Articles on Shifting Sands
Working with the FGM laws: challenges and opportunities
Professionals could learn a lot from communities about FGM.
This became apparent at a unique training event for professionals in Cardiff which was planned by MEND and the Hayaat Women’s Trust following discussions about the practice with people predominantly from the Welsh Somali community.
They had reported to these charities that although Somalis had stopped practicing FGM years ago, because the authorities doubted this, they continued to suspect that girls still undergo the practice either in the UK or overseas. The community consequently felt mistrusted, stigmatised, racially profiled and were being blamed for practices their ancestors used to support.
Many parents had reported troubling encounters with professionals who were openly suspicious of their intentions for their daughters in regard to FGM. Many had been questioned in great detail, some whilst travelling through airports with their children. Some had been even been prevented from travelling to Somalia because they were suspected of planning to have their daughters undergo FGM there. Others had been unnecessarily referred to Social Services and the Police. Some had lost jobs.
The day long event was held at the Cardiff Millennium Centre on 25 January 2019. Representatives of the NHS, Local Government, Education, the Police, Community and Charitable organisations, the Welsh Government and Home Office were invited. A large cross section attended.
SAHAR AL-FAIFI: Regional Director for MEND (Wales and South-West of England)
NASIR ADAM: Plaid Cymru Candidate
HAMDA FARAHER: Cardiff Somali mother
ZAINAB NUR: Co-Founder of Hayaat Women’s Trust
BRÍD HEHIR: Researcher and Writer, Shifting Sands
MAYAMEEN MEFTAHI: Founder of She Can Consultancy
Chair: DR RAKIYA MAMMAN-SIMPSON
Discussants considered how the Serious Crime Act (2015) in particular had impacted their work and the lives of the people they work with, how they have responded to the challenges presented and addressed associated concerns.
Challenges that safeguarding professionals reported included:
• Not knowing enough about FGM, not knowing targeted communities’ culture and worrying about being insensitive and offending people. Some felt embarrassed because of their inexperience. What support services and advice is available?
• Many thought education and training very important but what was offered didn’t always meet their needs or wasn’t accurate or reliable e.g. about FGM prevalence, types, numbers affected, health implications etc. Online training was often felt to be inadequate
• Communication, so as not to give offence, was a general area of concern. The language and terminology that should be used needed clarifying – different professionals seemed to use different language
• Depending on the discipline, professionals approached the issue differently. They recognised also that health, social care and the police were viewed differently by communities. Building trust and confidence was however considered important to all. Some worried that the mandatory reporting imperative to refer under 18’s to the police overrode their professional autonomy. Some were thought to have conflicting agendas e.g. social care’s child first approach, crime reduction by the police, advice and support by health
• Inadequate initial referrals due to the insufficiency of the information provided was reported to be a problem. In order to make a judgement about next steps, better reasons for referral was required. Perhaps the guidance that professionals worked with needed reviewing?
• Some thought the law and FGM Protection Orders were working well. The threat of prosecution was also working
During the ‘Solutions’ aspect of the feedback session, it became apparent that a unique opportunity to work differently in Wales was presenting itself.
• Solutions to many of the problems, worries and concerns raised by professionals reside with local people, their community workers and representative, many of whom were in the room. They are a rich source of knowledge and expertise. They, like professionals, want services to be sensitive to their needs and are willing to work with professionals to help improve them where necessary
• Although self-appointed ‘experts’ may be available, it was thought important to ask how representative they are. This was a lesson learnt from the aftermath of Bristol FGM court case. The importance of not listening to the single narrative in regard to the practice was stressed. Not all girls/women e.g. have been infibulated and not all will have health or sexual problems. Some may, some may not
• Community engagement was a way of developing relationships and gaining expertise. Having open and honest conversations and being curious was thought OK. Genuine engagement presented opportunities to challenge assumptions and break down barriers
• Multidisciplinary guidance and policies could be developed and/or reviewed jointly
• Safeguarding was recognised to be a challenging area but being transparent in regard to it, was considered best so as to prevent relationship breakdown
• Perhaps each service could identify a specific representative who would develop relationships and be the conduit for the transmission of knowledge and expertise between professionals and communities?
Invitations to explore any or all of these suggestions would be welcomed by the community.
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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