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The Lords should challenge, not indulge, FGM rhetoric
The FGM discussion in the House of Lords in July 2018 regarding a Bill, proposed by Lord Berkeley of Knighton, which recommended that a one-line technical amendment be made to the Children Act 1989 Section 8(4), was illuminating. He proposed, and his peers agreed, that judges should be allowed to make Interim Care Orders when there are reasonable grounds to believe a child was at risk of FGM. I’ve commented on that here.
But the exchanges that took place between their Lordships was interesting on so many levels. It reflected the lack of evidence that exists for the widespread belief that FGM is a live problem in Britain. It also illustrated how statements which promote this view are rarely interrogated. Instead, they are accepted as good coin and continue to fuel the country’s obsession with the practice.
Although the Noble Lords are appointed and therefore democratically unaccountable, they nevertheless represent an influential institution. This shares the task of making and shaping laws and checking and challenging the work of the government. It has a reputation for thorough and detailed scrutiny. Membership, as Lord Berkley suggested, means ‘that just sometimes one can hope to make a real difference to people’s lives.’
1. The rationale for intervention
The absolute conviction that FGM is a problem in Britain was reflected in Lord Berkeleys’ justification for the proposal: ‘As FGM becomes more and more visible and people become more and more active in doing something about it, so the change we seek will be more and more necessary.’
He wasn’t alone in his views. Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood said ‘Despite the continuing prevalence here of this disgusting and plainly criminal practice, there has still not been a single successful prosecution in the UK. In the meantime, in its own way, my noble friend’s Bill will, on occasion at least, save some poor child from this ghastly fate.’
Baroness Lady Featherstone concurred, adding fuel to the fire by asserting ‘our diaspora hangs on to the rules even longer than the countries of origin.’
Baroness Massey of Darwen ventured ‘The police and Crown Prosecution Service … have highlighted that one reason for the lack of investigations and prosecutions is a lack of referrals. In addition, cultural taboo and the age and vulnerability of the victims may prevent them coming forward. This is something we need to crack.’
2. Who are the criminals that are supposedly mutilating children and escaping British justice? Whom would the Noble Lords like prosecuted?
Baroness Kennedy who has ‘been involved in this issue for many years going back to when the law was changed back in the 1980s’ seemed to have the answer: ‘What is happening now is that these practices are carried out by elders in the community, usually older women, and we have to recognise that the women in the communities, acculturated to this, are often great supporters of the practice, and encourage it in each new generation.’
Nobody thought to question the basis for her assertion. But as has been the case with written submissions and oral evidence e.g. to the 2016 Home Affairs Committee Roundtable Discussion on FGM, statements like this are 10 a penny, but are rarely challenged or interrogated.
Baroness Kennedy also opined ‘Young people and family members do not come forward where there is coercion and pressure because of the consequence. The idea that a father or mother might be imprisoned or that an elderly grandmother or someone admired in the community and does this work will end up in prison because of a complaint rests heavily on the shoulders of people in the community.’ That might well be true were there a basis for it.
In asking why criminal law had been so unsuccessful, Baroness Kennedy reminded colleagues of two recent prosecutions. The first, in 2015, when a doctor ‘clearly out of his depth at a moment where a birth had taken place and he had stitched a woman after there had been an episiotomy to allow for a natural birth. The young doctor went through the traumatic experience of having a prosecution brought.’ Her description of what occurred was somewhat inaccurate.
A fuller and more accurate account can be accessed here.
Another case in Bristol (2018) involved a Somalian taxi driver. ‘Someone sitting in his taxi …came close to being an agent provocateur …provoked him into discussing FGM and to speak about his own daughters. It was shown in court that his daughters had not been subjected to FGM.’
Again, a fuller account can be accessed here.
Fortunately, Baroness Kennedy recognised that prosecutions should be brought only in the right circumstances. ‘We have to be very careful about the use of criminal prosecutions. Young people and family members do not come forward where there is coercion and pressure because of the consequence. The idea that a father or mother might be imprisoned or that an elderly grandmother or someone admired in the community and does this work will end up in prison because of a complaint rests heavily on the shoulders of people in the community.’
3. Inaccurate and out of touch
The dated, inaccurate or misinformed views that frequently inform public discussion were also evident their Lordships’ contributions, particularly Baroness Flather’s. She asked ‘How is it possible that it is still going on and is so prevalent in some countries?’ And asserted ‘We know that it is only Muslims who practise this, and it has spread across Islamic countries and all over Africa. It happens also in Bangladesh.’
Baroness Kennedy corrected some of this and advised ‘it is a cultural practice that has nothing to do with religion although many people in a religion are told that it has.’
But she was not corrected in regard to FGM being practiced in Bangladesh. Nor was she alone in her misunderstanding. In general, evidence was not central to the Lord’s discussion.
Baroness Massey ventured that ‘Statistics probably underestimate the size of this problem.’ This is frequently assumed and we are consequently but erroneously encouraged to believe that there is an epidemic of FGM in Britain.
