Articles on Shifting Sands
The moral licensing of FGM actors
I’ve recently come across the term ‘moral licensing’ and think it usefully explains how and why actors in the FGM industry behave as they do.
It was used to describe the milkshaking by a Remainer (someone wanting to stay in the European Union (EU)) of a pensioner wearing a Brexit (wanting to leave the EU) rosette outside the polling station where he was on duty for the EU election. That incident happened soon after Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit Party, had a milkshake thrown at him.
These incidents were mostly reported favourably because the assailants were considered to occupy the moral high ground thus legitimising their assaults. Brexiteers however are dismissively labelled by some as racist or facist, so deserving of assault. Yet a Brexiteer doing similar to a Remainer would be considered unacceptable.
The double standard is justified on the basis that Remainer assailants are on the side of good and in possession of a moral license which makes milkshaking permissible.
I think the term usefully describes how many in the ‘FGM industry’ operate also. Anybody who dares to challenge their intentions, understanding or interpretation of the ‘barbaric’ practice are labelled or dismissed as child abusers, supporters, apologists, deniers, cultural imperialists, racists and a whole lot more. So attempts to have e.g. social media accounts closed, attendance at meetings barred, reputations slandered, jobs put at risk are all considered legitimate. That’s because as child saviours they are applauded for indulging in such behaviour.
The recent spate of children prevented from flying for a holiday or to emigrate with their family to FGM ‘countries of prevalence’ has really brought this home. The myth of a ‘cutting season’ and awareness raising in regard to it means that many public sector workers’ antennae are finely tuned to identifying children considered ‘at risk’ of being taken out of the country to undergo FGM during the summer holidays.
So a quick call to the Police to relay suspicions has led to families’ plans being thwarted, holidays interrupted, FGM Protection Orders granted and restrictions applied that may include passport removal and children prevented from travelling outside the country until they’re adults.
A recent example will help illustrate my point
A Somali family with five children (three daughters) ranging in age from eight months to 11 years were planning to emigrate to Somalia for a two year period. The parents, British citizens, had saved for the trip for over five years.
A week before their travel date the seven year old daughter told her teacher of the family’s plans. The father was summonsed to an interview with the school’s Safeguarding Officer where the risk to his daughters undergoing FGM was raised. He explained that it is now a diminished practice there and that neither parent or other family members posed a risk to the children.
Despite this assurance, Emergency Protection Orders were sought and granted. The distressed children (boys included) were removed by uniformed officers from the family home and placed in foster care where they were kept for 12 days between three separate locations.
The parents were then presented with an ultimatum: the children could be returned provided the parents agree to FGM Protection Orders for the girls. They agreed, feeling they had no option but to. A breach of an FGM PO is a criminal offence punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment.
Other examples include:
1. Parents were questioned by the Border Agency on arrival from an African holiday into London’s Heathrow Airport. Because their daughter was quiet and reserved, they suspected that she’d undergone FGM so was referred to Social Services. The parents were accused of having had their daughter cut. The family denied it telling them they did not agree with FGM.
Nevertheless, the child was placed in Foster Care. While in care she was mute and the foster carer thought this may have been due to the psychological trauma she had endured from being removed from her family and placed with strangers.
When finally examined she was found not to have been cut. Yet it took six months for the girl to be reunited with her parents.
2. A Somali mother of four children had booked a family holiday to visit her parents in Kenya. This was the first time the children would be meeting their grandparents. She’d requested and been granted permission by the school to take them out a week before the official school summer holidays start date.
Three days before the trip the mother was visited by Social Workers. They accused her of planning to mutilated her daughter and asked her to relinquish her passport. She refused, telling them they were imagining the danger to her daughter, that she had no intention of having her cut. She felt obliged to give them her passport number however and they said they would monitor her movements. They also made her sign a written declaration not to have her daughter cut.
3. A Somali family have a chronically disabled 18 month old daughter. She has a global developmental delay and a severe breathing condition which requires regular medical interventions. She spends a lot of time in hospital.
On discharge from the Intensive Care Unit, a nurse reported that the girl had undergone FGM. A meeting was organised with the medical team where they accused the parents of having had their daughter cut. This was prior to her having a genital examination to confirm it.
The family denied having done this to their daughter, asking when they thought this could have happened as she spent so much time in hospital and had never travelled abroad. They then alleged that she must’ve been cut in the UK.
A safeguarding referral was made to Social Services. When the child was eventually medically examined she was found not to have been cut.*
It’s interesting to note that many of the families targeted are of Somali descent, probably because services are told it has a very high FGM prevalence rate. Yet none of the children had been cut.
According to the WHO, the FGM prevalence rate has been estimated at 98 per cent since approximately 2006. But this takes no notice of changes that may have occurred since then. Recent evidence from an observational study published in BMJ Global Health (2018) suggests huge falls in FGM/C among African girls aged 0-14 years. And the decline among children aged 0–14 years old was highest in East Africa. Shouldn’t this be considered?
People are also known to change their views about FGM on migration. Experts like Professor Johnsdotter have reported that it results in broad opposition to FGM among concerned migrant groups in western countries.
The humiliation, distress, financial loss, victimisation, sense of disempowerment and sheer inconvenience caused to families because of the UK’s obsession with FGM must be enormous. But those with a moral license will no doubt justify their actions because they maybe helped to prevent children from being mutilated. That if a single child is safeguarded it’s all worthwhile. But is it? Surely we can do better?
*A video account by Wales Today of what happened to this child and others can be accessed here as well as a discussion about FGM related safeguarding purported to be sensitive to ‘race, culture and tradition’.
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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