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.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.