FGM is child abuse and attitudes must change 7 Jul 2015

In late May, Nigeria became the latest country to pass a law banning Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). This somewhat barbaric act is designed to make sex uncomfortable for a woman, and prevent sexual promiscuity. It can lead to infections, infertility or even kill them, and is regarded as a form of child abuse in most Western countries. Though banned in the UK for many years, only recently has the government made the issue a sufficient priority to start tackling the problem among the predominantly African diaspora here.

Cultural shifts

John Cameron, Head of Child Protection Operations at the NSPCC said, “We can’t arrest our way out of the problem. Prosecution helps, but we must change the attitudes of boys and men toward women.”

In 2007, Egypt banned FGM after a 12 year old girl died from the procedure. Even so, the culture hasn’t changed, to the point that in some estimates, 95% of Egyptian women have been ‘cut’ even 8 years later.

FGM is performed in a number of countries in a belt across central Africa. In our world we find it unsavoury to name specific countries for fear of singling out specific cultures and being labelled as ‘bigots’. Cameron suggested that this really needs to change if cutting is to be properly tackled among immigrant communities in the UK, “We find it difficult to name specific communities for fear of offending them. What’s wrong with targeting the Somali, Egyptian or Nigerian communities for example? It is about resource allocation to target a specific group. There is nothing negative about it!”

Our national queasiness about naming names for fear of being labelled bigots or racists is one of the liberal values that also allows us to question inequality between men and women. Is it bigoted to say that we want equality for all women irrespective of where they come from? Bigotry runs deep and will always be a problem but asking whether a woman can choose to wear a hijab (a common bigoted comment) is different to asking whether a father should take his daughter away to have her genitals cut.

Modern forms of discipline

Cameron says that there has been a cultural shift as to how to discipline your child in the last decade or so. “People feel uncomfortable about hitting their children in public now. There has been a cultural shift in attitudes toward corporal punishment and as a result you hardly ever see it.”

Cameron added, “Parenting is very difficult. You must exercise your parental control and authority in everyday life. Good parenting curbs the sexual behaviours of children in other parts of society, and FGM is an extreme route to achieve the same outcome as most other parents in the UK manage.”

Why is it so hard to uncover?

One of the reasons why FGM is so rarely uncovered in the UK is that the families doing it are mostly loving, supportive and not at all likely to be spotted by social services as child abusers. Cameron pointed out, “FGM is harm with the best of intentions. The parents’ attitude is that it is in the child’s best interests.”

Teachers, doctors and social workers are all now thinking of FGM, and it is being spotted far more frequently than it was. A girl at school may be sick after the procedure or may avoid sports – these are signals that those working with children may spot, leading to a physical investigation and ultimately prosecution. One of the upshots according to Cameron is that families are getting clever about it. He said, “Families are now getting their children cut when they are very young – some even have their babies cut to avoid detection.”

Child abuse whatever way you see it.

At the end of the day, getting your child mutilated for any cultural reason whatsoever is just child abuse in our society. In many ways it is easier for diaspora to accept our attitudes towards FGM than in their source countries where the bulk of the population have their girls cut. Teachers, social services and police won’t tolerate it here at all, and society at large finds it unacceptable.

There are two general fronts tackling FGM – the national campaigns run by the NSPCC, Barnardos, Forward UK and other groups are all speaking to communities and encouraging it to stop at a holistic level. Cameron says, “We set up our helpline in 2013 and have had around 600 calls leading to 150 referrals.” Where this isn’t as much as a mainstream child abuse helpline – Childline takes more than 600 calls a day – Cameron feels that it is showing progress in the target communities.

The other, much greater task is to tackle it in the source communities. A number of charities led by the World Health Organisation are tackling the problem at root. Cameron concluded by saying, “This will take a generation to fix. Look at child sex abuse – though attitudes have changed toward it, we still have a long way to go.”

If you have any worries about FGM being performed on someone in your community and want to talk about it, ring the NSPCC FGM Helpline on 0800 028 3550.

If you would like to speak in confidence with Stephanie Prior, head of child abuse claims, call Stephanie on 020 7485 8811, alternatively you can e-mail her on stephanieprior@osbornes.net.

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