Articles on Shifting Sands
FGM figures have decreased not increased
‘Female genital mutilation cases more than double in a year in UK’ reported a Guardian headline, incorrectly, 30 November 2018.
The accompanying piece, written by Sally Weale, Education correspondent, alerted readers to an analysis by the Local Government Association (LGA) showing an ‘alarming rise’ in social work FGM assessments. The number ‘who have experienced or are at risk of FGM’ had risen from 970 in 2016-17 to 1,960 in 2017-18.
This more than 100 per cent increase was ascribed to better detection by social workers. And ‘experts’ had said the real incidence was likely to be far higher, because it was largely a ‘hidden crime’.
Alison Macfarlane, an epidemiologist and statistician, who has worked on FGM related statistics was sceptical of the size of the increase highlighted in the figures. She looked at the detailed tables, giving data for each local authority area and found what looked suspiciously like a data processing error.
The Department for Education publication (Table 3) confirmed that while FGM was mentioned in the assessments of 1960 children referred for social care in England in the year ending March 2018, 1023 of these reports came from Northamptonshire. In contrast, the corresponding table for the year ending March showed 970 reported overall with fewer than 5 from Northamptonshire, confirming her suspicions.
She alerted the Guardian to the problem in a letter, and relayed her findings direct to the Journalist, the DfE and the Local Government Association. Her (unpublished) letter to the Guardian is reproduced here:
Do figures really show that FGM has become ‘more prevalent’?
‘You reported an apparent more than doubling in the numbers of girls in England who experienced or were believed to be at risk of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) (November 30), based on an ‘analysis’ by the Local Government Association.
It is a pity that the Local Government Association did not look more closely at the Department for Education’s publication ’Characteristics of Children in need 2017 to 2018’, before issuing a warning about a ‘worrying’ rise in numbers of cases of FGM. This publication reported on children referred to and assessed by children’s social services for the year ending 31 March 2018.
Closer examination of Table C3 of the Department’s publication confirms that while FGM was included in the assessments of 1960 children referred for social care in England in the year ending March 18, 1023 of these reports came from Northamptonshire. The corresponding table for the year ending March shows 970 reported overall with fewer than 5 from Northamptonshire.
It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that the recent figure for Northamptonshire and thus for England as a whole arises from a data processing error. This must be disappointing as the publication has just been re-designated as National Statistics.
Even without questions of numerical accuracy, it is difficult to interpret the figures as the publication does not define the reporting criteria. It appears not to distinguish between children who may have been directly threatened with FGM, children who may have been born elsewhere but undergone it before arriving in England, children who may have actually been taken abroad for FGM or children who were reported just because they were born to mothers with FGM.
As with other statistics on FGM, these are highly unreliable and do not support the quotations in your article responding to them. Better data are needed.’
The DfE responded by asking Northamptonshire to check its figures. This identified a coding error and showed that FGM had been mentioned in connection with only eight assessments of children in Northamptonshire, bringing the national total down to 940, a decrease of 30 compared with the previous year.
The DfE amended its publication tables and text and logged the change. Its communications team contacted the media to alert them to the error and the correction.
The LGA and the Guardian articles have since been removed. The Guardian page now says: The Guardian’s article ‘was removed on 7 December 2018 after the paper ‘was notified of a fundamental error in the official data on which it was based.’
In anticipation that this might happen, I have reproduced the Guardian article below.
It’s worth noting however how unquestioning organisations and spokespeople were of the data originally quoted, and used the opportunity to claim the increase was due to improved social worker activity – coincidentally the priority work area of the National FGM Centre.
The LGA had used the opportunity to stress the need for additional funding for children’s services generally and the National FGM Centre in particular.
But the FGM Centre doesn’t appear very busy. Their web site reports ‘it has had 287 case referrals between Sept 2015 – May 2018 from our Local Authorities in East England and London and 14 from other Local Authorities in England and Wales. And has supported the application of 16 FGM Protection Orders over this time.’
That amounts to 301 referrals in 2.5 years. That’s hardly the huge number the public has been warned about. Which might help explain why it has branched out to work around even more minority practices like ‘Breast Flattening’ and ‘Child Abuse Linked to Faith or Belief’.
Having also noted the error, Brenda Kelly, Consultant Obstetrician wrote for the British Medical Journal (BMJ).
‘This week’s BMJ carries news that reported cases of FGM in England more than doubled in a year citing findings from the Local Government Association. This report is problematic on two scores. Firstly, we know from previous NHS Digital reports on FGM prevalence in England that the overwhelming number of women and girls living with FGM underwent the procedure prior to coming to the UK. Such data does not necessarily reflect children who have just undergone FGM. In failing to explain the data behind their headline, the BMJ unwittingly contributes to unhelpful sensationalism around FGM – namely, that there is an epidemic of FGM happening on our shores. There is not. Improved reporting of existing cases of FGM does not equate to increased occurrence of FGM.
