Female genital mutilation in Britain is an unspoken issue

Content warning: graphic violence against women

When female genital mutilation (FGM) is discussed, it is often viewed as a practice which only takes place in countries in Africa and the Middle East. The high number of women and girls affected in the UK is often ignored.

The first conviction in the UK took place on the first day of this month, highlighting the importance of the work of activists such as those involved in ‘The Pink Protest’ in ending this extremely harmful practice.

FGM is defined as “the partial or total removal of external female genitalia for non-medical reasons.” The reasons for carrying out FGM are often sociocultural and vary depending on location and time. Commonly, FGM is done to control a woman’s sexuality, for example, to preserve her virginity or to lower her libido. In many communities, it is seen as a rite of passage, part of the preparation process for marriage.

However, FGM is a violation of the human rights of girls and women in terms of health and physical integrity as well as freedom from inhumane and degrading treatment. The practice has no health benefits and can cause numerous physical and mental health problems, such as excessive blood loss, infections and PTSD.

Speaking to ELLE, ‘Sophia’, a Somalian survivor or FGM said, “they used a rope to tie me down so I couldn’t move. I couldn’t see much because there were a lot of women in the room – maybe eight or nine – but they had a blade which they used to cut me … every time I go to the toilet and every month, during my period, I feel pain … I get sick a lot and usually stay at home because I can’t move around easily.”

The custom is most prevalent in countries in Northern Africa and the Middle East, such as Somalia and Egypt. In Britain, FGM affects an estimated 137,000 girls and you women from immigrant communities.

Despite FGM being illegal in the UK since 1985, in addition to the 2003 Act that made it illegal to take anyone overseas to be cut, FGM continues to happen to young women and girls both in their countries of origin and here in the UK. Official figures show that over 6,000 women and girls had visited a public health service in England between April and March last year had undergone FGM – and 85 of these had taken place inside the country.

Legislation is an important part of ending FGM. Activist group ‘The Pink Protest’ have been campaigning to include FGM in the Children Act. This would mean that it would be easier for front line staff, such as social workers and teachers, to protect those children at risk. Members of the public can help to end FGM in the UK by taking a minute to sign the petition on Change.org to get FGM included in the Children Act. The tally of signatures currently stands at over 5,000.

However, legislation is only part of the solution. With training, staff who work with children can recognise the signs that a child has had FGM or is at risk of it. You can also educate yourself and others on what FGM is and its effects, by using resources such as ‘Petals’ and ‘Petals for Professionals’.

6 February marked the UN International Day of Zero Tolerance for female genital mutilation. The hashtag #EndFGM raised awareness of FGM through social media.

 

Editor’s Note: Since the writing of this article, a private member’s bill was proposed to Parliament which would have amended the 1989 Children Act to include FGM on the list of offences that courts can issue protection orders for, if a child is thought to be at risk.

On Friday 8 February, the bill was held to a debate during which the Conservative MP Sir Christopher Chope shouted “object”, essentially blocking the bill from progressing. He has since come under a barrage of criticism with Zac Goldsmith calling the decision “appalling” and Sajid Javid saying he was “very disappointed.”

Chope objects to the passage of private members’ bill as he believes they do not receive the appropriate amount of time for debate. With many other private members’ bills up for consideration, the bill is unlikely to become law any time soon, which is undoubtedly a problem.

 

Image: CC0 Public Domain via Max Pixel 

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