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To Stop Female Genital Mutilation in the UK, Follow (and Invest) the Money

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To some it may seem heartless, but surely it's obvious: If we really, seriously want to eradicate female genital mutilation (FGM) we have to move beyond the moralising - essential as it is - and follow the money. And we must understand the market.

Culture change is difficult
Yes, female genital mutilation is irreducibly a moral and cultural issue. But, absolutely correctly, no modern western state can leverage, or justify, much in the way of legally imposed moral and cultural determinism.

It's true that some, especially on the right of politics, attempt to dictate who may share their lives with whom, and how, for instance, women may control their own fertility; but these interventions are very high-cost both to legislators and to their targets. State control of intimate and personal matters is frequently contested territory and leaches energy and other scarce resources required to serve the wider public good.

A duty to protect
Different considerations apply however if we think about things which actively harm people who can't defend themselves. Prime amongst these is the genital mutilation of babies and girls: a grim act of physical abuse for which the victim cannot give meaningful consent, imposed within a community because 'tradition' and 'culture' demand it.

FGM is personal, cultural and moral, but it is also something which the state, acting to protect defenceless citizens, has a fundamental duty to stop.

Reaching the excluded
Evidence aplenty suggests that moral admonition or direct cultural challenge works no better for stopping FGM than for other private and personal matters.

Diasporas may be economically driven, but modern-day rationality - insofar as it exists anywhere - is another matter. UK efforts to overturn dangerous in-coming ex-pat traditions can have the counter-productive effect of reinforcing isolation and determination to continue with long-established cultural actions, however harmful others deem these acts. It's why some anti-FGM organisations use traditional euphemisms such as 'cutting' to refer to even grievous genital mutilation and assault.

This is where following the money and understanding the markets comes in. Different contexts require different responses.

Women as owned objects
The origins of FGM are disparate and unclear. FGM preceded modern-day global religions and was probably connected with controlling slaves specifically as well as women in general. Whatever, the practice developed in such a way that it has become even now in some communities a deeply ingrained tradition which will take a massive amount of effort to dislodge. In this logic FGM is not inflicted on young girls to harm them but rather - horrendously - as a way to make them marriageable ('pure' by means of infibulation) and able to participate in adult life. Without FGM an adult female might be anomic: socially outcaste, belonging to no-one, 'unclean', perhaps forbidden even to participate in preparing food.

This fundamental threat of unbelonging may have weakened in western diaspora communities, but customs and beliefs remain, long shadows over the expectations and fears for girls' futures. In that sense parents may continue to believe FGM is in their daughters' best interests.

Enabling women's economic independence
Ensuring girls from all our communities have bright futures as independent adults - unimpeded by the blight of FGM-invoked ill-health, and able to support themselves financially in meaningful employment - is critical to eradicating female genital mutilation in modern societies. This is a school and curriculum matter. If all children understand their bodies and can become economically self-sustaining, we challenge the 'rationale' for FGM head-on.

But young people and women are the two groups currently most at risk of involuntary unemployment in the UK. Work liberates those who could otherwise find themselves forced inwards, cut off in ex-pat diaspora communities where contact with mainstream society doesn't happen. Enough jobs for everyone is fundamental to harmonious inter-community life, and critical to enabling the independence of girls at risk of FGM.

Elders' status and livelihoods
Likewise, as in the traditional FGM communities of e.g. Africa, there needs to be alternative work and status for the older women who formerly conducted FGM procedures.

Yes, elders must be punished, along with other procurers of the 'service', if they mutilate young girls; but how much better if they have alternative, constructive, income-generating activities instead. What are we doing to attend to the education and employment needs of disempowered mature citizens (men and women) who could be ambassadors for a better way?

Segmenting the market and the message
Finally, let us segment our market for the NoFGM message.

In closed traditional communities coded euphemisms like 'cutting' may be helpful; but in our wider modern society they are not.

Let's unfailingly call FGM 'child abuse', so that everyone, parents, teachers, medics, lawyers and the police alike, know that we mean this seriously: female genital mutilation is a crime, always. It will not be tolerated. It will have unavoidable legal consequences.

Health and welfare, not 'culture'
Modern western societies are ill-equipped to be cultural arbiters. But they have an a priori obligation to attend to the health and welfare of, especially, their most vulnerable citizens.

FGM is a massive challenge for public health, education and the law. Facing up to that challenge requires investment in the modes which public agencies can best negotiate: the worlds of formal regulation and financial enabling.

'Segmented' work on behaviour change within FGM-oriented communities will help, but national investment to raise expectations is also essential.

Piece-meal intervention can do only so much. It's time to get a real grip on enforcing the law, and it's also time to recognise that people in isolated communities need to be brought into the economic mainstream.

Healthy, independent women
If we invest in education and jobs, people in all our communities - men and women - have hope. Everyone benefits.

No girl in the UK should be at risk, via FGM, abandoning school and enduring ill-health, of an early, enforced or oppressive marriage where she can't be her own, economically independent adult woman.

Is that really too much to ask, in the twenty-first century?

It's a question which may be explored in the UK FGM conferences due this week and next.

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Hilary Burrage is a sociologist currently researching female genital mutilation in the UK. More about her work is available here

Please support the H.M. Government e-petition No. 35313, to Stop FGM in Britain

Around the Web

Female genital mutilation | Home Office

Special report: Female genital mutilation - unreported, ignored and ...

BBC News - Hidden world of female genital mutilation in the UK

Female genital mutilation: time for a prosecution | Felicity Gerry ...

Female genital mutilation 'offered by UK medics' | UK news ...

British girls undergo horror of genital mutilation despite tough laws ...

Midwife 'role' as NHS targets female genital mutilation

Met will prosecute parents who send their girls abroad to be 'cut'

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