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Zero Tolerance of Zero Tolerance for FGM

Published 13 February 2023 Associated Categories What critics think
Zero tolerance of Zero Tolerance approach for FGM

Sheffield hosted an important but different event on 5th February 2023, the 11th anniversary of the UN General Assembly’s designated International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation. But rather than rehearsing the usual arguments, this event questioned the premise of the zero tolerance approach.

It was organised by Hidden Voices UK, hosted by Israac and supported by Ashiana.

The description for the event Cutting to the chase on Zero Tolerance for FGM read:

“Many will mark the International Day of Zero Tolerance for female genital mutilation/circumcision (FGM/C) on February 6th, and even claim success locally, nationally and worldwide in endeavors to eradicate this traditional practice. Few however will consider the negative effects that anti-FGM initiatives and interventions have had on targeted people.

High profile campaigns in the UK have promoted this approach, exemplified by political initiatives, legislation, activism, awareness-raising, surveillance, safeguarding policies with an overwhelming desire to prosecute. These have resulted in some Black and Minority Ethnic Communities locally and nationally feeling targeted, marginalised and stigmatised.

In Sheffield, many have experienced the negative impact of this safeguarding approach. Some women circumcised as children or young adults, mostly in their country of origin, feel victimised by the assumption that they will automatically subject their daughters to a practice most have since rejected. Some believe they have consequently been served e.g. FGM Protection Orders and had children removed merely because they belong to a particular ethnic group. Others have encountered unwelcome interventions because of the Mandatory Reporting duty. Systems that claim not to discriminate have left some feeling stigmatised and criminalised, while what should be relationships of trust with professionals have been damaged.

Challenging this orientation has been difficult and today some women at the receiving end will tell their stories and illustrate how problematic they have found it. Other contributors will put what is happening in Sheffield into a wider context. Together we will explore what communities and professionals can do to heal rifts and look towards working together more positively in the future.”


Sheffield prides itself on working in partnership with the public and services around the issue. The event was well advertised and attended, with representatives from the public, the local authority, the NHS, education, the third sector, youth support and charities. 

But the police did not attend. They were reported to be hosting a separate Zero Tolerance event, a link to which was discovered later, having been posted mid-morning on the 5th.

Their podcast Working towards ending FGM in the UK was also discovered later.

Some attendees were very critical of the police absence, considering it a missed opportunity to discuss and contribute to this important discussion in a public forum.

The agenda

Charities and organisations explained their roles, survivors told their harrowing stories, the social services representatives explained how they worked and acted on referrals, and the Burngreave ward councillor described her role and the work she undertakes with underrepresented communities.

In my keynote address I explored what Zero Tolerance means and how crucial tolerance is for freedom of speech, freedom of belief and freedom of conscience, cornerstones of a democratic society.

Below are my bullet-point justifications for this approach:

  • Tolerance is a principle of a democratic society, one of the things that binds people of different backgrounds together. It’s been a British value since the advent of democracy.
  • It is part of the most basic dimensions of freedom: of belief, conscience and speech. 
  • We need these freedome to develop our capacity to judge. To be able to distinguish between what is right and wrong, good and bad, acceptable and unacceptable.
  • Freedom creates the conditions for and expects respect for people’s right to hold and express beliefs, opinions and behaviours in accordance with their conscience.
  • In that regard no idea or view is beyond question. This means tolerating beliefs and views hostile to our own. Not censoring anybody for ‘wrong opinions’. 
  • This requires a lot of us: confidence in our own convictions, a willingness to challenge, be challenged and to take risks.
  • Tolerance embraces uncertainty, viewing it as an opportunity to develop our knowledge and gain greater moral and intellectual clarity. 
  • Some think tolerance is a form of polite indifference. Of being non-judgemental and passive. But it’s none of those. 
  • It is not easy to be tolerant. It requires a willingness to listen to views that one finds difficult, even offensive, to judge and to make moral distnictions. 
  • Zero Tolerance in comparison is a soft option. It encourages censorship, restrictions and laws. It closes down discussion and debate. It wants certainty.
  • If we want to have free expression we can’t have Zero Tolerance. 
  • Instead we need a Zero Tolerance approach to Zero Tolerance for FGM.

I then considered and elaborated on why FGM specifically continues to be singled out for a Zero Tolerance approach, focusing on propagandistic campaigning, the lack of data and its misrepresentation, genital piercings being labelled as FGM, the definition of ‘at risk’, the demeaning use of language, how children are being indoctrinated in and used by schools, the infrastructure that supports the drive for prosecutions, the use of the law and the problems for families and communities at the receiving end of zealous approaches, and problems for professionals having the law extend into their practice and their autonomy undermined.


Three mixed groups then focussed on the following aspects and reported their findings to all attendees:

  • Experience of FGM; issues faced, and working together to gain a better understanding
  • Concerns about the Zero Tolerance approach and suggestions for alternatives
  • Challenges encountered: problems, barriers and solutions

The event ended with a productive dialogue between attendees and the panel of speakers.

The hosts hope to provide a report about the event soon.

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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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