Some 500 to 2,000 British schoolgirls will be genitally mutilated over the summer holidays. Some will be taken abroad, others will be “cut” or circumcised and sewn closed here in the UK by women already living here or who are flown in and brought to “cutting parties” for a few girls at a time in a cost-saving exercise…
Even girls who suffer less extreme forms of FGM are unlikely to be promiscuous. One study among Egyptian women found 50% of women who had undergone FGM “endured” rather than enjoyed sex.
The practice is widespread in certain parts of the world, especially Africa, where it cuts across religious lines. It emerged in North Africa in the pre-Christian era, and is a long established tradition in places like Egypt. Neither the Qur’an nor the Bible orders or forbids FGM, which adds to the uncertainty which allows the practice to thrive. Leading Islamic scholars, including Sunni Islam’s foremost jurist, condemned the practice a few years ago, but other notable religious teachers have continued to endorse FGM, suffering little opprobrium in the process. The head of the Coptic Church has also criticised the practice, but this hasn’t been enough to stop it amongst Copts.
FGM is a difficult practice to eradicate, not just because it is sanctioned by some scholars and is long established, but because it fits so well into the system of control which extends over females, which is a system endorsed by many females themselves. As one community worker put it:
FGM has a social function and until this is understood by social services and other bodies they will never stop it. It is a power negotiation mechanism, that women use to ensure respect from men. It prevents rape of daughters and is a social tool to allow women to regain some power in patriarchal societies. With girls living in the UK there is no need to gain the power – it has to be understood that girls can be good girls without FGM.
Despite two acts targeting FGM in the last twenty five years (1985 and 2003) and promising stiff penalties, there have been no prosecutions relating to FGM. One of the main problems is where the actual mutilation takes place. British girls are often taken abroad to have the procedure done, where it is much more acceptable and doctors turn a blind eye. Even procedures performed in the UK are difficult to discover, as the victims are mostly minors and any witnesses are likely to be relatives who are there to keep the victim controlled, or else specially hired ‘cutters’. Asking doctors and other health professionals to remain vigilant is all very well, but this would lead to some girls being withdrawn from this sphere for fear of prosecution.
Yet could the state be doing more? The Metropolitan Police has an anti-FGM unit, Project Azure, but the comments from one of its members didn’t inspire massive confidence:
Empowering youth, giving them the information, is the way forward. They are coming from predominantly caring and loving families, who genuinely believe this is the right thing to do. Many are under a great deal of pressure from the extended families.
Sometimes it might be as simple as delivering the message of what the legal position is; sometimes we even give them an official letter, a document that they can show to the extended family that states quite firmly what will happen if the procedure goes ahead. The focus has to be on prevention.
The families do believe they are doing right, but I would struggle to characterise them as loving and unaware of the law. As I noted above, leading religious figures have condemned the practice, whilst flying girls out to foreign countries and avoiding examinations suggests the families know exactly what the law is. Prosecution is difficult because of the lack of witnesses, which leaves the onus on medically examining the victim (who can refuse to consent), but the consequences of no successful prosecutions are severe too, as this creates a culture of impunity amongst FGM practitioners.
The practice will ultimately only die out with a change in attitudes (as a result of greater freedom, information and education), but for now the state needs to push for prosecutions, and stop worrying about ‘alienating communities’. Until this happens, in the view of the head of the leading anti-FGM charity in the UK, the government’s commitment to stopping FGM will ‘remain hollow’, and the practice is likely to continue on a similar scale.
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Filed in: 'Honour'-based violence,Sex equality