Articles on Shifting Sands
The FGM industry’s abuse of children must end. FULL STOP!
I was horrified at what I consider the abuse of primary school children who performed at the recent 2018 FGM Conference.
Although I wasn’t alone in my concerns, I represented just a few in the 100 or so adult delegates in the audience who openly disapproved by not joining in. That the children proved to be the most popular presentation of the day was evident from the three standing ovations they received. It seemed as though the organisers had no confidence in their or their speakers authority, resorting to using children to assert it instead.
The voice of the child
Billed as ‘The Voice of the Child’, six uniformed children from Norbury Primary School, two boys and four girls, from a variety of backgrounds, explained to us that FGM is wrong and that children need to be taught how to protect themselves from it as well as from unwanted touch. They used the language of human and bodily rights to convey the school’s safeguarding motto ‘My Body My Rules’. This is also a UNICEF Rights Respecting Schools initiative.
In the conference brochure, Norbury school was promoted as ‘a model of good practice’ in regard to FGM education. Underlying the school’s safeguarding approach is the (false) belief that FGM is still happening in the UK. Because children are the next generation, it’s considered important that they know the facts about the practice so that they can learn to protect themselves and so ‘break the cycle’. So far, so simplistic.
I had become aware of this ‘educational’ approach in 2016 when Norbury children attended a London Mayor’s Question Time, hosted by the London Borough of Brent. They promoted its uniqueness and asked (30mins in) for the Mayor’s help in extending their work, as well as his plans for ‘funding pioneering, crucial initiatives’ like theirs. (Hardly their words?). He congratulated the school on their approach, encouraging their efforts. He seemed to sanction the prevailing view that education is expected to put right the failures of adult society.
Brent is one of London’s local authorities where a number of women who have previously undergone the practice, live. Many have been seen in the NHS although their attendance may, or may not, be related to their ‘FGM’ status. The school website reports that in 2016 there were 70 newly recorded cases of FGM in the Borough. Statements like this are widely reported and are popularly understood to be new cases, despite that they are mostly historical and occurred prior to women and girls coming to the UK.
The NSPCC’s PANTS (underwear rule) has been adopted by the school and informs its safeguarding approach. PANTS means: Privates are private, Always remember your body belongs to you, No means no, Talk about secrets that upset you, and Speak up – someone can help you. The children’s short presentation was designed to illustrate their understanding of this.
We weren’t allowed to film the children but the school’s video depicts a zealous teacher who doesn’t mince her words, telling children that a woman’s vagina is sliced when she undergoes FGM. It also demonstrates what it hopes to achieve through the safeguarding work it does with children, parents and the community.
Afterwards, two members of the Pastoral Team proudly joined the children for a staged Q&A session. The teachers explained that the children’s parents were very supportive of their involvement in this safeguarding work. Each of the children were encouraged to respond to at least one question. They told us they would like to go to Westminster to ask for help in protecting women and girls. And when asked what advice they would give to adults about FGM, they replied ‘Don’t be embarrassed about the topic. We need to know’.
But why do school children need to know about FGM?
Despite that many politicians, organisations, charities, activists and campaigners have created a well funded industry that helps to deliberately obscure rather than clarify what the real situation is in regard to ‘FGM’ in the UK, there was, and is no evidence that it happens here. Nor, contrary to popular belief, is there a ‘cutting season’ when girls are supposedly taken abroad to undergo FGM during school holidays. I’ve described this ‘trophy hunting’ approach here.
The justification for ‘educating’ children about FGM is that some classmates may be ‘at risk’ of undergoing or may have undergone the practice, so their peers need to be aware in order to be supportive. And know they can tell a trusted adult of any suspicions or fears.
But anecdotal reports from children and families at the receiving end suggest that some children from what were practising communities feel singled out, ashamed and embarrassed. This is because of the negative exposure of the ‘barbaric’ cultural practice their ancestors may have been associated with.
Many will not have even known of the practice prior to these ‘awareness raising’ and ‘safeguarding’ sessions and could be every bit as terrified and horrified as their peers. But the spotlight is on them. And this approach is sanctioned by Barnardo’s who ironically promote that ‘a child’s future should never be defined by their past’.
Consequently, there are reports of children being referred to health and social care services for having spent too long in the toilet, limping, fidgeting in class etc. When investigated, reasons unrelated to FGM were identified. But the children felt singled out as a consequence and their families made to feel like criminals. Some parents asking for authorised leave, close to the start of the summer holidays, are also viewed with suspicion.
Many parents are angry that schools allow campaigners to propagandise like this in front of their children. Consequently, some from Cardiff and Bristol have refused to allow their children to be ‘taught’ by them, viewing it as their parental duty, should they think it necessary.
