Parliament in the UK is undoubtedly living through an era of unprecedented turmoil as MPs remain embroiled in Brexit rows, regional divisions over COVID-19 lockdown plans and free school meals for children.
However, amidst all the noise, focus on eradicating Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) has become lost, despite its alarming uptick. As women’s rights campaigners diligently point out, the pandemic has served to create a fertile environment for abusive practices as domestic abuse, forced marriage, ‘honour’-based violence and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) have waged on and thrived behind closed doors during lockdown.
Yet while the Domestic Abuse Bill inches nearer to legislation to offer ground-breaking reforms, the government simultaneously appears to be doing a swift U-turn on its commitment to stamping out FGM by 2030.
The World Health Organisation defines FGM as a procedure that compromises “partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs”. It is recognised as both a form of child abuse and gender-based violence as children’s charity Barnardo’s points out FGM usually takes place on girls under the age of 10 without their consent and who, in some cases, may need to be physically restrained due to a lack of pain relief or anaesthetic.
It is important to note that discussions involving FGM often evoke misconceptions, namely that the practice is rooted in a specific faith or to a certain nation. Yet data taken from all around the world dispels such myths as it is evident FGM can and does cut across cultures, religions and countries.
There are four main types of FGM which range from the removal of all or parts of the clitoris and/or the inner labia to the narrowing of the vaginal opening where only a tiny hole remains for menstruation and urination. Women and girls who live with its effects, an estimated 200 million, who survive the initial procedure may face health complications their entire lives. This could be haemorrhaging, infertility, blood infections such as hepatitis B and HIV, pain and problems during sex, menstruation and pregnancy as well as mental health conditions.
2020 is a key milestone for progress: it marks one-hundred years of raising awareness to FGM, during which new laws have rolled out across the globe to protect women and girls. As a result, today’s generation of girls is up to a third less likely to face FGM, however, it remains a working progress with an estimated 68 million deemed at risk in the next decade.
Yet that was before the Coronavirus crisis materialised to bulldoze over such landmark achievements with UNFPAestimating the consequence of the pandemic to have rolled progress back by a third. An additional 2 million more girls may now be deemed at risk who otherwise wouldn’t have been. Campaigners attribute the closure of schools and a breakdown in communication between vulnerable girls at risk and safeguarding practitioners as a likely result of this rise. In other corners of the world gripped by poverty, COVID-19 has exacerbated socioeconomic inequalities – and lockdown has presented such families with a window of opportunity to cut their daughters and secure a bride dowry.
In the UK, charities are now bracing themselves for the “ripple effect”: whenever harmful practices increase overseas, it is mimicked by families in the UK according to the Chief Executive of Oxford Against Cutting. Kate Agha claims this trend occurs because families in the UK feel “increased pressure” to cut their daughters to maintain “cultural traditions based on ‘honour’”.
Yet charities and organisations believe the official figures to be a drop in the ocean to the real scale. This is in part because discussing the female anatomy can be seen as a ‘taboo’ subject in some households, yet the reason why the practice continues to be shrouded in silence largely falls on the fact many are young girls when they are cut who either fear reporting their ordeal – and the repercussions that may come from it for their family members – and/or feel powerless to amend it. Some are simply are unaware of their rights and may live with FGM until they encounter a gynaecologist or a midwife.
Others, such as women claiming asylum and women with an insecure immigration status may not brush with a healthcare professional at all. Paralysed with fear of NHS fees, detention or even deportation, migrant women often endure health problems without seeking advice in the UK.
However, there is little confidence that the Home Office plans to overcome these shortfalls. In fact, despite a breadth of legislations criminalising FGM and those who facilitate it, prosecutions remain sparse. Despite many cases occurring on UK soil, only one woman has been convicted in British history. Meanwhile, the Home Secretary is battling an FGM protection order of an 11-year-old girl to try to deport her to Sudan.
Exacerbating matters is the government’s recent decision to withdraw financial support to the UK’s leading centre – The National FGM Centre – which deals with referrals of girls at risk, issues protection orders and trains key workers such as the police, teachers, social workers and doctors. This year, the centre has been issued a 76% reduction in funding, falling from £2.7m in 2015 to a mere £432,000. The financial crisis coupled with a secondary lockdown presents the possibility of the centre shutting for good.
Critics and human rights barristers claim the UK government simply isn’t taking FGM seriously anymore. Indeed, in the midst of a pandemic, the government cannot drop the ball on its commitment to end the pre-existing crisis that has plagued women and girls for over a century. For as long as ministers turn a blind eye to the prevalence of FGM, women and girls remain at risk - and transforming gender equality into a reality around the world slips even further out of reach.