Lord Alton thought it striking ‘and perhaps even encouraging and hopeful, that in countries like Sudan the educated and more wealthy citizens do not subject their daughters to FGM. They need to become more active in seeking to outlaw this practice altogether.’
While education may be a factor in reducing the incidence and degree of the practice, education alone has not proven to be the solution. As the articulate, Sudanese woman in this video clip confirmed to her horrified interviewer (scroll down).
3. Moral Crusaders
Displaying no insight whatsoever into the damage that the Coalition Government (2010 – 2015), had wreaked through the moral crusade that ensued, Baroness Featherstone, a member with ‘such experience and passion to right these wrongs’ reminded colleagues of her time at the Department for International Development and of the work she took credit for leading there.
‘I walked in and the first thing I said was, “I want to do something about FGM because our diaspora hangs on to the rules even longer than the countries of origin”.’
‘As is so often the case when you are a Minister – if you meet a like-minded civil servant, you are in with a very good chance. I met one such civil servant who will remain nameless.’
They said, “Here’s one I prepared earlier”, and brought forward plans for a £35 million programme to support work that was then going on in Africa. We could not be finger-wagging colonialists saying, “This is what you should do”. We were supporting an African-led movement’.
‘The £35 million programme that we brought forward was the biggest in the world. (And works in 17 countries). That announcement kicked off everything that noble Lords will have heard about on this subject in the past five or so years, which carries on today.’
She then proudly reminded colleagues of the legislative changes that ensued through the Serious Crime Act (2015). ‘We managed to bring in travel ban orders, female genital protection orders and mandatory reporting.’
She recounted media encounters which proved ‘so effective and influential’. ‘Immediately after that announcement, I did a Channel 4 programme in the UN basement. The next morning, I woke up to a text from the Evening Standard. I phoned in and did an interview, which kicked off the most amazing FGM campaign by a newspaper. It ran FGM stories every day and still does. It is going through a regeneration. That meant that I had a lot of power behind the argument. It also meant that many people, including David Cameron and Justine Greening, who was fantastic, wanted to join my mission. We had the Girl Summit, which sought a worldwide FGM ban.’
4. £35 Million allocated
Reference to the 2013 announcement about the £35million can be accessed here. The Africa led movement mentioned appears to refer to The Girl Generation: ‘an Africa-led global collective of members and partners brought together by a shared vision that FGM can – and must – end in this generation.’
In 2018 it reported: ‘The Girl Generation is the world’s largest collective of organisations working to end FGM. We now have over 700 members who are the hands and feet of the Africa-led movement. We are witnessing first-hand how communities are choosing to abandon the practice, how individuals are speaking out, sharing their stories and inspiring dialogue amongst their peers, and how real people are making a difference in their day-to-day lives.’
Its 2016-17 Impact Report can be accessed here.
5. Data Misinformation
Lord Alton reported the occurrence of FGM in the UK to be significantly lower than other countries, but asserted ‘it is also practised in the UK and there are women and girls in our midst who have been subjected to it.’ He cited data from NHS Digital’s annual statistics for 2016-17 and reported ‘Of the newly recorded cases, 112 involved women and girls were born in the United Kingdom. In 57 cases, the FGM was known to have been undertaken in the UK.’
What he conveniently didn’t mention although its readily available from his source, NHS Digital, is ‘where the nature of the UK procedures was known, around 50 were genital piercings.’
These intimate piercings in under 18’s are viewed in law as FGM, irrespective of who has had them fitted. And it is know, anecdotally, that these are mostly identified and reported in caucasian teens. Do they also need ‘saving from this ghastly fate’? And who should be prosecuted for fitting them? These questions are never explored or answered.
It’s also important to note that objective research suggests that cultural change occurs after migration. ‘Many people who have the ability to escape the practice of female circumcision – when the social pressure disappears in a new social context – choose to do that, when the possibility presents itself after migration.’
But ‘survivors’ continue to assert that it still happens in the UK, carried out by medical professionals from practising communities. Medicalisation of FGM is the current narrative and it’s being used to put a new spin on an old problem.
5. The cutting season myth
New to the Lords, Baroness Boycott recounted her horror at learning that the start of the school summer holidays is known as the ‘cutting season’, because that’s when the practice is traditionally carried out, ‘certainly in the UK’.
She had also learned, because it’s expensive for people to travel to their country of origin with their daughters, that they pool their resources to bring a cutter here, so that girls can be mutilated in groups.
She elaborated: ‘Poorer families form a sort of co-operative to raise the funds that will pay for someone to come from overseas. If you are wealthy enough, you can use a doctor or a nurse at a private clinic. London, the city we live in, has been accused of being the FGM capital of Europe because so many people come here, using the Eurostar to bring their daughters over here to be mutilated.’ Maybe she should use that imagination to relaunching Spare Rib?
