After working to get female genital mutilation (FGM) onto the child protection agenda for over 20 years in the UK, I am pleased that it is finally being officially considered a key child safeguarding issue. In the context of the World Health Organisation definition of child abuse, an official NSPCC document, released on Tuesday 8 January, defines FGM as “an imposed violation of a child’s physical integrity”. This also reflects the 2011 government multi-agency practice guidelines, which suggest that FGM should be dealt with as part of existing child protection legislation. The announcement was followed by a roundtable meeting on Thursday 10 January, organised by the NSPCC and Home Office and attended by several MPs including Jane Ellison, Jeremy Browne and Anna Soubry, as well as various other senior government and civil society representatives including myself. The discussion was centred on the practical steps which are needed to help remove the barriers to prosecution, educate all frontline professionals and ensure that there is a action-centred ‘joined-up approach’ to eliminating FGM in the UK.
The new development marks yet another major milestone in what has been an extremely positive 6-12 months. Hot on the heels of the recent UN Global Ban on FGM, it also builds on the UK Home Office’s ‘Health Passport’ and DPP’s ‘Action Plan’, both of which are key steps in establishing a way forward for protecting those girls, who are risk of undergoing this extreme form of violence against the female child.
Official NSPCC involvement gives a new impetus to the excellent measures that some UK health services have already been involved in. In particular, the Bristol NHS has one of the most promising models of good practice and is a great example of a multi-agency approach which safeguards girls at risk of undergoing FGM in the UK. It is hoped that all UK health services will respond proactively to NSPCC’s efforts to push for the translation of policy on FGM into action, with compulsory FGM training for all staff members. Improved communication on the issue of FGM between midwives, general practitioners and health visitors, who are in close contact with families from FGM-practising communities, opens the door for further progress. The provision of information on FGM through the health service clarifies the responsibility of parents from practising communities to uphold their legal obligations. With the added impact of NSPCC support, this drive for change should be more effective than ever before.
Another excellent initiative, also taking place in Bristol, is the development of a teaching aid and plan for schools. Supported by the Department of Public Health, it is being currently piloted in several secondary schools in the area. This programme aims to empower young girls to consider who in their communities might be able to help support and protect them from FGM.
Ensuring that frontline workers such as health and medical professionals are fully aware of their legal and social requirements to protect those girls at risk of undergoing FGM is, of course, only part of the solution. The full implementation of a comprehensive plan on its elimination is now essential to protect the 24,000 girls in England and Wales (based on 2001 UK census figures), who are currently at risk of being mutilated. This means that all barriers to prosecution are broken down and that effective child safeguarding systems are put in place as a matter of urgency.
A real-life example can best illustrate both the pressure which older girls who are risk of undergoing FGM are frequently put under and also how weaknesses in the implementation of child protection measures can be addressed more effectively.
In 2010, Amie (11), who lives near London, informed her teacher that she was worried about having to undergo FGM during a trip to her extended family in The Gambia. Unfortunately, the teacher’s first response was not to report the case to the police, as suggested by existing legal child protection legislation. Instead, she helped her student to search for further information on the internet. Amie found the address of Equality Now and sent us an emotional letter, which outlined her dilemma. She wrote “I really hope you can help me not to have my private [sic] cut”. Her sister, who had previously undergone FGM, had been informed that “if she ever tells anyone, the spirits will come and kill her immediately”. The threat of “spirits” is a common technique used to maintain the cloud of secrecy which surrounds this unnecessary practice. Although her father was doing his best to protect her, Amie wrote that “he is worried and upset that they would do the same to me”. Unfortunately, parents are often overruled by grandparents and other more senior family members who live overseas in deciding what happens to their female child’s sexual organs. Her case illustrates the obstacles which girls often face in the UK, even when their parents do not want them to have to undergo FGM. On hearing of Amie’s case, we immediately contacted the relevant authorities to ensure that she could be safeguarded. She is now out of harm’s way and living up to her full potential with her immediate family.
Amie’s case clearly illustrates the need for those in regular contact with girls - especially those who are primary school age and younger, and particularly those with parents or grandparents from countries where FGM is more prevalent - to be aware of how this practice takes place and what steps need to be taken to protect those at risk.
Proponents of FGM often say that the UK does not have “the guts” to prosecute anyone for FGM crimes. However, I firmly believe that the UK does in fact have the guts to follow through with real action, which will bring about lasting change. In confirming FGM as a child protection issue, the NSPCC has taken a vital step in its elimination from the UK and further afield. Its influence gives much-needed support for translating the government’s guidelines into action. The onus is now on parents, guardians, childminders, social services and the health and education sectors, to take this forward and ensure that transformational change takes place in every hospital, school, nursery, police station, courtroom and home.
As is the case with other forms of child abuse, everyone needs to remain constantly alert to - and report - all evidence of emotional or physical pain, missed classes from school, or any of the other common indicators of FGM. It is essential that we are all aware of what these are and how to respond accordingly. In doing this, we will have prosecutions under existing UK legislation and we will see an end to this entirely unnecessary and horrific abuse of children.