Articles on Shifting Sands
Cardiff Somalis perplexed by FGM obsession
More than 70 feisty, vocal women, predominantly of Somali heritage, attended a special evening meeting about FGM in Cardiff on November 16 entitled ‘Exploring how changes in the law may affect you and your family.’ NHS staff were also welcomed.
The women attended in the hope that they’d begin to understand the perplexing FGM discourse which has come to dominate their lives, negatively. They also wanted to learn about the FGM laws, discuss the effects they are having, and to understand why activists, public sector professionals and some charities remain preoccupied by a dying practice that gets a disproportionate amount of ‘safeguarding’ attention. As the meeting started, a number asserted that it was no longer practiced by their community and they welcomed this development.
FGM has become a real source of concern for them. While some had undergone it, they now believed it wrong and is no longer supported by the community. Many have teenage daughters (or older) who’ve not undergone the practice. Yet as pregnant women and mothers they are repeatedly questioned about it and are tired of being viewed with suspicion in regard to it. But their denials fall on deaf ears. They feel stigmatised, racially profiled and got at.
The Law and Operation Limelight
After a presentation about the FGM laws, the Police and Border Agencies Operation Limelight’s safeguarding and awareness raising programme was specifically discussed. Stories were recounted about people’s experiences of travelling to ‘FGM prevalent countries’. Others advised of the treatment families had ensured and others might expect at the hands of the police and border agency when leaving the country or returning. These agencies are often advised and supported by activists, charities and public sector employees.
Families were told they could be taken aside for questioning at the airport, have luggage checked, children questioned, ongoing social care and police involvement in family life, court appearances, FGM Protection Orders issued, passports removed, travel restrictions imposed, visas denied, fares lost etc. But information about the Orders is not collected centrally, so none is publicly available.
I was invited to explain why, despite evidence to the contrary, the UK has been portrayed as having an ‘FGM epidemic’ and to shed light on what I term the ‘FGM industry’.
So I talked about the basis for the ‘moral crusade’ which I have written about here. And described the ‘scaffolding’ erected to prevent an ‘FGM epidemic’, to raise awareness and to safeguard girls ‘at risk’. Many of the developments and interventions were informed by the Serious Crime Act 2015.
I used examples, some that have arisen as a result of the Act, to illustrate the damage caused to children, families and professionals. They include:
Mandatory reporting of U18s to the police
In October 2015, it became mandatory for registered professionals working in e.g. health and education to report ‘visually confirmed’ or ‘verbally disclosed’ cases of FGM in under 18 year olds direct to the police. As well as the potential problems this may cause to children/teens and their families, it completely undermines a professionals’ judgement and decision making capabilities about responding to the situation. That decision has been denied them.
Mandatory recording and centralisation of sensitive patient data to the NHS
Since 2015, a ministerial directive by the then public health minister Jane Ellison, has obliged clinicians to collect specific patient information from children and women who had undergone FGM, and to centralise it to NHS Digital. This, in addition to an NHS number, includes identifiable personal information like name, date of birth and post code.
While the patient must be told that their personal data is being collected, she does not have to give consent for this to happen. This is the only known patient group that this directive applies to.
The women were understandably concerned at being singled out for differential NHS care and denied the same rights to privacy as other patients. Why were they being discriminated against? They were pleased to hear that some clinicians and others have raised concerns about the ethical basis for centralising this data although the concerns have not been addressed adequately.
FGM Protection Orders (FGMPO)
FGMPOs were fast-tracked for implementation in July 2015 to protect girls before the so called ‘cutting season’ and to address the ‘tip of the iceberg’ problem. They were designed to provide a civil alternative to criminal prosecutions. The aim was to protect girls against the commission of an FGM offence and protecting them from it. It was hoped the POs would also make successful prosecutions more likely.
Applications for an PO are made to the Family or High Court. Breach of an Order is a criminal offence with a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment, or if a civil breach, punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment. FGMPOs were closely modelled on forced marriage protection orders.
Between July 2015 and March 2018 the courts had made 220 FGMPOs. By November 2019, a total of 418 had been made until June 2019. This, if correct, demonstrates a huge increase in the number made in the 15 month period from March 2018 – June 2019: 198.
But there is no information about the number of Orders made or granted. Nor is there centrally held information about them, so there is no public accountability in this regard.
In addition to the concerns raised above, the women were surprised to learn the Operation had been granted an award recently. Judges described it ‘a major safeguarding operation that has warned (and possibly deterred) many thousands of suspects and victims and has now been replicated across multiple US cities’. I have since questioned the basis for the award.
