Considering an approach to effectively addressing FGM* in the Diaspora


11 April 2013

Guest Blog Lilli Loveday, 28 Too Many Research Volunteer.

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a major concern in the UK, with an estimated 30,000 girls under the age of 15 at risk of undergoing the practice (Forward, 2007). Despite legislation illegalising both the practice of FGM on UK nationals or permanent residents whilst overseas and the practice on any individual (irrespective of their nationality or residence status) within the UK, there has never been a successful prosecution. Is this because, due the secrecy and silence which often surrounds FGM, there have been no claims made to the Crown Prosecution Service? The answer is ‘no’. In fact, in the last four years, there have been 166 reports of FGM made in London alone (Guardian, 2012)  a fact indicative not only of FGM’s prevalence but also of shifts in peoples’ tolerance and acceptance of the practice.

With rising figures in the number of migrants coming to the UK from countries where FGM is practiced, the need to address the issues which drive its continuation and to strengthen the systems which deal with its consequences is great. A Department of Health study conducted in England and Wales determined that, of the 65,790 women found to have undergone FGM in 2001, the highest numbers were amongst women from Kenya and Somalia. More recently, a letter written by an 11-year-old Gambian girl was published. The girl – a UK resident – wrote to a UK charity asking for support to help her avoid undergoing FGM whilst visiting relatives in her home country. She stated, ‘I really hope you can help me, not to have my private cut’. The girl’s letter emphasises the very real nature of the problem in the UK, a nation which is considered to be a ‘soft-touch’ when it comes to condemning FGM and where girls are more at risk of the practice than anywhere else in Europe.

What we need to consider is how the UK can begin to address this issue in a more responsive, effective and long-lasting way. Whilst other countries across Europe, namely France, have been commended for delivering prosecutions, overcoming FGM does not lie in simply strengthening the response of the legal system. Ensuring a consistent and clear message is delivered about the unacceptability of the practice is vital. One component of this certainly involves the Prosecution Service rigorously following-up on claims, supporting the collection of evidence and making prosecutions. However, as research indicates, legislation alone does not lead to a reduction in the practice and in many countries across Africa where FGM is outlawed there are high prevalence rates – such as 27% in Kenya (Democratic Health Survey, 2008-9). Furthermore, gathering substantial evidence that FGM has been done is a huge challenge and presents its own difficulties. Legislation also only treats the outcomes of deep-rooted beliefs which propagate the practice rather than challenging those beliefs.

Given that FGM is perpetuated by complex belief systems which often link the practice with women’s accepted social inclusion, any attempt to bring an end to it must address its causes. Furthermore, France’s approach to identifying cases of FGM involves routine investigatory examinations of girls by school medical staff. Although the necessity of this can be argued given the sensitivity of the issue which often limits a girl’s ability to talk about whether she has/has not had it done, it is precisely because of this sensitivity that the investigations may be traumatising and run the risk of marking a girl out as ‘other’. Given the strong association of FGM being the norm in a girl’s ethnic community, this conflict of FGM as a ‘norm’ and an ‘other’ is confusing and potentially damaging.

The challenge of addressing FGM in diaspora communities is especially hard given that in these circumstances the impetus for FGM being performed is often driven from outside the girl’s country of residence and from outside the immediate family unit, at times, even, without their knowledge. Not only is the practice in these communities, therefore, harder to track, but the solution must also seek to bring about positive social norm change in both the girl’s country of heritage and her country of residence. In that vein, addressing FGM in the UK must be a holistic endeavor. It must focus on enabling practicing communities to access information, engage in discussion and reach their own conclusions about the negative impacts of the practice. But this effort must go hand-in-hand with efforts to raise awareness in UK migrant families’ countries of origin.

The recent major pledge of £35 million made by the Department for International Development (DfID) to support work for the reduction of FGM by 30% in 10 priority countries over the next 5 years (DfID, 2013)  , marks a turning point. Not only does this amount represent the largest financial contribution by any donor for work related to FGM, but it also signifies a sincere commitment by the UK Government to bring an end to the practice – both at home and overseas. In order to address FGM, DfID must commit these funds to supporting awareness-raising and education programmes operated at the local-level and drawing upon culturally relevant messages. Through the delivery of non-confrontational, inclusive programmes in the UK and overseas the persistent drivers of FGM can be halted.

A future blog will appear on ‘Mapping the diaspora – a report to estimate the number and distribution of girls at risk of FGM in the UK from five FGM -practicing countries across Africa’.

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Footnote: *The practice, referred to throughout this blog as female genital mutilation (FGM), is known by different names.  Formerly more commonly referred to as female circumcision, the practice later became known as FGM which was considered to better reflect its severity, its potential to harm and its distinct differences from male circumcision.  More recently, some organisations have chosen to adopt the term, female genital cutting (FGC), or the combined term, female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C).  28 Too Many generally follows the WHO approach and refers to the practice as FGM, reflecting its gravity.