It only takes an evening spent in front of the television to see that popular drama and soaps rarely shy away from tackling serious issues. On the contrary most appear to relish in depicting some of the grittier or more controversial aspects of our society. And yet, despite an estimated 20,000 girls thought to be at risk of female genital mutilation (FGM) in the UK, the BBC is the first broadcaster to address the seemingly taboo subject in a mainstream TV drama.
The two-part storyline featured on BBC's Casualty, which concluded this weekend, is a welcomed move towards shedding much needed light on this appalling and illegal practice, and has started a much-needed conversation about how to better protect girls in the UK.
Female genital mutilation is a practice whereby girls have their external genitals cut away in the name of tradition. It is believed to be a preparation for adulthood and marriage and a way of ensuring that they are 'clean, chaste and faithful'. FGM is a hidden and rarely discussed issue, even within practicing communities. Awareness is sparse among the general population, with the media frequently taking an overly cautious approach and deeming it a minority issue; a problem too gruesome, culturally sensitive, or apparently too risky for meaningful public debate.
As with all forms of abuse, we know that silence lets offenders continue to harm the vulnerable. In this case we are talking about young girls, typically between the ages of four and ten, often from communities originating from parts of Africa, the Middle East and the Far East.
Casualty has demonstrated once again the power of popular TV drama to reach everyday people in their own homes and highlight these challenging social issues through characters and situations which we can all connect and identify with.
Some viewers will be shocked to know that girls in the UK suffer the horror of this form of child abuse. Many responses posted on social networking sites like Twitter and forums such as Mumsnet reflected this, as members of the public expressed concern about the lack of information available on FGM, what signs to look out for in children, and worries about how to talk to their own children about this issue.
The hesitation to discuss FGM today is similar to the taboo status that sexual abuse once held in our society. Thankfully, we have made great strides to ensure that victims of the latter are encouraged to speak up, report abuse and seek help. So it is a grave injustice to allow children at risk of FGM to continue to be harmed under a veil of 'cultural practice' or for fear of being called a racist. Rather, it is racist not to deal with such abuse merely because a child comes from a different community than the majority.
Let's be absolutely clear about this, female genital mutilation is child abuse and we all have a responsibility to protect vulnerable children.
However, a recent survey by the NSPCC found that seven out of 10 teachers were not aware of government guidance on how to deal with FGM at their school. Similarly, this weekend's Casualty episode demonstrated that doctors and nurses are often unsure whether they should be stepping in to prevent this practice.
The inspiration for Casualty's storyline came from the episode's writer Julie Dixon's personal experience, after she found out that a classmate of her primary school aged daughter had suffered FGM.
More and more we are becoming aware that we can only succeed in protecting children if professionals, parents, carers and the general public are vigilant and take action to prevent this happening and report cases where it has. Failing to recognise abuse such as FGM on the basis that it's not a threat to you or your family is no longer an acceptable excuse.
Casualty must be applauded for tackling this subject head on and bringing it to the attention of a wide audience who may never have come into contact with the issue of FGM before. More programmes like this would get people talking and bring this hidden practice out into the open. This would go a long way to getting the message across that that this is child abuse, it is illegal and unacceptable, and all children have a right to a life free from this terrible practice.
For more information about FGM visit the NSPCC website
If you are concerned about a child contact the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000
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