Female genital mutilation: what the UK can learn from overseas

We would do well to learn from the openness, engagement and attitude change in Mali.

Komara’s granddaughter was three years old when her clitoris was cut out. In this area of Mali it was accepted practice that girls must have parts of their external genitalia removed, in order to become women. Unfortunately this young girl did not survive the process. She suffered a massive haemorrhage, dying in a pool of her own blood.

Komara decided she had seen enough. Joined by mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters she spoke out against the practice. More and more people in Tounkara village got behind her. A fortnight ago I was there as the whole community – girls, women, former cutters and elders explained publicly on local TV how they were stopping the practice in their community.

Why is the UK failing to stop female genital mutilation while in Mali an increasing number of communities are protecting their girls from this abuse? Perhaps because criminalising an abuse is ineffective without action to inform and enforce.

The Director of Public Prosecution, Keir Starmer, has acknowledged this week that although female genital mutilation has been a criminal offence here since 1985, there has not been a single prosecution. Perhaps some lessons from Tounkara could help protect the 20000 British girls at risk of mutilation, because their families hail from countries like Mali and parts of Africa and the Middle East where this abuse is common.

Local Plan worker, Boucom Madima, explained to me that trust and time are key. “We have been working with 80 villages for ten years and the rate of excision for girls under four in this area has dropped from 97% to 46%. Some villages are divided with voices being raised against it, others are hesitant. Most are now in the middle of abandoning the practice and 27 have totally banned it.”

The conversation starts around the health risks. The local health worker briefs parents on the dangers of haemorrhage, infection, tetanus and HIV and warns that girls are twice as likely to die in childbirth after undergoing female genital mutilation.

Suleiman, who lives in Tounkara, has five girls but stopped mutilation after the pain the first two suffered. When another girl haemorrhaged after being cut, the two cutters (the aunt and her niece) made the connection and decided to stop using the blade. They told me, “Side effects don’t show straight away. Before we never connected the stomach pains or difficulty in childbirth with excision... Now we know it is connected we cannot carry on.”

The village council also backed Komara’s campaign. The chief makes space at village meetings for sessions to tackle head on the dangers of mutilation and the arguments for it- including tradition, cleanliness, preserving a girl’s honour. Although there is no national law yet against female genital mutilation, this community is about to declare itself free of the practice.

Munkoro village is conservative – children are seen and not heard and women are rarely vocal in public. So it was a sign of the social revolution that had taken place that 15 year old Namala could publicly declare, looking straight into the TV camera,

“Excision is bad for girls. I remember the pain. There is danger of loss of blood, of tetanus, of HIV infection. We must stop excision in Mali.”

When will such openness, engagement and attitude change happen in the UK? So far even two acts of parliament and a parliamentary enquiry have not succeeded in protecting our girls.

 

Marie Staunton with Namala, who has spoken out bravely against excision.

Marie Staunton is  Chief Executive of Plan UK, one of the largest child-centred community development organisations in the world.

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What are the consequences of Brexit for the refugee crisis?

Politicians neglected the refugee crisis whilst campaigning – but they shouldn't now concede to the darker undertones of the debate.

In the chaotic aftermath of Brexit, the refugee crisis seems like a distant memory. Yet not even a year has passed since the body of a young Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach, shocking the world.

When campaigning for the EU referendum began, politicians neglected the crisis. Not because the situation had ameliorated, but because the issue had become strategically toxic. Nigel Farage's infamous poster aside, the Leave side preferred scare stories about economic migrants rather than refugees; the Remain side because the refugee crisis, more than anything else since its inception, highlighted the fragility of the ideals that underpin the European Union.

Many of the main issues aired in the course of the referendum debate were related to the refugee crisis, regardless of how little it impacted on them in reality; immigration, strain on public services, national identity. The refugee crisis became a proxy issue; implied, but not addressed, for fear of detrimental impact in the polls.

