This is the first blog in the “Harmful Cultural Practice” collection.
It was timely reminder of how times are changing – and couldn’t have come any sooner for the three girls about to be sent overseas to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM).
In July a judge issued a protection order preventing three sisters – from 6 to 12 years old – from travelling to Nigeria to have their female genitalia removed. This followed the introduction of the FGM protection order, which is a new legal power that came into force in the UK in the same month. The case of the Nigeria sisters was the first of its kind under the new law.
Indeed, the UK law also comes on the back of recent legislation in Nigeria banning FGM, which is a cruel practice involving removing part or all of a girl’s outer sexual organs. Unbelievably, about a quarter of Nigerian women are reported to have undergone FGM, which is known to cause infertility, maternal death, infections and the loss of sexual pleasure, according to 2014 UN data and a UNICEF report.
Two million girls around the world every year are mutilated mainly from African and Middle Eastern countries. Worryingly, there are increasing reports of FGM happening in immigrant populations in Europe, North America and Australia. Some 24,000 girls in the UK and 6,500 girls in London alone are reported to be at risk of FGM every year
FGM forms an important part of the rites of passage ceremony for some communities, marking the coming of age of the young girl. It is believed that by mutilating the genital organs, her sexuality will be controlled. But in reality it ensures a woman’s virginity before marriage and chastity thereafter.
Catalogue of health problems
In fact, FGM imposes on women and girls a catalogue of health complications and untold psychological problems. The practice of FGM violates, among other international human rights laws, the right of the child to the “enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health”, as laid down in article 24 (paras. 1 and 3) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Like all other harmful traditional practices, FGM is performed by women, with a few exceptions (in Egypt, men are known to perform the operation). In most rural settings throughout Africa, the operation is accompanied with celebrations and often takes place away from the community at a special hidden place. The operation is carried out by women who have acquired their “skills” from their mothers or other female relatives. They are often also the community’s traditional birth attendants.
Frequently these serious issues are misunderstood and pose particular challenges for professionals with responsibility for safeguarding children from avoidable risks. The belief that such risks are rare and needn’t concern us have been challenged in recent years, not least by the government and Ofsted.
Young lives devastated by FGM
The practice of FGM could have an impact on the needs of children and young people whose lives could be devastated by harmful illegal, and in the worst cases, life threatening cultural practices. The age at which mutilation is carried out varies; FGM is performed on infants as young as a few days old in some cases, while elsewhere it’s carried out on girls from 7 to 10 years old, and even on adolescents. Adult women also undergo the operation at the time of marriage. Since FGM is performed on infants as well as adults, it can no longer be seen as marking the rites of passage into adulthood, or as ensuring virginity.
It is vital that we keep an eye on the future and develop prevention strategies and initiatives to:
- Educate and raise awareness among professionals, communities and faith leaders
- Provide advice, support and guidance for referrals and investigations
- Develop intelligence opportunities.
The Serious Crime Act 2015 made into law on March 3 allows police to obtain a protection order that bans travel by people who are believed to be at risk of FGM. It is an offence for any UK National or permanent UK resident to carry out, aid, abet or counsel FGM in the UK or abroad even if the practice is legal in the country in which it is carried out.
- It is an offence to infibulate or otherwise mutilate any part of a girl’s labia majora, minora or clitoris
- It is not an offence for a girl to carry out FGM on herself, but a person is guilty if s/he aids, abets, counsels or procures a girl to do so.
- It is an offence for any person to aid, abet, counsel or procure the performance outside the UK of a relevant FGM offence on a UK national / permanent resident, by a person who is NOT a UK national / permanent resident
It is positive that we are raising more awareness and legislation that governs this practice and to identify this type of practice as a form of child abuse and a criminal offence. But this is not enough.
While the focus is and should be on safeguarding and prevention, the law will only be an effective deterrent if there is weight behind it. Parents will continue to subject their daughters to FGM, despite knowing it is against the law, if they believe they will not be prosecuted.
The legislation now needs to be enforced with as much precision and conviction as possible. FGM cannot remain in the shadows, unchallenged and we must take a stand against these types of practices despite their cultural links.
There have been as yet no convictions under FGM legislation in the UK.
By Marisa De Jager