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Somali experience of FGM safeguarding in Bristol
The trauma, victimisation and sense of disempowerment that Bristol Somalis experienced at the hands of statutory services is described in this landmark research ‘When safeguarding becomes stigmatising: A report on the impact of FGM-safeguarding procedures on people with a Somali heritage living in Bristol’.
It was launched there 6 March 2019. Delegates included policy-makers and safeguarding agencies as well as third sector representatives, academics, members of the Bristol Somali community and anti-FGM activists.
Councillor Asher Craig, Bristol’s Deputy Mayor welcomed delegates to the launch saying the research was conducted at ‘a moment in time’, specifically after the Bristol FGM trial (Feb 2018). She thought it important to note that while the focus is on Somalis, other communities might still be “under the radar and practising”. And that the Local Authority (LA) “takes a measured approach to safeguarding”.
Why the research was needed
Hibo Mahamoud, a Somali People Against Stigma (SPAS) representative spoke of the need to educate professionals and policy makers about the impact that safeguarding has on families and communities. The two conferences held in Bristol soon after the trial – one for the community and one for professionals, had demonstrated how upset and angry people were with professionals who used the (in)famous Bristol Model as their safeguarding guide.
But despite the conferences, prejudices continued to be voiced. So SPAS decided that unbiased research might help illustrate the damage wrought. Bristol University agreed to explore community views about the safeguarding approach. She believes the findings accurately reflects how they feel.
She hoped that policy makers and professionals on hearing the findings would use them to effect change in practice. She indicated that while services always say that children are their priority, this is of course parents’ priority also, so how families are treated has a direct affect on how family units feel.
Zainab Nur, a Cardiff activist was specifically acknowledged for her support of SPAS and its work.
The research is the work of Dr Saffron Karlsen (University of Bristol), Dr Natasha Carver (Cardiff University), Dr Magda Mogilnicka (University of Bristol) and Professor Christina Pantazis (University of Bristol).
The findings were introduced by Dr Karlsen, Lead researcher and report author. The evidence was collected during six focus groups comprising 30 mothers, fathers and young adults and conducted in the summer of 2018.
Experiences of FGM Safeguarding in Healthcare where policy and delivery aspects were first recounted, contained the few positive examples provided. One was about a vaccinating nurse who had said it was part of her job to tell people about FGM and that was OK. It also felt OK for midwifes to ask questions and to tell clients the rules.
Most people’s experiences were negative, however. Health professionals were considered over-zealous. People thought if professionals viewed FGM as child abuse, they should question everybody in regard to it, including white people.
The report’s Key Findings covers sections related to Health Care, Schools and Home Visits made by Social Services and the Police. Each is illustrated with an individual’s experience. I will include additional examples from the presentation.
Health: Mothers felt re-traumatised, described as having salt put on that wound – making it fresh again.
Staff were fixated on FGM: “The Health Visitor is asking all the time. Before they cared about your health and how the child was. Now it’s just FGM.”
“Instead of the A&E nurse trying to figure out why I was in such pain – you know the usual procedures, bloods, blood pressure, all of that – she skipped all those steps and directly, she was like to my mum, Have you done FGM to your daughter?”
Schools: Key findings: Many were not following the guidelines but were:
- Making automatic safeguarding referrals following holiday requests;
- Often not speaking to parents before making referrals;
- Directly asking mothers about their FGM experience;
- Had a patronising approach due to being clumsy, insensitive, and lacking in knowledge about FGM;
- They also provided incorrect information about the law and safeguarding.
One mother reported: “Within the school, I lost trust. I didn’t understand why they hadn’t alerted us beforehand. Why couldn’t the headteacher tell us about the referral? I thought that safeguarding was when the child is in danger. But for us it was just because we were Somali.’’
A head teacher said, “It’s the law, you must answer, otherwise you cannot go, you cannot travel.”
Social Services and Police: Key findings: Home visits were most upsetting: invasive and unjustified;
- People felt stigmatised “guilty until proven innocent;”
- Significant effect on children: fear and trauma;
- Viewed as the tool of stigmatisation, visiting homes in uniform and using police cars;
- Coercive and rude was emphasised by all;
- Unreasonable access and pressure to comply.
One interviewee reported:
“It was terrible – coming to my house like I was a criminal. I was frightened. I was so scared, upset and angry. My daughter was frightened. The way social services and police told her, it was like, “She’s going to take you to Somalia and they are going to do these things.”
Another said: “They made her scared of me.”
The Travel Form
This was a major preoccupation of interviewees. The form was designed initially to assist people travelling through airports. That’s because the border agency was on alert for people travelling to ‘countries of prevalence’ and to Africa in particular during the so called ‘cutting season’. But the voluntary form soon became a threatening and coercive tool, that was presented as mandatory.