The enthusiastic teaching assistant and anti-FGM campaigner, Hibo Wardere, discovered this when she was challenged by an angry mother, on a bus, for the way she ‘raised awareness’ about the practice in her children’s school. The mother disagreed with the cultural practice being dismissively labelled ‘child abuse’.
Others are concerned at the ‘reverse socialisation’ method increasingly being deployed – children encouraged to take messages home in order to ‘educate’ their parents about the practice and other health related concerns e.g. smoking. They view it as undermining of parental authority in favour of a child’s simplistic, moralistic and judgemental outlook.
Is the school’s role to moralise or to educate?
A competitive industry is now associated with delivering this agenda through PSHE in schools. The need for associated education and awareness raising seems endless. But with resources becoming more scarce and competitive, organisations wishing to get in on the act or stay ahead of competitors, they must offer a strong case for the uniqueness of their approach. So many now simplistically and casually link FGM to part of a continuum of sex and gender based violence, child marriage and domestic violence.
The charity, FORWARD, is one of the many organisations involved in work of this nature. The 2017 pan-European conference that it hosted alongside the End FGM European Network, was about Tackling FGM in Schools: Adopting a Holistic and Proactive Approach. Attendees were reported to include primary and secondary school staff and heads, youth organisations and members of the education sector.
The Head Teacher of Stonebridge Primary School, also in Brent Borough, was a headline speaker at the event. Like Norbury, her school has been highlighted as an example of good practice in the field of FGM awareness and development work. “She is the primary Head representative on the Brent London Safeguarding Children’s Board, she instigates work with social care to improve communication and understanding, is involved in the Multi Agency Safeguarding Hub’s auditing process and is the Head representative on the Brent Young Carers’ Group.”
Within the UK, FORWARD also provides a good example of its approach in the advertisement for a School Facilitator.
The person will ‘deliver FGM and broader sexual and gender-based violence educational awareness sessions to students in primary school (year 5 – 6), secondary school (year 7-13), college, university and other settings across greater London.’
The advert gives examples of the type of work the organisations aims to engage in with schools. Schools Facilitator will deliver FORWARD’s School’s lesson plan, with the objectives of:
• Raising awareness on FGM and broader GBV issues among young people
• Building capacity of students to provide peer support to girls that may be affected by FGM
• Encouraging young people to act as advocates in their peer groups and communities
• Reaching girls who are at risk or have been affected by FGM and making sure they are safeguarded and have access to support.
Isn’t this child abuse?
It was hard to listen to the children voice pre-given and pre-sanctioned opinions, based on the moralistic outrage of their teachers. It was manipulative and distasteful. But the approach is lauded by Barnardo’s, the charity who runs the National FGM Centre together with the Local Government Association.
And it’s also promoted by the NSPCC, ‘the leading children’s charity in the UK, specialising in child protection and dedicated to the fight for every childhood.’
This approach puts another nail in the coffin of sowing fear in children about adults perceived intentions towards them, encouraging them to automatically mistrust those whom they don’t know. And even some they do, including their parents and extended families.
That it has nothing to do with educating children, which is, or should be the role of schools, is overlooked. The instrumental transformation of education into a vehicle for achieving policy objectives means that it is rarely appreciated as something valuable in its own right.
Critic of this non-educational approach, Dr Alka Sehgal Cuthbert, has written that the work of schools and teachers is being redefined from being centred upon providing education, to providing missives from the government’s latest moralistic intervention. She believes the school FGM awareness raising campaigns are driven by moralistic outrage, bordering on the irrational.
Ayaan, one of the few in the audience who did not join in the standing ovations told me afterwards:
“I couldn’t stand up and applaud. I wanted to run up to those children and embrace them and tell them it wasn’t their fault that they were there. I was fuming because I saw the vulnerability of those children. I saw through the reason for them being there: while they were physically present, they were also serving as props, to convey an implanted message of victimhood. I was sickened to see these little children who lacked agency (they hadn’t consented to being there). And it still hasn’t sunk in that these people are consciously using children to catch the attention of family oriented people. What else will they resort to? Encouraging and permitting children to take part in that fatuous stunt, in school uniform, is shameful.’’
Zainab said ”I’m horrified that primary children were being fed information about women being mutilated and told they had their vagina’s sliced. I was also upset to learn what these kids are being taught and appalled by the language used.
Nor were any of the event panellists circumcised women or from communities who practice(d). It’s not as though we are difficult to find, is it? When I challenged the organiser about this, she apologised for the omission.”
They make important points, particularly in regard to the importance of language used as well as consent.
That children are not able to give informed consent is the regular justification for them not undergoing FGM before they are old enough to. The age of consent in the UK is 16 years. But the children on stage were 10-11 year olds, and were being used to further this moralistic, safeguarding agenda. If that is not child abuse, what is? It should end. FULL STOP!
Another piece about the 2018 FGM Conference Police blame professionals for few FGM referrals can be accessed here.
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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