would be spoken to by officers in the same way as a family from Nigeria or Somalia. “It isn’t discrimination when you’re treating people with courtesy and explaining your rationale and evidence.” And “What comes first is protecting children … and sometimes that will mean difficult challenges with some communities.”
In addition to looking for signs of FGM, some anti-FGM activists were also ‘scanning the queue of passengers for telltale signs such as girls hobbling, or hunching in a way that could indicate they had been subjected to breast ironing’. This is another rare, harmful traditional practice that has captured the imagination of activists and politicians, much as FGM has.
Previously it was thought to be limited to Cameroon where up to 50 per cent of girls as young as ten years old are estimated to have their chests pounded with hot objects to disguise the onset of puberty. But it is now reported to be on the rise and to affect 3.8million women and girls in African countries ranging from Benin, to Chad, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Kenya, Tongo, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
It’s also been reported in the UK, in Birmingham and London but as in the reported problem in regard to FGM and the hidden nature of the abuse, it is hard to prove the extent of its prevalence here. Although activists and the Police acknowledge they are only just starting to understand it, Jake Berry MP and a member of the FGM Home Affairs Committee wants it made a criminal offence. An associated pressure group, CAME, has estimated for the House of Commons that up to 1,000 girls in the UK have been subjected to breast ironing and that an unknown number have been subjected to it abroad. Sound familiar?
The British obsession with FGM specifically and harmful traditional practices generally, the exaggeration of their prevalence and the resultant drive to safeguard girls supposedly ‘at risk’ is putting more and more people under surveillance, considering them guilty until proven innocent. Under the guise of protecting the child, families travelling to ‘countries of prevalence’ are being turned into criminal suspects, obliged to run the gauntlet at airports having their freedom circumscribed based on prejudices and obsessions. It must stop.
About the Author - Bríd Hehir
Bríd is a retired health professional. She started her career as a (volunteer) nurse and midwife in Africa, in Ethiopia and Botswana, where she worked for almost four years. She encountered FGM/C in Ethiopia.
She then moved to London where she worked in the National Health Service as a midwife, community nurse, health visitor, reproductive and sexual health nurse and manager over a period of 30 years. She did not encounter FGM/C during that time despite working with immigrant communities who are reported to practice it still.
She is puzzled by the current reported prevalence of the practice, the official response and associated activism. And is worried that they might cause more harm than good.