With EU free movement restrictions due to expire, many fear a flood of Bulgarian and Romanian citizens coming into the UK in the New Year. More than two million people in the UK are currently unemployed and immigrants are an easy target for many who accuse them of taking all ‘our’ jobs. This rise in anti-immigration sentiment has made the UK an increasingly hostile and intimidating environment for immigrants. Our politicians, eager to score cheap political points, are only increasing this hostility as they seek to appear ‘tough’ on immigration.
However, at the same time, the government is turning a blind eye to an alarming practice taking place within certain migrant communities which threatens the lives of up to 24,000 British girls each year. Why? Because the issue is deemed too ‘culturally sensitive’. This practice is Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
What is FGM?
FGM involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or any other injury to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes (WHO, 2013). In practising communities, FGM is believed to reduce a woman’s libido therefore enabling her to resist ‘illicit’ sexual acts. After undergoing FGM a woman is considered to be ‘clean’ and prepared for adulthood and marriage. The practice is associated with cultural ideals of femininity and modesty.
In reality however, FGM is life threatening and can have many adverse health consequences including infertility, haemorrhage and bladder infections. It is most common in certain regions of Africa (predominantly western, eastern and north- eastern regions) as well as in some Asian and Middle Eastern countries. Around 140 million women and girls worldwide are currently living with the consequences of FGM. In half of the 29 countries where FGM is concentrated, the majority of girls are cut before they are 5 years old (UNICEF, 2013).
FGM: A Human Rights Issue
FGM is not just a public health issue; it is a human rights issue, and its practice violates numerous well established human rights principles and norms (Interagency Statement, p9). For example, under Article 24(3) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, state parties have a legal obligation to ‘take all effective and appropriate measures with a view to abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children’. Such ‘traditional practices’ include FGM, as confirmed by the Committee on the Rights of the Child in its Concluding Observations (Togo, 1997, para 48) where it expressed its concern at the practice’s continued prevalence.
FGM is also considered to violate the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (See art 1, CEDAW) and was condemned by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women in its General Recommendation No 14 (1990). By failing to act with due diligence to protect FGM victims, States may even may commit torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (UN General Assembly, 9 February 2010, para 62).
FGM in the UK
FGM has been a specific criminal offence under UK law since 1985 (now governed by the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003). Under UK law it is criminal to excise, infibulate or otherwise mutilate the whole or any part of a girl’s labia majora, labia minora or clitoris (s1(1) ). It is also a criminal offence to aid, abet, counsel or procure a girl to mutilate her own genitalia (s2). Those who assist a non-UK person to mutilate a girl’s genitalia overseas can also be prosecuted (s3(1) ). However, in practice the law has proved completely ineffective with no prosecutions for FGM in the UK to date.
As more and more migrants from FGM practising communities enter the UK each year, more British girls than ever are now at risk of being subjected to this barbaric act of torture. According to a recent study more than 1700 women in the UK have sought care at specialist FGM clinics in the past two years (‘Tackling FGM in the UK’ p10). These victims deserve a government which will speak out on their behalf, not one which chooses to ignore their plight because the issue is too ‘culturally sensitive’.
But what can be done by the UK government (and governments around the world) to eliminate FGM? Here are a few suggestions based on recommendations found in recent reports on FGM:
1) Implement public awareness campaign- If we are to tackle FGM effectively then greater public awareness is essential. Due to the silence of our politicians many are simply unaware of what FGM is or of its prevalence in the UK. A report published by the Royal College of Midwives (‘Tackling FGM in the UK’, Recommendation 9) recommends implementing an awareness campaign similar to previous campaigns on HIV and domestic abuse.
2) Changing perceptions and tackling myths– FGM is often seen as simply a health issue or is wrongly believed to have religious support. Such perceptions must be challenged. The key to achieving greater understanding of FGM is education. An Interagency Statement published by the World Health Organisation recommends ‘Empowering Education’ (Interagency Statement, p14) where educational sessions not only impart knowledge but also provide a forum for participants to exchange experiences.
3) Further research– If we are to tackle FGM then further research into the practice is critical. Why are our current laws failing to tackle the problem and what can be done to overcome these obstacles? In their 2007 report, FORWARD acknowledged the important of further research into FGM (p28).
*Finally, for those who haven’t done so already please sign Leyla Hussein’s petition to stop FGM in the UK: http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/52740
CEDAW, General Recommendation No. 14: Female Circumcision (1990)
Committee on the Rights of the Child, Concluding Observations: Togo (1997)
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979)
Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989)
Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003
FORWARD, ‘A Statistical Study to Estimate the Prevalence of Female Genital Mutilation in England and Wales’ (2007): http://www.forwarduk.org.uk/key-issues/fgm/research
Leyla Hussein, ‘Female genital mutilation is child abuse. We are failing young British girls’ (The Guardian, 5 November 2013): http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/05/female-genital-mutilation-fgm-child-abuse-british-girls
NSPCC, ‘Female Genital Mutilation Factsheet’ (June 2013): http://www.nspcc.org.uk/inform/resourcesforprofessionals/minorityethnic/female-genital-mutilation_wda96841.html
OHCHR et al, ‘Eliminating Female genital mutilation: An interagency statement’ (2008) http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/csw/csw52/statements_missions/Interagency_Statement_on_Eliminating_FGM.pdf
The Royal College of Midwives, ‘Tackling FGM in the UK’ (November 2013): http://www.equalitynow.org/sites/default/files/Intercollegiate_FGM_report.pdf
UNICEF, ‘Female Genital Mutilation/ Cutting: A statistical overview and exploration of the dynamics of change’ (July 2013) http://www.unicef.org/media/files/FGCM_Lo_res.pdf
UN General Assembly A/HRC/13/39 (2010) http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/docs/13session/A-HRC-13-39.pdf
World Health Organisation, ‘Female Genital Mutilation Fact Sheet’ (2013) http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs241/en/