Every year upwards of 20,000 young girls in Britain are at risk, or already victim, of female genital mutilation (FGM, or 'cutting'). Yet never has there been a successful court case in the UK against the perpetrators of this barbaric child abuse. Nor has there ever been any action against professionals have failed to protect the victims, whose fate, albeit with different intent, is sometimes as grave as that of the tragedy of Baby P.
What you are about to read is of necessity unpleasant and disturbing, but a wider awareness in the UK of FGM is one step towards eradicating it as soon as possible.
Imagine: you are a young girl, perhaps living in one of the UK's larger cities; and this is the summer when you are old enough to travel abroad, back 'home' for your long holiday, to spend it with the community in which your parents or their relatives grew up. It will be hot, and exciting, and perhaps there will be a big party to celebrate your approaching adulthood...
But in reality for you the festivities may involve very little personally to celebrate. Whilst your mother, grandmother, aunts and others may gain prestige from your rite of passage, and your father and brothers are pleased that you are now marriageable, for you the summer will bring deep psychological trauma, intense pain and probably life-long physical damage, possibly even death.
The real reason, it will transpire, that you are being taken away from Britain is that you are to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM), the removal, often by female relatives, of some or all of your external sexual parts, followed in many cases by infibulation - sewing up the open wound so that only a tiny hole remains, and where before there were healthy, elastic passages, there is now only scarring and the daily evidence of the damage wrought on your most intimate person. The subtext of FGM is the subjugation of women, in cultures where they are seen only as adjuncts to men.
And this excruciating procedure during your 'holiday' will usually be inflicted by brute force, without pain relief and with no regard to hygiene or even (because you may be one of a batch of girls undergoing the procedure) cross-infection. You are also probably going to have your legs bound together for the duration as your body attempts to heal itself, and you are going to feel very ill.
Well, let us leave the graphic detail there. Specifics may change, sometimes the procedure is even carried out covertly in the UK, but the overall horror of FGM is a constant.
It takes little further imagination to understand that the outcomes for our small girl, especially if she undergoes one of the more severe forms of FGM (the World Health Organisation, WHO, lists four types or levels of severity), can include serious physical and psychological impediments to normal adult sexual activity, severe obstetric and gynaecological problems, permanent disabling fistula, risk to her babies, daily personal and social inconvenience and embarrassments, and recurrent pain.
Yet quite possibly this child will not be aware that things could be so different, because hers is also the experience of the other girls and women with whom she shares her life. It may be the cultural norm in her community, even in the UK. There are globally about 140 million women now alive who have experienced FGM; and a growing number of them, perhaps 80,000, are in Britain.
But how we ask can this sort of cruel, sometimes lethal, child abuse be happening on such a scale, in the UK? Not only is the protection of children from harm formally a high priority, but there is established legislation both to forbid the practice of FGM in Britain, and also to forbid its procurement, or taking British children abroad for the procedure.
The answer is complex - an amalgam on the part of those with child safe-keeping responsibilities (doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers etc) of ignorance, lack of training, fear of being labelled racist, misplaced cultural concerns, sheer lack of resources and much else. Things are however changing.
In May 2012 the Sunday Times ran a big story about medically involved men in Birmingham who, it is alleged, were found to be willing in confidence to arrange FGM procedures. The police are now involved, arrests have been made and media interest is high.
This may at last be a turning point. The lid is lifting on the widespread misery and plain, criminal child abuse which FGM comprises. Recognition is growing that, assuming official UK estimates are correct, at least two children every hour, every day, may be at risk. To most of us, that is a statistic beyond belief.
Public horror and professional panic will probably rise in parallel, if the current FGM-related arrests lead to trial and perhaps conviction. Already, there are campaigns, and an international Avaaz petition to bring FGM in Britain to an end has secured approaching 80,000 signatures. What happens after that is a close call.
The failure so far of relevant safe-keeping professionals to secure even one conviction for FGM (a crime which in Britain carries a sentence of up to 14 years imprisonment) is in part because of cultural factors - both community and professional - and in part because the resources and training simply aren't at present available. But this may not protect people who should be protecting children at risk of FGM, any more than it has protected the children themselves.
The repercussions of the Baby P tragedy, fairly or not, included sackings of social workers and upheaval in a public service already under massive strain. In the case of FGM, not only social and health workers, but also the police, teachers and others may find themselves in the firing line. Yet nationally-led strategic planning and resources remain totally inadequate to the task of supporting those responsible for FGM child safe-keeping.
Added to this may be a serious social, perhaps even racist, backlash; the temptation in some quarters to blame entire communities for these barbaric acts will require skilled and careful handling, at a time when even the resources to cope with the crime itself are derisory.
There is some evidence that politicians are waking up to the increasing risk of FGM in Britain. Back in 2000 the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health published a Hearings on FGM Report (the legislative recommendations of which were subsequently enacted), and a decade later, with numbers at risk of FGM apparently rising rapidly, has seen the inception in November 2011 of an All-Party Parliamentary Group on FGM; then in May 2012 another Early Day Motion on the subject was posted.
Warm words alone however are nothing. And it is very worrying that a carefully considered e-petition demanding more action on FGM which a number of us as UK citizens submitted to the HM Government No.10 website was summarily rejected by the Cabinet Office (May/June 2012).
Addressing FGM is about bringing communities together, men and women of all creeds and none, and providing decent services to protect children in every part of our country. But at present such services are patently ineffectual, and there are almost no agencies outside London dedicated to preventing FGM (even though there are a few against male circumcision), leaving about two thirds of girls at risk in Britain almost invisible.
And even greater cross-community integration, cultural adaptions and better educational and social prospects to empower previously subjugate women will not ensure that harmful traditional beliefs and practices are abandoned, unless the flights abroad for summer 'holidays' are brought to a halt, and the full weight of UK law is enacted to back up education and inclusion.
Those in the UK at risk or already victims of female genital mutilation are defenceless babies and small girls, in their thousands, in British towns and cities.
Anyone with half a heart would do everything possible to remediate and stop this criminal cruelty. And anyone with half a mind would understand that failure to stop FGM, now, is a route to massive demands on services and enormous damage to individuals and to society, tomorrow.
For more information see NoFGM: A Listing For [UK] Action & References On Female Genital Mutilation.
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