Baroness Featherstone also asserted ‘There is cutting in this country but many girls are taken back to their mother countries. Someone raised the issue of this being the “cutting season”; of course, it is.’
Baroness Kennedy cited dated information to back up her contribution. ‘But the doctors all told us that when those young women returned to have their second babies, their vaginas had been stitched up again. So the practice was happening in the communities. They were not having to return to Somalia or the places from whence they came. It was happening at the hands of older women.’
But re-infibulation is not commonly practiced by Somali women. Perhaps she meant Sudanese? And there is no evidence to suggest there is an FGM ‘cutting season’.
6. The Noble Lords seemed keen to illustrate their credibility through links to anti-FGM organisations and activists.
Plan International was credited as the source of Baroness Boycott’s information. They had briefed her about warning signs: hearing girls talk about a planned summer trip to a country known to practise FGM; girls talking about visiting relatives for a ceremony or for an event; and holidays that include additional time either at the beginning or the end.
She had also been impressed by the campaigner Hibo (Wardere).
Lord Berkley mentioning Nimco Ali ‘who came to one of the debates I started, because that is the way in which we will educate people.’
Baroness Kennedy is a patron of Safe Hands charity.
Baroness Featherstone also paid tribute to the work of the late Efua Dorkenoo.
7. Awareness raising and education were the Lords preferred methods for addressing FGM in Britain
Lord Alton thought ‘punitive measures should be complemented with awareness-raising and educational activities designed to promote a process of consensus towards the elimination of female genital mutilations.’
Baroness Featherstone considered education in school a priority ‘as so many girls have no idea what is about to happen to them. We have to be able to warn them about sudden visits home, signpost who they can talk to if they are worried and explain what might happen. We have to bring this into schools….particularly in areas of high prevalence, where there is extreme resistance by the community, parents and head teachers to spreading any knowledge about this.’
Baroness Massey of Darwen believed that a key element of school education is encouraging young people to develop confidence, social and emotional skills and self-esteem. ‘Through such programmes in schools, maybe we can encourage girls who are likely to be or who have been victims of FGM, to speak out—and not just them, but their friends and others in their communities. Of course, it is unthinkable for girls to denounce their parents, but they can surely talk, or learn to talk, to someone who is sympathetic to their case and their cause. There is no substitute for “experts by experience”.’
The Baroness also asserted that the reason for the lack of prosecutions in Britain ‘is that a girl will not go to court and give evidence against her parents about abuse carried out on her. I repeat that the girl should be given the self-empowerment to talk to someone about it.’
Additionally, Baroness Featherstone recommended that male leaders of communities that practice FGM should be engaged. ‘Of course, much of the answer lies within the community itself, so we clearly need to support the brave girls and groups who campaign from and within the community and to make sure that they are given the help and funding they need to carry out their hugely important work.’
8. France was cited as a positive example of where the practice is being addressed
Baroness Massey of Darwen reported there had been more than 100 successful prosecutions in France. And some in Italy, Sweden and parts of Africa. Parents had been prosecuted for employing a so-called circumciser to cut the girl. ‘The parents were sent to prison for three years. In France, girls are regularly examined by their doctors to check whether they have had FGM or are in danger of having it.’
But these sentences glossed over the racist roots of the French FGM crusade, which are described here.
When, in 2014, Labour MP Diane Abbott (now shadow Home Secretary) suggested that schoolgirls should have mandatory checks, it was met with horror. Yet, just a year later, a mandatory reporting duty was introduced for registered professionals in the Serious Crime Act (March 2015).
Many disagree with this development and predicted that the legal imperative would adversely affect the relationship of trust that should exist between professionals and patients, pupils and parents. It would destroy professional autonomy by removing their responsibility to independently evaluate situations before deciding on a course of action. Consequently, if they suspect or confirm FGM in an under 18year old, they have to report it to the police or face disciplinary action.
I have no doubt the Noble Lords are utterly sincere in their desire to do something effective about the problem many believe exists in regard to FGM. And want, as Lord West of Spithead said ‘to break the logjam’ and not feel ‘a complete failure that in 11 years we have not done something about such an abhorrent and terrible thing.’
But how can they do government’s work effectively when they’re not doing it to their own? The thorough scrutiny expected of them is missing in regard to this issue.
Perhaps they could look at the issue afresh, interrogate the data, ask for actual evidence as opposed to accepting hearsay from those who have become representatives of a polished, well-funded FGM industry, with vested interests in its continuance and furtherance. And whose intent seems to be to sensationalise and exaggerate, not to explain or clarify.
They might then, (shock, horror!) draw the conclusion that nothing much needs doing except when women and girls ask for help or present with health related problems. That a girl who underwent FGM abroad should be of no interest except where it impacts negatively on her health. They might even accept that FGM is a declining practice worldwide, despite, not because of interventions, well meaning though they well may be.
Update: The Bill was read the Third time 11 March 2019 and passed without amendment.
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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