Articles on Shifting Sands
Questioning the basis for the UK FGM ‘industry’
When a rare crime like FGM is considered a hidden one, injustice results.
The recent and very welcome Newsnight report by Dr Faye Kirkland exposed the distress experienced by British families suspected of intending to have their daughters’ genitals ‘mutilated’ (FGM). It also asked why young girls, suspected of having undergone the practice, spent unacceptable lengths of time, some in foster care, waiting to have their genitals checked by experts in order to confirm whether they’d been cut or not.
Many families around the country must have breathed a huge sigh of relief at this long overdue exposé. A spotlight was finally being shone on the limited data, cited as evidence, of this supposed hidden crime in the UK, or more specifically in England & Wales. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have different reporting systems but similar problems have occurred in Wales.
In response, a small but important flurry of investigative and questioning pieces were triggered. One confirmed that exaggerated fears over the numbers at risk had led to false accusations and of families being torn apart. Others delved into and questioned the basis for FGM campaigns and reports, based often on little more than speculation and NHS experimental data, about the prevalence of the practice. Data centralised to and reported by NHS Digital is frequently mis-interpreted and reported as fact. Some commentators rightly concluded that when politicians, officials and campaigners wrongly treat the rare crime of FGM as a widespread but hidden problem, injustice can only result.
But the Police, FGM campaigners and activists seem to operate in a parallel universe. It is populated by ‘cutters’ lurking in the wings, waiting to pounce on unsuspecting girls, to mutilate their genitals. So just a week after the Newsnight report, a team of officers operating as Operation Limelight, with representatives from the Metropolitan Police Service, British Transport Police, Kent Police and UK Border Force continued an established practice during the so called ‘cutting season’ and undertook a combination of intelligence-led checks on passengers as well as ‘preventative’ work.
This time, the 30 or so uniformed officers directed their attention away from safeguarding operations at airports to Eurostar international railway terminals at St. Pancras and Ebbsfleet. Their aim was to target victims and wily criminals coming back into the country by a more circuitous route than through airports.
The Operation partnered with Eurostar, High Speed1 Ltd. and Camden Local Authority Social Services department, accompanied by activist Leila Hussein, to meet passengers arriving from Brussels and Paris. They were specifically searching out travellers from ‘countries of prevalence’ and justified this ostentatious and terrifying display of state power over suspect passengers saying ‘We are absolutely determined to obtain a successful prosecution.’
One might well ask whether they had lost the plot. But no. They were only sensitive to possible accusations of racism and concerned about the problems that FGM could cause. Inspector Allen Davis of the Metropolitan Police’s child abuse and sexual offences unit, justified the work saying “It’s important not to let fears of accusations of racism get in the way of protecting children.” And “The thing you have to remember with FGM is that it blights a girl’s entire life. We have to work to ensure that children are safeguarded.” In other words, anything goes in pursuit of these objectives.
The Daily Mail, having also looked behind the headlines in regard to NHS FGM prevalence data and the ‘newly recorded’ cases, discussed the issue with clinical and charity experts in the field. They reported that there was no evidence of children being ‘mutilated’ here and thought prevalence claims were grossly exaggerated. As one of these experts, I suggested that an incontestable industry had developed in regard to FGM.
In a recent post, the Barrister blogger asked how big a risk the practice is to children living in Britain? He took particular issue with the frequently quoted assertion in the Select Committee Home Office Report on FGM that it occurs here “every hour of every day”. He concluded while it is possible that many British cases are taking place, undetected, it is also improbable.
He confirmed that one of the few things the dataset reveals unambiguously is that the majority of known Type 4 FGMs that took place in Britain were in fact genital piercings. I identified this over a year ago in the post ‘FGM: the reality refuses to live up to the scaremongering’. But as is the case with so much FGM reporting, facts are irrelevant and significant information like this does not impinge because the narrative is so entrenched and apparently incontestable.
So, based on a complete lack of evidence, instead of drawing the reasonable conclusion that FGM is not the major problem it’s purported to be in Britain, anti-FGM campaigners argue instead that it is a sign of how hidden and insidious the practice is, and continue to call for more funding, awareness-raising and action. In my opinion, less of all would be a far better way forward, particularly if in the process the FGM ‘industry’ is further undermined and the bandwagon derailed.
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.