The second and perhaps more telling issue is that, since the BMJ went to press, the Local Government Association have withdrawn the report from its website. While there is no explanation for this action on the site, it appears that there was a “fundamental error in the official data on which it was based” (Guardian, December 7th 2018).’
The Guardian article in full.
Social work assessments show ‘alarming rise’ to 1,960 cases reported in 2017-18
Sally Weale Education correspondent Fri 30 Nov 2018 00.01 GMT
The number of girls in England who have experienced or are believed to be at risk of female genital mutilation (FGM) has more than doubled in a year, according to assessments by council social workers.
Analysis of government figures shows that FGM featured in 1,960 social work assessments in 2017-18 – more than twice the 970 cases reported in the previous year.
The figures were described as alarming by those working in the field, who said the increase was due mainly to better detection by social workers. Experts said the real incidence of FGM is likely to be far higher, however, as it remains a largely hidden crime.
The analysis, by the Local Government Association, also reveals that abuse of children linked to faith or belief – including witchcraft and spirit possession – has gone up by 12%.
More than 30 cases a week are now coming to the attention of social work teams, with 1,630 cases in 2017-18, up from 1,460 cases the previous year. The figures were drawn from analysis of government statistics on children in need.
Anita Lower, LGA lead on FGM, said: “These figures show the worrying prevalence of FGM, which is ruining lives and destroying communities.
“At a time when they should be preparing for adult life and enjoying being young, no girl or young woman should be subject to the horrors of genital mutilation, which is child abuse and cannot be justified for any reason.”
The LGA is calling for additional government funding for children’s services and also for the National FGM Centre – a joint initiative between the LGA and Barnardo’s, which works in communities supporting those affected by FGM and building relationships with families to try to prevent it.
Over the past two and a half years, the centre has worked with 354 families and has been involved with 22 FGM protection orders. These impose conditions to protect victims or potential victims such as surrendering a passport so a girl cannot be taken abroad for FGM. The centre’s staff also work with police at airports, raising awareness about FGM.
Leethen Bartholomew, head of the centre, said: “Whilst we are making progress in tackling FGM, these alarming statistics show it is still being practised in communities across England. Even more concerning is that these figures are likely to just be the tip of the iceberg because many cases of FGM go undetected.
“The National FGM Centre’s work includes training social workers to become better at identifying girls who may be at risk of undergoing the practice, and to know how to report it.
“This includes developing an online assessment tool so they are guided through the right questions to ask families. This is vital because the sooner they identify a potential case, the sooner action can be taken to protect the girl in question.”
These latest figures are part of a wider picture of growing pressure on children’s services, with councils warning of a £3bn funding gap by 2025. According to the LGA, social workers are opening “episode of need” cases for more than 1,000 children every day, and more than half involve abuse or neglect.
Responding to the analysis, a government spokesperson said: “Violence and abuse is unacceptable in any context. Children must be kept safe, and no belief system can justify the abuse of a child.
“Those responsible for child abuse linked to faith or belief would be subject to prosecution. Our statutory guidance is clear that anyone who has concerns about a child’s welfare should report this to children’s social care or the police.”
I look forward to the Guardian and all the other outlets apologising for their sensational reporting on this.
Guardian update: 12 Dec 2018
‘A report about female genital mutilation in England (Figures show FGM has become ‘worryingly prevalent’, 30 November, page 26) said the number of girls who had experienced or were believed to be at risk of the practice had “more than doubled” in a year, according to local authority figures. After publication, the source data, from the Department for Education, was found to have a fundamental error in the number of cases reported in Northamptonshire. Using the correct figures, the number of FGM cases in England fell from 970 in 2016-17 to 940 in 2017-18.’
Update 17 Dec 2018
Dr Macfarlane also wrote to the BMJ and her piece is published here under the heading Corrected figures show that numbers of reports of FGM have decreased rather than doubling
In it she reiterated this important message, then went on to say:
‘It is important to note that the data in the Department for Education’s publication are not a count of numbers of girls who had been subjected to FGM. Local authorities are asked to report up to five ‘additional needs’ which were mentioned during each child’s social work assessment. This means that it is not in a position to distinguish between children who may have been directly threatened with FGM, children who may have been born elsewhere but undergone it before arriving in England, children who may have actually been taken abroad for FGM or children who were reported just because they were born to mothers with FGM.’
She elaborated suggesting that the main messages of the Department for Education’s publication, relating to children in need seem to have been ignored. ‘It opened by stating that ‘The number of children in need at 31st March has increased this year, from 389,040 in 2017 to 404,710 in 2018, an increase of 4.0%.’
‘For 53.2 per cent of these children referred, abuse or neglect was the ‘primary need’. Domestic violence was mentioned as an ‘additional need’ for 51.1 per cent of children and mental health for 42.6 per cent, while children for whom FGM was mentioned accounted for only 0.2 per cent (my emphasis).
This paints a very different picture to what was originally reported.
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.
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