FGM/C Shifting Sands

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The Emperor’s New Clothes? The dangers of the anti-FGM campaign

Published 17 June 2015 Associated Categories What critics think
FGM Controversy


This wide-ranging essay, The Emperor’s New Clothes: The Danger’s Of The Anti-FGM Campaign, published in October 2014, as a preparatory reading for the 2014 Battle of Ideas discussion on The FGM Controversy.

The blurb for the discussion said:

Over the past year, female genital mutilation (FGM) has rarely been out of the headlines, from Channel 4’s Cruel Cut video, to high-profile campaigns by the Evening Standard and the Guardian. In December 2013, the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee set up an inquiry into FGM; the former education secretary Michael Gove wrote to schools urging them to protect girls from ‘this very serious form of child abuse’. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers has called on school staff to watch for signs of FGM and to scrutinise holiday requests from members of communities that practise FGM. In May, police and border officials ran an awareness-raising campaign at airports, intercepting families suspected of going abroad to inflict FGM on their daughters. What has prompted all this? While FGM is practised in some African, Middle Eastern and Asian countries, there is no evidence that it is widespread in Britain. It has been prohibited in the UK since 1985, and it is also illegal for British citizens abroad. Nevertheless, it has only recently become the focus of widespread political concern. The first criminal charges for performing FGM came only in March 2014.

Most people agree the practice has no place in modern society but others, including some women from the diaspora who’ve undergone the practice, have expressed concern about the hostility they face from anti-FGM campaigners. A minority in the UK argue FGM is akin to male circumcision, and that in a multicultural society, we should respect traditional practices. Nevertheless, even some of those who view the practice as barbaric warn that anti-FGM campaigns demonise the very communities they claim to be trying to protect. Dr Katrina Erskine, consultant gynaecologist and head of obstetrics at Homerton Hospital in London, has accused the director of public prosecutions, Alison Saunders, of putting politics before the welfare of women, warning that the case selected for the first prosecution (involving an adult woman who had just given birth) risks deterring other doctors and midwives from giving appropriate care. If teachers are to be held responsible for discovering instances of FGM, how can any screening system avoid seeming racist, or are entire school populations to be checked as a matter of course? Nevertheless, others insist action must be taken, and young girls should not have their bodies sacrificed on the altar of moral relativism and political correctness.

So how should we deal with this issue? Is tolerance of different cultural practices a necessity in plural Britain, or is it time to set a benchmark for what is and isn’t acceptable? To what lengths should authorities go to identify potential victims and practitioners of FGM? Is it the job of NHS staff to report routinely any suspicions to the police, or the role of local education authorities to protect children from their parents? If so, where does this leave the notion of parental autonomy? And why has FGM become such a hot topic right now?

Participants included: Lisa Harker (NSPCC), Christine Louis-Dit-Sully (research Biologist), and Bríd Hehir. It was facilitated by Para Mullan.

You can listen to the discussion below and see the full context of the discussion on the Battle of Ideas listing here.

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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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