People became confused about its purpose and felt they had little choice but to get one signed by the police before travelling, for fear of having their trip cancelled, their children questioned or removed.
Travelling became a fearful experience for families. Taking holidays overseas was a major expense, and they feared saying something wrong, being refused to fly or being separated from their children.
One described her airport experience:
“(The Bristol airport attendant) took the girls in a corner and started to speak with them. I was thinking, “What is she doing?” She said to them, “What do you know about FGM and what will happen? Where are you going?” I was thinking let them answer. They are old enough to answer her questions.” But I have my seven-year old daughter, my daughter wouldn’t know, she is still young.”
Another said: “You can’t speak up at that point (while being interrogated at the airport) because you are speaking to the Government, because you’re speaking to authority and you don’t want to anger anybody to the point when they have to arrest you, where you’re going to miss your flight.”
And the fear didn’t end when the holiday did. Some parents felt they had to warn their daughters not to spend longer than 10 minutes in the toilet (infibulated girls can take longer to urinate). “And some girls they love to go to the toilet, just for a chit chat. To talk about the holiday. But then the teacher (feels she) needs to keep an eye out.”
Fortunately, the travel form is no longer being used.
“(Border) officials suspected FGM would be done on my daughter and …(took) their passports. They gave no reason why they suspected this. Some months later we were called to the court. The police said they had evidence but they didn’t produce any…..We had to go to the court four times. I told them, “I am employed, you are wasting my time. If you have evidence then show me.” I told them, “Bring a doctor, I have other daughters who have been to Africa. You can check all my children, they never had anything……It was a waste of time, waste of money….even then…the police asked to keep my passport for five years, but the judge told them to give it back straightaway.”
Somalis had become a ‘suspect community’ and experienced a widespread feeling of stigma and criminalisation, as well as racism in policy and practice.
One man said: “The Somali community are law-abiding, as far as I know. (But they are perceived to be) cannibals, inhuman, subhuman. These policies are stigmatising.”
Social integration was desired but was not experienced: “We are trying to find our identities as British Somalis, and we don’t want FGM to be part of that.”
And: “They have nothing else to say about us as a community, that’s (FGM) the only thing. And we are all sick and tired of it. We all want our kids to be like any other normal kid in the UK. Do well at school, be happy and healthy. We don’t want them to keep being talked at like their parents are mental or they have some sort of problem. We just want it to stop.”
A representative of the Somali-led anti-FGM campaign, said: “It’s heartbreaking. The parents will come back to you and say, “why are they (social services) coming to us?” We are being blamed. (They think) We brought them (social services) to them (the parents). “You’ve fed us to the lions! You fed us to the shark’s mouth!” Which is why, if you work in the field, you deal with stigma but also the stick – the affect the services’ behaviour is having is going to get (you) stick from the community, you’re going to be blamed”.
Effects of safeguarding interventions have resulted in a loss of trust in health services, anger at school’s misuse of power and being scared and mistrustful of social services and the police.
The effects on families are particularly salutary: they no longer feel they can parent their children as they’d like to; they feel undermined, have become wary of public attention, think twice about planned treats and surprises for the children for fear of how this could be misinterpreted; they’ve had to tell the children about FGM before it was age appropriate. Some had not ever planned telling them because they didn’t need to know.
Report recommendations included:
- Involve the Somali community in safeguarding itself
- Working with families
- Peer education around FGM and empowering parents
- Remove (uniformed) police
- Greater diversity in social workers
A panel discussion was held after the presentation and included: Counsellor Asher Craig, Deputy Mayor; Anne Farmer, Chair of Bristol City Council’s FGM-safeguarding and delivery group; Dr Katrina Darke, General Practitioner; Sado Jirdo, Black South West Network (BSWN); Aisha Thomas, Assistant Principal at City Academy; Jennifer Winfield, Venturer’s Trust.
This then extended to include a lively engagement with the audience who confirmed the accuracy of the research findings.
Leanne Pook, an Avon and Somerset police representative in the audience and the subject of the TV programme The FGM Detectives, apologised for what had happened. She said the police had listened to feedback and had made changes.
The apology was appreciated. She followed it up in writing the next day, saying:
“Our priority has always been to safeguard children and young people from harm. We greatly value our positive links with the Somali community and we’re sorry that our relationship with some people within the community has been undermined. This was never our intention and we will do our best to rebuild confidence. I hope we can use this as an opportunity to build closer relationships both now and in the future.”
The University’s next steps include plans to:
- Examine UK FGM prevalence statistics;
- Expand research – more groups, different areas (UK EU) practitioners;
- Continue conversations with communities, policy makers and practitioners to identify opportunities to amend practice;
- To establish a Bristol FGM Network.
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.
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