FGM/C Shifting Sands

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Bristol’s discriminatory FGM Safeguarding Model to be reviewed

Published 10 May 2018 Associated Categories Responses
Bristol's FGM Model

Somali Parents Against Stigma (SPAS) second meeting in Bristol on 8 May 2018, should have convinced any residual supporters of the ‘discriminatory’ Bristol FGM Safeguarding Model, that Somali people hadn’t been consulted in regard to it, disagreed with it, and wanted it taken back to the drawing board.

The recent Bristol FGM trial was the catalyst for the awakening of Bristol Somalis to what was happening around FGM safeguarding, supposedly with their consent, because they’d been ‘consulted’ on the Model. Read how the agencies formally responded here.

In Hibo’s introduction, we were told the community had enough of the assumption that their children undergo or are at risk of ‘FGM’. They want an end to the associated racial profiling and stigma. Despite that parents continually tell professionals they disagree with FGM and don’t cut their daughters, they are not being listened to. Consequently, they feel undermined and unsupported by the government, the local authority and the agencies and charities who purport to represent their interests.

About 40 people attended this important meeting. In addition to members of the community and the public, representatives of statutory and enforcement agencies like health, education, the police, the council, researchers and the media attended. Frank discussions and sometimes heated exchanges took place. 

During the allocated 2.5 hours attendees first heard from Nimco, a mother of four and a physiotherapist. She recounted how she’d been visited at home by police and social services representatives when they had learned, from her children’s school, that she was taking her children on holiday to Somalia. She had simply wanted the children to meet their relatives and to experience Somali culture there.

Until then, her children had known nothing about FGM. She’s seen no reason to tell them about what was a historical practice. But her visitors deemed it their duty to inform them.

She felt they were interrogated like potential criminals and she had to sign a form to say her daughters wouldn’t be cut. The practice of form signing has become so widespread in Bristol that families, fearing airport interrogation about FGM, have even started to ask the Police for a letter they could produce at airports to say the reason for their journey was not FGM related.

She asked that they be treated like everybody else who planned to take a family holiday. But because of racial profiling, specific people are being targeted.

Next, Zainab from Cardiff recounted how people of her parents’ generation, changed their practice many years ago when they learned that cutting was not a religious requirement. She’s been a long term volunteer with Hyatt charity in Cardiff and they’ve never applied for FGM related funding, because it’s not been an issue in Wales. But she still sees and supports the few women who’ve come to the attention of the authorities and been falsely suspected of having had their daughters cut.

She’d like to see some particular myths punctured:

  • That mothers will have their daughters cut
  • That women will be psychologically damaged as a consequence of having been cut
  • That 90% of Somali girls are still being cut

And would like that people stopped listening to organisations promoting this FGM agenda.

I, Bríd, spoke about what has effectively become an FGM industry and the official rationale but flimsy basis for it. And demonstrated that the numbers presenting for NHS care in England are far fewer than was estimated or projected.  

Although the data being collated by NHS Digital illustrates that ‘FGM’ is not happening in England, because genital piercings are considered by law to be FGM, it’s being reported as such. And generates a lot of inaccurate but welcome publicity for the NHS and campaigners.

But despite the lack of evidence, instead of drawing the reasonable conclusion that FGM is not the problem it’s purported to be, campaigners argue instead that this signifies how hidden and insidious the practice is, and continue to call for more funding, education, awareness-raising and action. 

The discussion that followed the presentations, deftly chaired by Abdihakin, illustrated the complexity of issues that surround the practice as well as problems with their interpretation and implementation in practice.

  • Concerns in regard to data e.g. consent for patient identifiable data to be recorded and centralised to NHS Digital, and mandatory reporting of under 18’s directly to the police were voiced. There was some professional confusion about whom was referred and according to what criteria.
  • OFSTED requirements in regard to FGM in schools was unclear and considered insensitive 
  • The suggestion that school children should not be ‘educated’ about FGM proved contentious
  • The need for the new FGM clinic in Cardiff was raised. There had been one from 1989-95 but had closed due to a lack of need. It was thought the demand for the new one was being promoted mainly by professionals and activists.
  • The need for ‘saviours’ in regard to the practice was raised with an attendee suggesting ‘This is our problem’. 

The Bristol FGM Partnership Model

The model remained the biggest bone of contention and was considered an excuse to point fingers at the Somali community. Policy makers in particular were considered at fault. And took advantage of the fact that many Somali people didn’t know their rights. That police and social workers were going into their homes to interrogate them was an illustration of how big the problem was. Thankfully, that particular practice has now been stopped.

There was disagreement as to how the community was consulted in the development of the Model. The charities Integrate UK, FORWARD and Refugee Women of Bristol were reported to have been at the forefront of the consultation exercises. FORWARD’s research report ‘A big wake-up call’ was cited as a positive example. And that Integrate UK involved many young people from the community was also cited as evidence.

Representatives of Bristol’s Safeguarding Children Board assured the audience that they would take on board the messages they were hearing. The Chair promised a lighter touch, even acknowledging ‘we probably have no business with some of you’.

The Board understands the impact that safeguarding can have on families – positive as well as negative. And believes that every child matters. But thinks their response should’ve been proportional and may not have been.

The Somali community surprising reaction and the formation of SPAS, had resulted in a steep learning curve for the Board. They’ve learnt that in conducting investigations, families have been stigmatised and marginalised. 

Consequently, a new Task Group has been set up which will look at the tools currently in use e.g. in schools. They will also review their Risk Assessment Tool.

Although they already work with FORWARD and its associates in Bristol, they now acknowledged they need to work with the community more broadly. And recognise they can’t work alone.

They promised to change their approach and to report to SPAS how that work is coming on and to share it with them.

The Public Health representative also acknowledge that department had been at fault and promised to improve.

The need for all to move on was acknowledged. SPAS agreed that they did not want a ‘them and us’ situation developing, but wants all to work together. 

Others suggested that there still was need for specific work in regard to FGM, in Bristol. It remained a taboo subject for some. Women’s health and well-being was very important. And newcomers were still coming who’ve been cut before they arrived and needed support.

Interestingly, attendees were told that communities in Scotland had not been adequately consulted either when the Scottish FGM Action Plan was being written.  This piece demonstrates that although the Scottish government spends £2,200,000 on FGM related work, it lacks data on whether women are being protected from it.

Looking ahead

SPAS future plans include targeted engagement with affected communities to help make them aware of their rights and how they might defend them. Similar conferences for frontline staff will also be considered. But engagement with the local authority and other relevant departments is the immediate priority until a policy, that all agree on, has been developed.

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About the Author -

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.


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