This Sunday, 25 November, will be the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Some of us will go to work, some will spend the day with family and friends and if you are lucky it will be a good day. However for millions of women and girls it will be a terrible and violent day. They will be hit, whipped, starved, tortured and raped. Maybe they will have their genitals removed, be forcibly married or even murdered and their bodies thrown away so their very existence is forgotten. Sadly this will often be done by their families and people with a duty of care for them.
The statistics for violence against women and girls are truly shocking. Not only do millions suffer each year but many are victims of repeated and sustained violence - the CPS website has a grim summary of the levels of domestic violence in the UK. Then remember that many more cases of violence against women and girls are not reported and this is particularly the case with deep-rooted traditional practices like female genital mutilation (FGM).
Amina*, aged 12, returned to school in the UK in September to start Year 7 after a summer holiday to visit relatives in Africa. Her class were due to attend a swimming lesson and Amina told the PE teacher she could not join in. Her whispered excuse was that she had "been cut, down there" and was too sore. Amina was visibly upset and embarrassed so the teacher excused her from the lesson and reported the incident.
After discussion between the school and social services it was agreed that Amina may have undergone FGM and a social worker visited Amina's family. The family were angry and denied that FGM had taken place. They claimed Amina was simply embarrassed about her body changing at puberty. The social worker pointed out that FGM was illegal in the UK and it was also illegal to arrange for it to be done overseas. The family became more upset and denied FGM even more vehemently. Then Amina was brought into the room by a relative and also denied FGM. The social worker left and after consulting colleagues decided that there was no evidence and the investigation was closed. This was not a reported case of FGM.
Several years later, Amina, suffering from depression and low self-esteem was referred to a specialist counsellor and it was confirmed that she had undergone FGM when she was 12. Due to a combination of coercion from her family, fear of being sent away and/or having her parents arrested she had denied the FGM to the social worker and had been secretly living with the consequences. Sadly this is not an uncommon scenario.
So what can be done to ensure girls like Amina are protected in the future? Clearly immediate actions should be taken to inform, educate and train professionals in education, health, law enforcement and social services in FGM and child safety needs to be the clear priority. Girls at risk need to be protected, survivors supported and those carrying out FGM prosecuted. There is also a need to inform and educate the wider community: not just people already in the UK but those applying to move here need to know that FGM is illegal and carrying out FGM or aiding and abetting others to do so will result in prosecution. We also need to review sex education for young people. If girls like Amina know about the risks of FGM they are better able to ask for help before it happens to them.
I also believe we need to use days like the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women as part of a sustained campaign to raise awareness nationally and internationally of all forms of gender-based violence including FGM and increase pressure on policy makers to prioritise actions to support survivors, prosecute perpetrators and break the cycles of on-going violence.
Over the next 12 months there is a good opportunity to make real progress, build support internationally and push for specific action on violence against women. In March 2013 the United Nations will hold the 57th session of its Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) and the priority theme is the prevention and elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls. Activists are already lobbying for clear commitments from all UN member countries to tackle gender-based violence. 28 Too Many is working with other anti-FGM charities, governments and pressure groups to ensure that FGM is included in these discussions.
Then in June 2013 the UK will host the next G8 Summit at which global leaders will discuss a range of issues including international development. This is another key event to lobby for action. Violence against women and girls is a major barrier to achieving the UN Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) which were agreed in 2000. As discussions take place to agree plans to complete the MDGs by the target completion date of 2015 and to establish the development agenda for post-2015 it is vital that violence against women and girls is a key part of the debate.
There is no quick fix and it often seems that progress in one area is countered by erosion of women's rights in another. However, despite the global economic challenges, many countries are making progress in recognising and promoting women's rights. There is much, much more to do but on this International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women let us all be hopeful. It will take a strong sense of commitment, hard work, resilience in the face of adversity, seeking agreements across geographical, political, cultural and religious boundaries and last, but not least, lots of courage but we can make a difference.
A total elimination of all violence against women and girls may be hard to imagine but each day I think about saving one girl from FGM. This means she is spared from a painful, traumatic and potentially fatal procedure. She is more likely to complete her education, is less likely to face early forced marriage, can have a healthy and fulfilling sex life, faces less risk during pregnancy and childbirth and it also breaks the cycle so that her daughters are much more likely to be safe from FGM. That is what this is really about - making a difference to individuals and enabling every girl to live free from fear and violence.
Find out more about what we do and how you can get involved at www.28toomany.org.
*Name has been changed to protect her identity.