It's been a busy year for activists seeking to stop female genital mutilation in Britain. We've seen media campaigns, debates in parliament, more research on incidence and a full Home Affairs Committee investigation, chaired by Keith Vaz, which resulted in a report,Female genital mutilation: the case for a national action plan.
The UK government response to the Vaz Report was presented to parliament on 9 December by Theresa May, the Home Secretary. Amongst other things Ms May stressed the importance of the new hospital reporting protocols (to help us understand where FGM occurs and who must be protected) and confirmed that consultation is underway until early January on possible mandatory reporting (to whom?) by concerned professionals.
Importantly too, the home secretary stated that she sees no need to revisit the 2003 FGM legislation relating to reinfibulation; it is clearly already illegal - as the 2003 Act similarly indicates, worried plastic surgeons notwithstanding, may also be female genital cosmetic surgery.
Commentary on the government's 9 December response so far has been muted - perhaps the NGOs are content, or prefer discretion - but personally I'm disappointed. The proposals as presented pass the buck massively. This top-level response is far more about consultation and leaving the professionals to decide, than, beyond necessary legislative tweaking, it is about what the government will itself take responsibility to deliver. For instance:
- there are no targets, and no named senior politicians with specific obligations for which they can be held publicly accountable (just a commitment to a biannual ministerial roundtable);
- schools remain free to choose how the social curriculum is offered; but some schools with at risk students are very unlikely to tackle FGM properly unless they are made to do so;
- despite constant media pronouncements, domestic FGM action budgets (where these exist) are tiny; five or six figure funding is almost nothing in the context of about 137,000 harmed or at risk UK residents, especially when hard-pressed charities must expend resources to prove their worth and pitch against each other for these token sums;
- FGM reporting channels for the public (adults, or children fearing FGM for themselves or for young siblings or friends) remain largely obscure and localised, despite the NSPCC initiative;
- the poorly functioning connectivities between Local Safeguarding Children Boards (LSCBs) and schools are ignored (still no formal requirements for all services to collaborate actively, or even required attendance at joint meetings);
- FGM occurs in diaspora (often very fluid) communities, but there's no recognition that vulnerable children may fall through the cracks between different practices in different localities;
- FGM and child, early and forced marriage (CEFM) have been brought together without really considering either the implications in the UK of this merge, or how other sorts of child abuse and cruelty connect in;
- the responsibilities and accountability of the newly (re-)introduced FGM Unit (there was a prototype being developed by the previous Government, which the Coalition ceased in 2011) require fuller articulation; and
- the protocols pass responsibility for everything on to services already struggling due to Government-imposed austerity.
So is this really a National Action Plan, or is it a sort of tool kit for use as professionals see fit?
And are the Home Office and International Development collaborating well on FGM? How does the much-hyped July 2014 Girl Summit fit the domestic picture, especially when so many UK NGOs were not involved?
I do not agree - perhaps others do? - that responses to FGM should or can be exactly the same in the UK, as in traditionally practising countries. We need more domestic dialogue to think this through.
Further, whilst the government is 100% right to emphasise prosecutions and health and education service prevention programmes, we must also tackle head-on what the government fails to recognise: that FGM is economic patriarchy incarnate. Often the rationale is to make girls marriageable ('pure'), ie to transfer them as chattels from socio-economic dependency on their fathers, to similar servitude with their husbands.
To date there has been little effort in Britain to tackle the fundamental, causative, socio-economic issue - the underlying routine exclusion from main-steam society of girls in some BME communities, which leaves them very vulnerable to FGM, CEFM and other horrific abuse.
Nor have we in the UK as yet understood (or perhaps admitted that we understand?) how hypocritical it is to claim to be addressing FGM whilst we still won't even to monitor asylum refusal to women from countries where FGM is traditionally practised.
In Spring 2014 Prof Rashida Manjoo, the United Nations Rapporteur on violence against women and girls visited Britain. Her ensuing report did not reflect particularly well on us; and relevant findings remain disregarded by the very people who now claim to be addressing FGM in the UK.
So, how have the politicians been doing on FGM in 2014?
To all parliamentarians who worked to ensure FGM eradication became mainstreamed, especially Jane Ellison, and before her Christine McCafferty and Ann Clwyd, plus Keith Vaz, Karl Turner and others, much thanks.
To the prime minister and everyone across parties who support the international initiative against FGM and CEFM, all due credit.
But to those who originally dismissed existing work on FGM, and have now chosen not only to defer decisions, but also rather conveniently to position FGM in Britain in the context of FGM elsewhere, accepting little direct responsibility for what happens here: please review your perspectives.
Until the connections are made between socio-economic marginalisation (of some BME girls), public health, and the need for genuine top-down leadership and accountability, domestic FGM will be hard to shift.
It's not enough to exhort teachers, medics, volunteers and legal people to do more. Tools to enable action will not alone do the job. To eradicate FGM we need resources and clearly defined pathways as well as lectures.
So in 2015 could the emerging FGM Unit please find some serious longer term money, tighten up the loose ends and tell us who is ultimately in charge? Then there'll be a decent chance FGM will end in Britain.
Hilary Burrage is currently writing a book on eradicating FGM in the UK.