The problem of female genital mutilation in Britain

Campaigners are worried that cuts will mean organisations working with women and children will close down.

When Leyla Hussein began campaigning against female genital mutilation (FGM) a decade ago, it provoked a violent reaction from some of her fellow British Somalis. The threats against her grew so severe that she was forced to move home several times, and was issued with a panic alarm.

"I was one of the first people who started saying, 'stop painting FGM as a cultural practice, call it what it is: it's child abuse,' and that really painted me as a girl who'd betrayed her people," she says.

Today she works for Daughters of Eve, a charity she co-founded in 2010 to protect and support girls at risk of FGM, and says she has few regrets. "I know the horrors of FGM, and they are far worse than what I was experiencing."

Hussein's experience is an extreme example, but a fear of speaking out is one reason there's so much ignorance surrounding FGM. 6 February is the International Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM, and although genital cutting is commonly understood to take place abroad — across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia — few know it's a UK issue too.

An estimated 66,000 British women have undergone FGM, and 24,000 British girls under the age of 15 are deemed by the Home Office to be “at risk” from genital cutting.

There are four main types of FGM, ranging from the removal of all or part of the clitoris, to infibulation, or “type 3”, where the vaginal opening is narrowed by cutting and sewing together the outer labia, sometimes first removing the inner labia and clitoris.

FGM is rarely carried out by a medical professional, and as well as causing pain and psychological trauma, women face a permanent risk of infection, difficulties urinating and menstruating, and complications during child birth.

Alia was seven when she was sent from the UK to Djibouti to undergo type 3 FGM. The procedure was carried out by a traditional cutter and without anaesthetic.

From her mother — who today maintains she did Alia a "favour" and made her look "prettier" — to her teacher who dismissed her experience as a "cultural practice" similar to a Bar Mitzvah, to the doctor who reversed her infibulation five years later after Alia suffered repeated urinary infections, "nobody ever asked me if I was OK," she tells me.

Nor did the doctor report Alia's case to social services, although he operated on her in the mid-nineties and FGM has been illegal in the UK since 1985. In fact, no one has ever been convicted in the UK for carrying out FGM.

"People know the UK's a soft touch," says Alia. "There are a large number of Swedish, Dutch and other European girls who have moved to the UK, just so they can undergo FGM."

Hussein confirms that she too has spoken to families who say they moved to the UK for this reason. "Britain is one of the richest, safest countries in the world, but now it's becoming a place where girls' genitals are being removed," she says.

She's keen for FGM to be included in mandatory child protection training for medical professionals, social workers and teachers: the lack of awareness of FGM among these groups was raised by everyone I spoke to.

In November 2012 there were signs of increased government resolve to clamp down on FGM. Keir Starmer, director for public prosecutions, launched a plans he hopes will increase referrals and prosecutions for FGM, and the Home Office issued a health passport, a booklet relatives can take abroad, explaining that FGM (even when carried out abroad) carries a maximum 14-year prison sentence.

Sara, a Somali anti-FGM advocate, believes the health passport could prove a useful resource for her community (provided they can read English). "Often women coming home with their daughters are hearing from their grandmothers, 'you're becoming so Western, why are you not carrying on our traditions?' So this is a reminder to them to resist," she tells me.

Nevertheless Sara is concerned that in trying to clamp down on FGM, professionals overlook the need to care for victims. Having undergone FGM herself, it took three months for a doctor to convince her to have a smear test, because she feared his reaction. Some "women prefer to have a baby in Somalia, because they are so scared of the midwife ringing social services," she says.

"It's not seen as a priority, how to care for these women" says Kekeli Kpognon, head of UK programmes at anti-FGM charity Forward, "You talk about prosecution, punishment and prevention, fine, but you don't talk about everyday care and support."

Kpognon also believes the government hasn't thought through the implications of increasing prosecutions for FGM: "It's not clear what kind of support or legal aid is being offered. People also need to realise it will mean the end of family life as it was, and what will that mean for a young girl: will her parents end up in jail? Will she go into care?"

Forward fears that a renewed focus on prosecution could divert resources away from community outreach work. It says that following its training sessions with affected women, which cover the health risks of FGM and tackle common misconceptions, such as that the practice is religiously proscribed, most women change their views, and want to convince their peers to abandon the practice too.

The lack of resources being diverted to the issue is also Hussein’s biggest worry. "I'm so scared that with all of the cuts happening at the moment, that organisations working with women and children on this will close down. I feel so worried that in the next 5-10 years, FGM will get lost in the air again.

Some names have been changed to protect identities.

 

Intervention on FGM is complicated - for some women, it could be the end of family life. Photograph: Getty Images

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder