Articles on Shifting Sands
Why are politicians so interested in FGM/C?
FGM/C is an issue that enjoys unprecedented, unquestioned, cross-party political support.
But why are politicians so engaged with it now?
I have no doubt that they genuinely want to help end the practice since they have been told, and appear to believe (despite any evidence), that it is happening on their doorsteps, as well as abroad. They want it ended ‘within a generation’. But perhaps it is also a convenient, non-controversial, morally worthy bandwagon to jump on? Who after all could possibly favour the practice or disagree with the desire to see an end to it?
I suspect the answer might lie in the fact that politicians have found it very difficult to connect with a disengaged electorate for some time. And are desperately searching out issues through which they might. Their persistent interference in the running of the NHS, an institution dear to the hearts of British people, and use of it as an election topic, exemplifies this need.
Additionally, because FGM/C is now also viewed as gender based violence and child abuse, it connects with the widespread public belief that children are uniquely vulnerable, that abuse is widespread with ‘tip of the iceberg’ predictions of prevalence. And that children are at particular risk from their parents and families.
FGM/C has therefore provided politicians with an ideal topic through which they can connect and demonstrate their responsible and caring credentials. It’s considered a morally unambiguous issue. So they are falling over themselves, keen to be seen to be doing something about it. And in particular to support the campaigners whom they credit with leading the agenda.
Prime Minister David Cameron who considers FGM/C ‘a preventable evil’ hosted a Girl Summit with UNICEF in 2014 and said there “I go to lots of conferences and events and seminars and think tanks and all the rest of it, and sometimes you sit there and you’re not quite sure what you’re trying to achieve. Here, it is absolutely clear about what we are trying to achieve, it is such a simple but noble and good ambition, and that is to outlaw the practices of female genital mutilation and childhood and early forced marriage, to outlaw them everywhere, for everyone within this generation. That is the aim. That is the ambition.”
President Obama has also condemned the practice in the US. He said in July 14: “There’s no excuse…Female Genital Mutilation – I’m sorry, I don’t consider that a tradition worth hanging on to. I think that’s a tradition that is barbaric and should be eliminated. Violence towards women – I don’t care for that tradition. I’m not interested in it. It needs to be eliminated.”
The Liberal Democrats were considered front runners in their desire to tackle the issue of FGM/C in the run up to the 2015 general election in Britain. MP Lynn Featherstone demonstrated one of the most innovative approaches. She allowed campaigner, Nimco Ali, to write to Haringey constituents in March, to appeal to them to vote for the MP based on the work she’d done locally around FGM/C, as well as internationally through the Department for International Development (DfID). Although this didn’t have the desired effect – Featherstone lost her seat to a Labour candidate, it helped promote her status as a trenchant fighter against gender based violence.
Politicians have been very supportive of the charismatic, passionate and articulate anti-FGM/C campaigners, suggesting that they’ve achieved this level of public interest in and awareness of the practice through their own efforts, unwilling to kowtow to a perceived politically correct agenda.
Keith Vaz, Chair of the Home Affairs Committee on FGM/C (Column 340WH) suggested ‘The courage of people such as Leyla Hussein goes against those who believe that some kind of political correctness means that people cannot talk about these subjects – that the community is somehow on its own and no one can comment. As my hon. Friend said, this is barbarism – brutality – and it needs to be dealt with. There is no community, religious or political justification for what is going on, which is why it needs to be stopped.’ Perhaps the campaigners were pushing at an already open door?
There are downsides to this orientation however. Politicians have allowed themselves to be dictated to and have even abdicated their leadership responsibilities by succumbing to the equivalent of ‘pester power’.
Young people have been at the forefront of demonstrating the effectiveness of this approach. Michael Gove, as education secretary, was pressured by Fahma Mohamed, a junior trustee of Integrate Bristol, into writing to schools about FGM/C following a Guardian-backed petition of 234,376 signatures, urging him to take action. He praised her for her “inspirational” work saying “I thank Fahma – and other courageous public campaigners against female genital mutilation – for their efforts. We all want to see this very serious form of child abuse consigned to history.”
Fahma Mohamed has since been rewarded for her work by Good Housekeeping. She received their outstanding young campaigner of the year award.
That young campaigners are not respectful of politicians or grateful for their efforts (or perceived lack of them) in regard to FGM/C, was demonstrated most forcefully by Muna Hassan. She told the PM, David Cameron in 2012, to “Grow a pair and do something about FGM.” and “If you can’t handle the issue then there is no point in you doing your job.”
Politicians may of course have benefitted by giving the campaigners a platform, sharing it with them and basking in the reflected glory. But by allowing themselves to follow instead of lead, to be dictated to and publicly humiliated, they may lose the public connection and respect they so desperately crave. And depend on to survive.
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.