Guest blog from an FGM survivor: "the government must act now to prevent more girls being cut"
20,000 girls are estimated to be at risk of female genital mutilation here in the UK - but in the 28 years since it was made a crime, there hasn't been a single successful prosecution.
Last week on Newsnight, Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer insisted that a prosecution is 'only a matter of time'. But Nimco Ali - co-founder of Daughters of Eve and herself a survivor of FGM - says much more needs to be done to prevent British girls being 'cut'.
There's a petition over here and you can find out what else you can do to help here. Let us know if you sign the petition - and do also tell us what you think could and should be done to protect girls at risk, on the thread below
Co-founder, Daughters of Eve
Posted on: Tue 10-Sep-13 09:32:35
(83 comments )
Over 20 years ago, I came back to school from summer holiday. In my new uniform, I walked into the Year 3 classroom. I was beyond happy to see that I had the same teacher again a woman I cared about. All I wanted to do then was tell my teacher about a terrible thing that had happened to me, and how confused I was.
That summer, I had been taken to Africa to undergo FGM. Of course I did not know it was called that at the time, and every child will have a different word for it.
I told my story. I waited for shock to take over her face, but her expression did not change. I expected her to get angry and upset - just like when she heard about the bullying in Year 2 - and thought there would be a big meeting where it would all be sorted.
Looking back on that day, my heart still breaks. She didn't seem shocked. Rather than asking me if I was ok, my teacher looked directly at me - and told me how amazing it was that I had been though this important "part of my culture". I tried to butt in and say No Miss it was terrible", but she carried on telling me that it was like the Jewish coming of age celebration 'Bat Mitzvah'.
I had been to a Bat Mitzvah, and knew it was not the same. I just walked away. I didnt speak about FGM for another 20 years, for fear of being ignored again.
There has never been a prosecution for female genital mutilation in the UK, although it has been illegal for 28 years. Last week on BBCs Newsnight, Keir Starmer, Director of Public Prosecutions, said that we are closer to a prosecution than ever before. When this finally takes place, it will send out a strong warning sign that the UK has a zero tolerance policy on FGM. But we wont see prosecutions on a meaningful scale unless everything about how we deal with this issue in Britain changes.
Over the past 12 months, Keir has worked with me, and with MPs such as Jane Ellison and other activists such as Efua Dorkenoo from Equality Now, who has been banging on doors for over 30 years, to break down the barriers to prosecution.
But - as the DPP said, quoting something I told him from my own experience, "a child is not just going to walk into a police station with the FGM legislation and say 'I would like you to charge someone using this'".
Getting a prosecution is vital in achieving justice for a young woman or girl who has been abused - but the reason we have never had one in the UK is not simply because the police or CPS are not doing a good job. The police and the CPS are at the very end of the process. They need information from either a girl herself, which isn't easy; or from somebody who is responsible for safeguarding that girl and this simply isnt happening enough.
The main reason we have not had a prosecution for FGM is because countless individuals who are charged with protecting girls from harm teachers, social workers, health professionals and anyone and everyone who comes into regular contact with children - either do not have enough information or, worse, do not feel accountable for child safeguarding on this issue.
How can we expect a child to ask for help and advice if we are too worried about offending to discuss the issues ourselves? Every child, regardless of colour, race or religion has the right to protection; they have the right to be safe
Everywhere there are echoes of how society used to deal with domestic abuse, or child sexual abuse: in some schools its still considered to be a family matter. At Daughters of Eve we receive emails from teachers who have had a child tell them that FGM is either going to happen, or has already happened. Because there are no safeguarding guidelines, they email a small charity like ours, and ask us to deal with the case. I find that pretty shocking.
One of the last emails I received was from a teacher in London. She said that a young girl in her Year 5 class was being taken to Africa during the summer in order to undergo FGM. She had told the head-teacher, who was not interested; she was concerned that the parents would "leave the school" if they did anything.
Yes, that's correct. The head-teacher was more concerned about holding onto funding, which is allocated according to student numbers, than about protecting a child from severe physical and psychological harm something which the UN defines as torture. The teacher ended the email with "My heart breaks when I think what can happen to one of the loveliest learners in my class." That was truly heartbreaking, and still brings tears to my eyes.
Children at risk - or affected by - FGM spend half their time in school. Their teachers are their world. Those same teachers need to feel accountable for dealing with this extreme form of child abuse.
But last week Martin Howarth, Head of Children's Rights and Well-being at the Department for Education, decided that no guidelines will be put together for schools to help protect girls at risk of FGM. This is an utter failure - and shows how little has changed over the past two decades, since I tried to tell my story.
People sometimes say that FGM is a complex issue, but dealing with it is the same as for any other child safeguarding issue no more, or less, difficult for the authorities to deal with. Outstanding education professionals like head teacher Clare Smith of St Werburgh's primary school in Bristol are already showing the way, by specifically warning pupils about FGM in PSHE lessons.
Another incredible teacher, Lisa Zimmermann, came to work on FGM while planning a horse-riding trip as a reward for some students. She was told by a senior teacher at the school to "be careful with those girls as many of them have had FGM". Yes, senior teaching staff knew that a large number of their students at risk of FGM had already had it, but due to school politics and inadequate policies, nothing was done. In response, Lisa helped start Integrate Bristol; she began by working with four scared young women - there are now over 100 young people speaking out against FGM and other forms of violence against women and girls in Bristol.
But these great individuals (and others like them they know who they are) are only dots in a big picture. They simply cannot do everything.
Systems need to be put in place at a statutory level. Data needs to be gathered by midwives and other health professionals on girls at risk. And the government must ensure that schools are made to do their part.
