Articles on Shifting Sands
Brexit and FGM: Migration reduces incidence
While the Brexit Party’s success dominates the agenda, and the Prime Minister prepares to leave Downing St., Remainers, still hostile to the outcome of the biggest democratic process ever undertaken in the UK’s history, want Brexit undermined. They believe that every aspect of life in the UK and Europe will be negatively impacted by leaving the European Union (EU), in particular issues like gender and vulnerable people. Included is progress on ending FGM.
The reality however is that with Brexit, the incidence of FGM in the UK should continue its downward trend because immigrants are known to change their practice on migration. And probably of their own volition despite the patronising ‘vulnerability’ labels applied.
Vulnerable people and the EU
Many consider women and children subject/ed to FGM among societies most vulnerable. The European Commission (EC) believes every girl and woman has the right to live a life free of violence and pain, which includes the 500,000 living in Europe who were forced to undergo FGM.
In 2018, three Labour Party UK Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) were considered honourable exceptions to their peers regarding their concern for ‘women and children’s issues.’
Richard Corbett thought that instead of walking away from countries committed to tackling FGM, the UK should continue to work with the EU to end it. And should support EU-funded Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) who work at grass-root levels to eliminate it, as well as collaborate on projects in non-EU countries.
Mary Honeyball believed a co-ordinated, multi-agency strategy could only be achieved through working closely with partners. She wanted the implementation of EU-wide standards, collecting and sharing best practices across European countries.
Julie Ward worried that Brexit might disrupt the EU and the impact on its budget might have a knock on effect on its international work. She thought it might result in a reduced focus on FGM within the UK but that it should continue to match the EU funding of projects.
That these Labour MEP’s primary allegiance was not to the British electorate didn’t pass unnoticed in the recent EU elections. Corbett and Ward managed only to scrape through behind the Brexit party. Honeywell didn’t stand again. She had resigned from the Labour Party, citing as justification its confused position on Brexit.
Although democracy was the priority issue for The Brexit Party in the election, the way in which the EU dictates Britain’s stringent immigration policy is concerning. Its freedom of movement strategy gives European migrants preferential treatment compared with people from elsewhere in the world. Many Brexit voters would welcome a public discussion about a more liberal approach to immigration, including the possibility of opening the borders to more/other people.
The MEP’s seemed to ignore the current role of the EU as gangsters of the Mediterranean trying to block vulnerable migrants from leaving North Africa. Many are treated as commodities for traffickers and dealers – their fate decided by EU officials.
Although 116,647 migrants and refugees (a drop on previous years) reached European shores in 2018, 2,262 drowned attempting to get past Fortress Europe’s militarised borders.
The EU will no doubt credit the falling numbers reaching Europe on its Better Migration Management and Trust Fund For Africa strategies. Through these, it has tabled multi-billion-euro deals with Libya, Sudan and Eritrea to keep brown-skinned people out of Europe.
Many, including Medecins Sans Frontiers believe blocking people in the country or returning them to Libya makes a mockery of the EU’s so-called fundamental values of human dignity and rule of law.
And instead of thanking elderly women, priests and firefighters for acting humanely by supporting migrants in perilous conditions, they have instead been arrested, charged or harassed.
End FGM EU
The EU funds the End FGM European Network (End FGM EU), an umbrella network of 22 European organisations based in 11 EU countries with 16 members organisations. It ‘works to ensure that the EU acts to end FGM and protect women and girls.’
End FGM EU cites 200 million women worldwide as having undergone FGM. And believes if the practice continues at the current pace, 68 million girls will be cut between 2015 and 2030 in 25 countries where FGM is routinely practiced and data is available.
But Professor Johnsdotter, an expert in the field, suggested in 2015 there is growing evidence that migration results in a broad opposition to FGM among concerned migrant groups in western countries.
Explorative studies show trends of radical change of this practice, especially the most extensive form (infibulation – type III). The widespread interpretation that Islam requires circumcision of girls is questioned when, for example, Somalis meet other Muslim migrants, such as Arab Muslims, who do not circumcise their daughters. The few criminal court cases for circumcision of girls that have taken place in Western countries corroborate the conclusion that substantial change in the practice has occurred among migrants.
Additionally, the damage that anti-FGM campaigners wreak but rarely consider, is also highlighted by Johnsdotter. After migration, affected women have to live in the midst of a dominant discourse categorising them as “mutilated” and sexually disfigured. How traumatic and undermining must that be for them?
African FGM numbers are falling
Recent evidence from an observational study published in BMJ Global Health (2018) suggests huge falls in FGM/C among African girls aged 0-14 years. In East Africa, the prevalence fell from 71.4 per cent in 1995 to 8 per cent in 2016; in North Africa, it fell from just under 58 per cent in 1990 to just over 14 per cent in 2015; and in West Africa, it fell from 73.6 per cent in 1996 to 25.4 per cent in 2017. It’s not surprising therefore that the rate in Europe is also falling.
That people might reduce or end the practice by their own volition rarely seems a consideration.
NGO’s, many funded by the EU, will no doubt take credit for helping to achieve reductions. But their perceived, neo-colonialists endeavours in trying to eliminate the practice is of concern. Many recognise that NGO’s collusion with donors generally puts African states under huge pressure to make the practice illegal so as to meet donor, though not necessarily countries’ priorities.
British funded donor agencies, part of what has become an international anti-FGM industry, will no doubt be thrilled at the recent £50M allocated to help end FGM in Africa by 2030. This was promoted as the biggest, single investment to date in the world which aims to support grassroots activists and survivors help change people’s perceptions of FGM. The International Development Secretary said the funding would also have a positive impact in the UK: “We can’t end FGM in the UK without ending it globally.”
Worldwide, as well as within the UK, the law remains a priority tool in the fight against FGM. A UK based anti-FGM advocate, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, is also a vociferous anti-Brexiter. She considers Brexit a disaster for the law and for women, believing ”it is going to take us into a terrible place”.
Nor did she mince her words illustrating the low opinion in which she holds Brexiter colleagues; “Most lawyers are Remainers, but a very few Brexiters – I could count them on three fingers – are trawled out on the media every time. It’s a Potemkin village – it’s to give you the impression that the legal world is divided. They are fundamentalists in many ways. The mad Brexiters have common things about them, almost invariably: they don’t like homosexuals, they don’t like foreigners and they hate human rights.”
Despite her declared involvement with the FGM issue since the 1980’s, her dated grasp of the situation was evident in a recent House of Lords discussion. But then evidence was not central to that particular discussion when moral grandstanding seemed more the priority.
She also believes that cultural relativity continues to be used as a smokescreen to hide the failure of authorities in tackling FGM. But this completely ignores the role that the law plays in criminalising women and girls who happen to come from communities or countries where FGM is/was practiced.
Brexit can only be good for Britain and for migrants. Not least because its adoption would uphold the democratic principle of politicians implementing the will of the people. Citizens, not EU bureaucrats, should hold Governments to account.
After Brexit, the trade restrictions currently placed on Africa by the EU would also be lifted, allowing economic life to improve. The director of Democratic Institutions for Poverty Reduction in Africa has suggested that not getting out of the EU would tie Africa forever to it and its restrictive policies.
New cases of FGM are virtually a thing of the past in the UK and a successful Brexit could see historical cases drop even further because immigrants views change on migration. With a more liberal immigration policy, more and different people could be allowed into the UK. The indigenous population could continue to positively influence newcomers views about the practice whilst welcoming them to a country that has demonstrated its willingness to fight for the important principle of democracy.
About the Author - Bríd Hehir
Bríd is a retired health professional. She started her career as a nurse and midwife in Africa 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.