Opinion

With a clear focus, we can end FGM

Ann-Marie Wilson says a united, global campaign could end cutting once and for all

'You will know you are making a difference when you have to publicly defend the campaign.'

These were the wise words of a friend and seasoned campaigner when 28 Too Many was launched and we began our research into female genital mutilation (FGM) in Africa. As a result I am not surprised that as campaigns against FGM gain momentum there is a backlash and public opposition: this is a sign that we are making progress.

Some of the backlash is from those trying to justify FGM, but more often it is from people who do not support FGM but disagree with the approach taken by campaigners. Many raise valid questions but sometimes comments are based on media coverage and do not represent the reality and nuances of the campaigners’ strategies.

Informed and responsible debate on FGM is important and so I appreciate this opportunity to write about the campaign against FGM following a recent blog post by Bríd Hehir. This is an important issue and it is good that the nursing community is discussing it and thinking about the profession’s role.

Bríd’s blog made the surprising recommendation that even though FGM is wrong and potentially very harmful, we should do nothing to end it. It is a complicated practice, performed in different ways and for different reasons. But all FGM is a form of violence, usually child abuse and an internationally recognised human rights violation. Therefore I cannot agree that we should do nothing.

There is a lot of debate about the statistics on FGM but reliable estimates put more than three million girls at risk each year in Africa alone. At 28 Too Many we believe that if we can save one girl then that is worthwhile, and that collectively we have a duty to act to protect the millions of girls currently at risk.

In the UK, FGM is a serious crime and it is illegal to take a British girl overseas for FGM. Even if the supposition that FGM is a declining practice in the UK is true (and there is evidence to suggest this is not the case), surely this does not mean it is acceptable to ignore current cases of FGM or take no action to protect those at risk?

Let’s imagine the government announced that the murder rate had dropped by 10 per cent. We would still consider murders that did take place an outrageous crime, expect the police to prosecute and put in place appropriate protection in high-risk situations. We would not say we don’t need to act because the rate is declining. Why is FGM different?

Anti-FGM campaigners have long pointed out to government that the often quoted statistics that 66,000 women in the UK have undergone FGM and 24,000 girls are at risk are only estimates.

The problem with data collection is seen in all countries. 28 Too Many published detailed country profiles on FGM in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda in 2013 and we are currently researching Sierra Leone, Liberia, Senegal and The Gambia.

There are challenges with data in each of these countries and that is why the UK government’s programme against FGM includes significant funding for new research. This is a much needed intervention which will lead to improved actions to tackle FGM.

In an increasingly globalised world, with significant numbers of people moving between countries, FGM will not end in the UK unless we also support its elimination globally.

Another oft-debated point is the role of the law and prosecutions in tackling FGM. I have yet to meet a campaigner who believes that laws and legal action alone will bring about an end to FGM but most strongly believe that it is part of the solution.

There are reports from Africa that law enforcement can drive FGM underground but in most cases, and particularly in countries like the UK, it is already a secret practice. But the way a society views FGM and whether or not it prosecutes those who carry out this crime is important. If laws are not enforced and there is a climate of impunity, perpetrators become emboldened and there is a danger that the UK is seen as a soft touch and girls are brought here from other countries to be cut.

Some also express concern that the campaign to end FGM alienates communities where FGM occurs. Some people may feel alienated but this not a universal response. There is not a single end-FGM campaign but many different campaigns which come together in their aims to protect girls from FGM and to support survivors.

Many of these are strongly rooted in local communities such as Daughters of Eve, Integrate Bristol, Birmingham and Solihull Women’s Aid and Manor Gardens. We must not confuse the language sometimes used by politicians, journalists or others trying to catch public attention with the careful work being done at grassroots level across the UK.

Community outreach and education on FGM is essential to change attitudes and bring about its lasting end. But it is not easy. Some people protest against the campaigns but many more offer support and want to see change. The fact that some people are offended is not a good reason to do nothing. Instead there is growing recognition that in the UK political correctness and fear of causing offence has resulted in failures to protect girls from FGM and to properly support survivors.

When asked by MP at the first oral evidence session of the Home Affairs Select Committee, Inquiry on FGM, on March 11 2014, both Leyla Hussein and Nimco Ali from Daughters of Eve stated that in their view it is not racist to act to stop FGM. Indeed Leyla went on to say she believes it is racist not to engage with FGM as an issue.

I am optimistic that with commitment to address FGM both in the UK and internationally, we will see dramatic change over the next decade. But if we do nothing the practice will continue for many years affecting millions of girls and women. In the UK we need an integrated national action plan involving health, education, social services, law enforcement and local communities. The recent Intercollegiate report on Tackling FGM in the UK made important recommendations on this.

Change is hard work and there are many challenges, but with a clear focus, continued commitment and effective inventions we can end FGM.

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About the author

Ann-Marie Wilson is executive director of the anti-FGM charity 28 Too Many

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