Let's remember that a prosecution means we have already failed a child; sadly this summer I am sure we failed many. We need to get over ourselves on the whole issue of supposed confidentiality: as with other forms of abuse, a childs safety and well-being should be our first priority.
The only people who can put these systems in place are the Prime Minister, David Cameron; the UK Home Office; and the Secretaries of State for Education, Michael Gove MP, and for Health, Jeremy Hunt MP. They must act now; if they dont, more girls will be mutilated.
Finally, I would like to ask everyone reading this to keep your eyes open - and take action if needed. In June, the NSPCC set up an FGM helpline to make it easy to do something if you think a child is at risk. Ask your child's school what they are doing to safeguard children from FGM. Insist that targeted PSHE lessons are delivered which talk about FGM both in primary and secondary. How can we expect a child to ask for help and advice if we are too worried about offending to discuss the issues ourselves?
Every child, regardless of colour, race or religion, has the right to protection; they have the right to be safe. Ignoring FGM is racist- it means that girls from some backgrounds are less protected from violence than others. Speaking about it, and ensuring schools tackle the issue is not.
Parents at the school gate have a key role. While waiting for your child or when your childs friend comes over for tea and seems sad or nervous particularly after the summer holidays ask her if she is ok. You may be the missing link the person who can really help protect her, and change that girls life forever.
If you are worried that a child may be at risk of FGM, you can contact the 24 hour NSPCC helpline anonymously on 0800 028 3550.
To call on the UK government to show leadership in tackling FGM in the UK, please sign this petition from Daughters of Eve and Equality Now.
By Nimco Ali
I am so impressed by your courage and beyond sorry that you suffered FGM and that the school did nothing to help you.
I think you are amazing for bringing this to public attention and for working to stop this now.
That made me cry. It's almost too much to bear
I am so sorry this happened to you, you sound like you are doing some great work.
Should all sisters of girls who have already had FGM be placed on some kind of at risk register by social services?
I don't even know what to say to this. It's horrific.
I think that's why there aren't more posts. Many will have read this and been shocked and moved.
It is a very hard subject to discuss and this must be a very large part of why more has not been done
My schoolteachers showed us a documentary at school about FGM, this would have been in the mid 1980's. I remember some girls had to leave the classroom. I guess our teachers were quite ahead of the times.
I hadn't heard of your organisation before, thank you for your work and I will sign the petition.
Message withdrawn at poster's request.
How sad, traumatic and appalling for you.
I think that Messers Cameron, Hunt and Gove are incredibly unlikely to make the necessary changes you suggest as this is an issue that simply does not touch their lives. Also, it's a women's issue, and we know how far down this governments agenda they are.
I will write to my sons primary school and ask that FGM is tackled in PHSE and. Will sign the petition.
Signed. I just hope something can be done about this barbaric and unnecessary abuse.
I've signed the petition. Are there any countries that have successfully prosecuted? Do you think the tide is turning in any way?
Apparently France has prosecuted
I can't believe that there are no guidelines or strategy to combat this. I'm really shocked. How on earth did Martin Howarth justify that decision?
Your message that it's racist not to act is hugely powerful. I think some people worry about being seen as 'attacking' a culture.
Signed. Thank you for a powerful message.
Signed too. So sorry this happened to you.
The message you've given in this blog post is so clear. Thank you.
That stood out for me too Neoprene.
Powerful piece. Thank you.
Just to let you know that we've asked the Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer for a comment on the lack of prosecutions - it's over here.
This is, as everyone says, so very sad; and no-one can begin to imagine what it must be like, if they haven't experienced it. Nimco is very brave.
And still the misconceptions and failure to realise the awfulness of FGM continue. A lot of people, I suspect tragically like Nimco's teacher all those years ago, simply don't or didn't understand what a terrible assault FGM is, and remain perplexed about how they should act. They can't imagine anyone could do / allow such terrible things to their own children, or why they would, in their thousands, want to.
The traditional, still oft-used terms 'female circumcision' (or 'cutting', as if it were 'just' a cultural custom) are in part to blame for this lack of wider public understanding. We must call FGM 'Mutilation', and not ever use euphemisms which soften or disguise what it means.
Everyone must be truthful always about the nature of this appallingly cruel abuse (please see Statement on FGM.) It's essential - at least in formal public discussion - to label FGM correctly if we genuinely want it to stop; yet even those in the know - including some very senior politicians - still avoid naming FGM for what it actually is, and so continue grimly gratuitously, because of their own misplaced discomforts,to put more children at risk.
Continuing confusion in some places, by some people, about how to respond - and the genuine lack on the part of many until recently of real insight and knowledge - makes it doubly awful, to the point of great irresponsibility, that the FGM guidelines for teachers and others who care for children remain so incomplete, inaccessible and unhelpful.
Martin Howarth's current decision, as reported by Nimco above, is totally, fundamentally, unacceptable in every respect.
Nimco, to whom we owe much thanks for her determined efforts, is absolutely right that only those in positions of very high authority in the UK can change things fundamentally for the better. They MUST act, right now.... Horrifically, everything we know suggests that, averaged over the year, some 50 girls are at high risk of FGM every single day, right here in the UK.
In the meantime, there is an e-petition specifically to address the failure in the UK so far to prosecute anyone for this dreadful crime and to bring to justice those who inflict this harm on defenceless children.
Please do support the
UK Government: Enforce the UK law which forbids FGM petition.
Thank you; and all power to your elbow, Nimco!
Made me cry cannot even begin to imagine how traumatic this was for you. Signed
Pleased to see Nimco's e-petition is doing well - * Stop FGM in the UK Now * deserves everyone's support.
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