Female Genital Mutilation in the UK – Why Campaigning Just Won’t Cut It
December 6, 2013 § Leave a comment
In conventional British society, where our greatest bodily concern is that we have only gone to the gym once this week, or that we caved in on the diet and got a Chinese takeaway (again), something as severe as female genital mutilation (FGM) is unimaginable and virtually unreal.
But it is real, and it is high time we opened our eyes to its existence. Lucy Walker, of the Orchid Project, said: “It is a global problem. 30 million girls are at risk of being cut over the next decade, and up to 125 million women and girls worldwide are living with the effects. It is not required or recommended by any religion, has no medical purpose and can lead to many severe physical, psychological and socio-economic impacts throughout life.” How many more women and young girls have to become a statistic before we get truly angry about this?
According to BBC News, Fatima, a 23-year-old mother from The Gambia, was just 10 years old when she was taken, along with 200 other primary school children, to be cut: “There are two people holding you and then they cut it in one go,” she recalled. “And then you cry for the rest of the day. The pain is the worst. It is even more painful than giving birth and you have to live with it for the rest of your life.”
In Fatima’s village in The Gambia, there are also thousands of female circumcisers: “We take pride in our work,” Aja Babung Sidebah said. “We cut the girls and then we sew them up so that no man can interfere with them, then, the day before their wedding, they come back to us so that we can cut a hole to allow for penetration.”
And Fatima is not part of a minority. In fact, UK charity, Forward, informed me that 66,000 women in England and Wales alone are estimated to have undergone FGM. And this is despite specific UK legislation, which has banned FGM since 1985. What is even more disturbing, then, is that there has not been a single prosecution in the UK to date. Simply put, the UK’s approach to FGM is falling flat on its face.
Does our silent complacency send out a message that we are a society that condones such acts? In an age where the UK is crying out for gender equality and cultural diversity, surely the very existence of FGM in society exemplifies a serious violation of basic human rights. The trauma imposed on the girl child is indicative of a practice comparable to torture. Indeed, the fundamental issue at stake is that of consent. Whilst an adult woman is free to submit herself to ritual or tradition, FGM is often practiced on infants and young girls, and thus the child has no formed judgement. This constitutes a form of child abuse.
Whether or not the UK has become an unwitting doormat for those practicing FGM, there is no denying that it has turned a deaf ear to this polemic topic for far too long. Admittedly, as a result of recent televised documentaries, the subject of FGM in the UK has acquired certain media coverage, and deservedly so, as this is a topic that is in desperate need of being forced into the mainstream.
However, Sarah McCulloch, National Director of the Agency for Culture and Change Management, says the issue is much more complex than the media have led us to believe: “People arrive here in the UK from FGM practicing communities and no one tells them it is illegal. They get shocked by the sex culture in this country, and don’t want their daughters to be the same. They do it because they believe they are protecting them.”
Sarah McCulloch explained to me that it is not a case of offending people by telling them that they have been ‘mutilated’, but instead, of empathising with the communities and attempting to break the cycle: “It’s the older generation, especially, who don’t want change. It’s their culture, it’s all they know. They think: Why are they attacking us? We’ve done it for years. Why should we stop now?”
In order to solve the problem of FGM in the UK, therefore, its roots must be understood. One could demand that the Government implement a national FGM awareness campaign, as it has done in the past with issues such as HIV and domestic abuse. One could demand that front line professionals be held to account. But these demands would come to nothing, if we did not firstly comprehend the very basics of this cultural practice: “In order to understand the issues, we need to put ourselves in these communities’ shoes,” says Sarah. “We must ask ourselves: why does it happen and why has it been maintained for years? It may not be correct, but that’s how the community sees it. If we want to end this, we have to work at their own level. We must walk with them, not against.”