The Welsh government recently ended a consultation on new curriculum guidance for schools about the inclusion of Relationship and Sexuality Education (RSE) which includes FGM. When the reformed curriculum is in place in 2022, the subject will become statutory for five to 16 year olds.
Educating children about FGM is controversial and I have questioned the need for it. Some children disagree with the need also. Parents recounted an instance of a teacher asking a class to engage in a project about the practice. The children refused, describing it as a non-issue for them.
But as BBC Wales reported recently ‘Parents are set to lose their right to remove their children from sex and relationship classes under Welsh Government plans.’ That’s despite in a previous consultation, 89 per cent of respondents had backed the right of parents to take children out of the classes. However Education Minister Kirsty Williams said it had always been an “anomaly” that pupils could be withdrawn from certain subjects and she was “minded to” abolish the right to remove children from religious education lessons, to be renamed “religions and world views”, to include non-religious perspectives. The plan is being put to an eight-week consultation.
‘Girl includes woman’
An aspect that caused the women huge concern was learning that race is the prism through which some women wanting female genital alterations and surgeries are viewed in UK law, because they are considered children. This horrified those present and they wanted an explanation.
In section 6(1) of the FGM Act 2003 ‘girl includes woman’. This means that anyone who ‘excises, infibulates or otherwise mutilates the whole or any part of a girl’s labia majora, labia minora or clitoris’ (FGM) is a criminal. As some adult women are defined as children, they are deemed incapable of giving informed consent to non-health related genital alterations, so are denied bodily autonomy.
The law racialises and infantilises these women, specifically those from countries where FGM was practiced at the time it was drafted in the 1980’s. This probably meant Africa then, but would probably now include women from any part of the world where FGM, however defined, is practiced. And as Dr Shavisi has suggested, the law ‘(E)ither by ignorance or design, it’s supposedly good intentions are ultimately marred with sexism and racism, since the legislation devalues the consent capacities of racialised adult women’.
This legally sanctioned discrimination was indirectly and probably unintentionally exposed in recently refreshed and expanded FGM guidance from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). It has advised prosecutors that cosmetic genital surgeries and piercings should no longer be considered, or in most cases prosecuted as FGM, with some qualifications.
It’s highly unlikely that brown and black skinned women will be the potential beneficiaries of this welcome development. They are more likely to be caucasian. The women joked at the thought of them presenting in the NHS asking for designer vaginas or genital piercings. They knew they’d be refused because they’d be considered to be asking for FGM.
Role of activists
The audience were also keen to talk about the damage that activists had caused as they moved from the margins to the centre of influential FGM awareness raising campaigns and initiatives over the years. That many were of Somali descent didn’t go unnoticed and confirmed for them why their communities were being singled out and negatively impacted by interventions. Some thought the activists were doing it purely for economic gain although the fact that many had been awarded Honours was also noted. Others considered them sincere but misguided.
All Wales FGM Protocol
This protocol from 2011 is dated but being revised. It’s not know whether community support and involvement has been sought to help with the revision. It was suggested that it might be useful to offer to help inform and influence its development. This had happened in Bristol following the controversial court case in February 2018.
The community there had learned about the discriminatory Bristol Partnership Model which the Police had helped develop and implement, with its associated racial profiling and community persecution. It illustrated how they infiltrated these ‘hard to reach’ communities, supported by local representatives from the charities Integrate UK and FORWARD who had helped with intelligence gathering.
That the Bristol Somali community was as a consequence ‘over-policed’ was evidenced in a November 2018 report. After the court case and at the community’s insistence, Safeguarding Guidelines were revised. FGM referrals had subsequently dropped by 94 per cent.
A representative from a Theatre Group spoke about her and the communities negative experience at the hands of professionals in regard to FGM. She then introduced a video recording of a theatre piece written and performed by the community. It was suggested that Cardiff should connect with Bristol to discuss opportunities for joint working and learning.
NHS staff present said they were also keen to help ensure the women’s NHS experience of care improved and became more sensitive to their needs.
FGM remains a challenging issue and one the public should be sceptical about attempts to address through legislation. The extension of the law into family life and professional practice is a retrograde step for all. That it’s been introduced to the detriment of the relationships of trust that should exist between professionals, girls/young women who’ve undergone FGM, their families and communities should be of major concern to all. I believe the law should be repealed before it does further damage. As demonstrated here, the cost of not doing so is too great for all concerned.
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.