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Female Genital Mutilation: Why Does This 'Holiday' Horror Endure?

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'Summer Holidays are for Fun not Pain' declared the (London) Metropolitan Police Force as school broke up for the Summer 2012 break... A strange but necessary message because, horrifically, thousands, of young British girls are forced to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM) whilst school is out; and some will have died.

And still FGM continues.

In my original Huffington Post UK blog on FGM I asked why it continues in Britain without to date any successful legal action. We ask that question again here, in an attempt to understand the wider policy and sociological frameworks of efforts to abolish FGM.

Misconceptions
There are serious issues about UK FGM policy.

Guidelines on FGM for professional workers are not an adequate response.

There is no longer a national co-ordinator for tackling FGM.

Small grant-aid funding, spread between competing small organisations will not impact on this massive issue.

The UK 'softly, softly' approach to FGM is not the only way. Many other countries take a much more robust view of this crime.

But let us move beyond what (doesn't) work, to the specific contexts of female genital mutilation.

The MGM-FGM debate
An element of competition often colours debate about the parallels between male and female 'circumcision' (aka 'genital mutilation'). The greatest fury about male, usually infant, circumcision (also named male genital mutilation, or MGM) comes from the USA, where the majority of newborn boys undergo it, but there is also a growing consciousness in Britain and mainland Europe - hence e.g. the heated debate about Jewish and Muslim entitlements to this long-established custom.

The epidemiologies and risks to life of MGM and FGM are nonetheless factually different; but validated and mutually acknowledged details of these relative risks are difficult to obtain and more accurate epidemiological analyses alone would not secure completely common ground.

Commonality on MGM and FGM may be possible on human rights issues - e.g. the principle that invasive action to change a person's body should, unless medically necessary, occur only with that person's mature and informed consent - but the claims and counter-claims of MGM-FGM will probably continue.

[Those who wish to pursue this debate can do so in a separate, dedicated post here.]

But still a girl suffers potentially lethal genital mutilation somewhere in the world every 18 seconds - around 8,000 children every day. Still, averaged out, more than two girls and babies are at risk of FGM every hour, every day in the UK [c.f. A Statistical Study to Estimate the Prevalence of FGM in England and Wales ].

Health, wealth and welfare
Preventing FGM therefore relieves demands on scarce public resources. It also helps curtail demographic pressure as the world population continues inexorably to grow.

Uncircumcised girls in the relevant communities continue longer in school (they are healthier, and not seen as ready only for marriage); and they start their own families later. Plus, their babies are also at less risk of death or illness: The WHO estimates an additional 10-20 babies die per 1000 deliveries as a result of FGM.

There are multiple reasons FGM must stop, even beyond the immediate ones.

Complexities of context
FGM is at core not 'religious', but, rather, 'cultural', about (group) identity. Thus, some ex-pats resettling in European cities may be more attached to FGM than people in the 'homeland'.

In the sociological sense it is a 'tribal' marker or identifier, rather than a cultural norm.

And alarmingly, the age for FGM is dropping. Parents may think 'early' FGM less traumatic for the child; plus, pre-schoolers are less visible, so the procedure is unlikely to be detected by outsiders.

Further, some communities have extraordinary beliefs about how the human body functions, whilst FGM perpetrators make their living from it, so they sustain these folklore rationales.

It takes a fiercely brave and independent woman - like Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Waris Dirie or Soraya Mire - to challenge FGM.

Oppression of women
At its most fundamental, FGM is a powerful physical and psychological vehicle for the subjugation of women. It is overtly intended to ensure women do not engage in pre- or extra-marital sex; and has the express objective of making girls more 'marriageable'.

Marriage in traditional societies is an economic rather than a personal, emotional contract. Women are required to depend upon their husbands for day-to-day living; hence the persistence also of other gravely female-oppressive practices such as child and forced marriage, and family 'honour' violence. Little wonder, unless men support abandoning FGM - and increasingly some do - mothers actually want their daughters to undergo it.

Refusing FGM can result in adult destitution. In many traditional societies women are traded as chattels from fathers to husbands; and they cannot return to sender.

In denial
The facts of FGM are horrendous. How can anyone tackle these deeply embedded beliefs and practices about such an intimate issue? Neither modern science nor the western legal system seem adequate to challenge the contexts in which FGM continues to thrive.

And so many UK professionals continue in denial: Surely the figures (24,000 British children annually) are wrong? Isn't FGM dying out anyway? In any case, nothing can be done because no-one comes forward so it obviously not in our patch. Which is just as well, because quite how difficult would it be to talk about such things?

The excuses and avoidance tactics perfunctorily adopted by some child safe-keeping practitioners are many and various; but 'nothing to do with us', 'too complicated' and 'so embarrassing' must rate amongst the top let-outs.

FGM can be a crime equivalent to the lethal abuse of Baby Peter... a tragedy resulting in national media coverage and enquiries, as well as sanctioned social workers.

Yet still there is no formal, public action which ensures that child safe-keeping addresses FGM adequately.

It is the growing realisation everywhere that FGM must stop which will actually make that happen. There must be no more summer holidays which tragically for some are about pain, not fun.

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You can support the demand to STOP Female Genital Mutilation (FGM / 'cutting') in Britainby signing this HM Government e-petition.

A more detailed, fully referenced version of this post can be read here. (See also Facebook: NoFGM (UK), Twitter: #NoFGM and @NoFGM1.)

Hilary Burrage wrote the 'Health Education' chapter in Dufour (ed, CUP): The New Social Curriculum, has researched young people's health, and was formerly a Senior Lecturer in Health and Social Care.