We do not have accurate figures for the prevalence of Female Genital Mutation (FGM) in the UK, but the Home Office estimates that 170,000 girls and women living in the UK are survivors of the practice, with 65,000 girls under the age of 13 being at risk. These are the highest figures of any EU country. This is an issue we have to face up to.
We know the issue is a deep rooted cultural practice performed for various reasons by many communities living in the UK. It is commonplace in many highly patriarchal societies where it is used to control female sexuality. In such communities men are in denial of their role in perpetuating the practice. In my research I often hear men saying: 'FGM is nothing to do with us, it is women's business'. Yet in the same communities I hear young men saying that they will only marry wives who have 'been cut' as they are perceived to be more righteous and 'pure'. They do not see the irony in what they are saying.
Whilst women perpetuate FGM in their communities they are doing it out of misguided love for their daughters and wanting the best for them, such as societal acceptance and a good marriage. In other words FGM is one way women in these male dominated communities perceive they can raise their daughter's status and that of the whole family, through marriage. So it is clear that gender power relations are important in the perpetuation of FGM.
But there is also an intergenerational element which complicates the situation. In these communities there is huge respect for the older generation, especially grandparents. Family honour is a very real concern for family elders, especially men's mothers, who are heavily involved in marriage arrangements. Those taking part in my research all say that ending FGM is not just their personal decision. They feel they are put under enormous pressure by the older generation to conform to the social norm of FGM.
Another key issue is the lack of openness and discussion on the subject in affected communities. In such communities FGM and sexual issues are often a taboo topic. Men and women, husbands and wives do not speak about them and certainly not with their parents or children. This lack of communication also reinforces the gender and intergenerational problems. It is a vicious circle.
In order to help encourage the discussion, Coventry University is developing the UK's first web app that will help raise awareness and educate people about FGM. The app is primarily aimed at young girls living in affected communities but can also be used as an education tool to teach young people and others the facts and realities of FGM. The app will be accessible on most personal mobile devices including smartphones, tablets or laptops via an internet browser and will ensure that users will be as untraceable as is technically possible.
The app will not only contain culturally sensitive information concerning FGM, it will also include case studies from young people and influential people within these communities speaking out against the practice. FGM. It will also give information on where girls can go to get help and will enable users to access the NSPCC's National FGM Helpline at the touch of a button.
The app is currently nearing the end of its development stage and will be launched in May or June 2015. This is the period of the year when many girls are at risk of either being sent to grandparents in their heritage countries for the procedure or being cut here in the UK.
We have to face the fact that FGM is being carried out on girls and women living here in the UK. It is child abuse, a human rights violation and a criminal offence in the UK, even if carried out overseas. But it is quite clear that the law alone cannot end the practice. Prevention is preferable to prosecution, because by the time a case comes to court the crime has already been committed.