However, in his repugnant posters (it should be stressed, nothing to do with Leave campaign itself), Nigel Farage made explicit what he thought posed the greatest threat to the UK. Rightly, the posters have been condemned by both sides of the referendum debate, but the underlying suspicion of refugees it reflects has concerned many organisations.Their concern has only been exacerbated by the result of the referendum. The spike in hate crime compounds their fears.

Paul Dillane, head of UKLGIG, a charity that supports LGBTI asylum seekers to the UK, expressed unease at the reaction of his clients: “The asylum seekers I work with do not understand the decision that has been made – they feel vulnerable, they feel unwelcome. Yes the law hasn’t changed, and if they’re at risk of persecution, they will be protected. But they don’t feel like that now.”

Despite the troubling situation, the result of the referendum changes little when it comes to refugee law. “Refugee policy is shaped in London, not in Brussels”, said Stephen Hale, Chief Executive of Refugees Action. “The decision about how well we support refugees in terms of integration is a matter for the UK, not Brussels. The number of Syrian refugees we choose to resettle is a matter for the UK, not Brussels.”

Although the law may not have changed, from a diplomatic or political perspective, the same cannot be said. This does have the power to negatively impact legislation. Post-Brexit reaction in France surrounding the Touquet Treaty typifies this.

The Touquet Treaty, reached between the UK and France in 2003, permits each country to carry out passport checks on the other countries’ soil. It is what, according to French politicians in Calais, has accelerated the growth of the "Jungle", which currently accommodates close to 5,000 refugees.

Because the agreement was signed outside the auspices of the European Union, Brexit does not affect its legal legitimacy. However, for France, EU membership was crucial to the nature of the agreement. Speaking earlier this year, Harlem Desir, French Secretary of State for European Affairs, said the Touquet Treaty is “a bilaterial agreement. So, there will be no blackmail, nor threat, but it’s true that we cooperate more easily in both being members of the EU.”

Natacha Bouchart, mayor of Calais and a long-time critic of the treaty, has been vocal in her demands for legislative change since the result. Speaking to French broadcaster BGM TV, she said: “The British must take on the consequences of their choice. We are in a strong position to push, to press this request for a review and we are asking the President to bring his weight to the issue.” Some have adopted the slogan of the Leave campaign, telling them to now “take back control of your borders.”

Modification of the Touquet Treaty was branded part of ‘Project Fear’ by the Leave campaign. Because of this, change – if indeed it does happen – needs to be handled carefully by both the British and French governments.

The reaction of Natacha Bouchart is already a worrying sign for refugees. Firstly, it perpetuates the toxic narrative that casts refugees as an inconvenience. And secondly, any souring of relations between the UK and France over Brexit and the Touquet Treaty only increases the likelihood of refugees being used as political bargaining chips in the broader EU crisis over Schengen.

A divided government and disintegrating opposition do little to aid the situation. Furthermore, come October, how likely is a Brexit Tory cabinet – governing off the back of a manifesto predicated on reducing immigration – to extend the support networks offered to refugees? Even before the referendum, Theresa May, a supporter of the Remain campaign, said that Britain should withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, replacing it with the more questionable Bill of Rights.

Uncertainty of any kind is the most immediate danger to refugees. “Everyone is talking about it,” said Clare Mosesly, founder of Care4Calais. “But opinions on the impact are divided, which is creating yet more uncertainty.” Refugees, unsure whether Brexit will lead to increased fortification of the border, are prone to take ever more dangerous risks to reach the UK. Even economic uncertainty, seemingly distinct from issues such as the refugee crisis or immigration, has a negative impact. “The thing that worries me about a fragile economy”, said Paul Dillane, “is that when a country’s economy suffers, minorities suffer as well. Tolerance and inclusivity are undermined.”

The government must stress that the welcoming principles and legislation Britain had prior to Brexit remain in place. Andrej Mahecic, from the UNHCR, said “we will continue to rely on the UK’s strong support for humanitarian responses to refugee crises. Our work with the government on the UK’s asylum system and refugee resettlement schemes continues.”

The will from NGOs is there. The political will is less assured. In the aftermath of Brexit, the government must not concede to the darker side of the referendum debate.