We cannot end FGM in the UK without ending it in Africa

We won’t stand aside as this violence is inflicted on girls in the UK and around the world. Britain is now the world’s biggest supporter of activity to end female genital mutilation.

Around the world, girls and women are being cut. Most of them will still be under 15 when they have their genitalia partially or totally removed. Some are still babies. Many will go on to suffer a lifetime of health problems, infertility, problems urinating and complications in childbirth, as well as the weight of deep psychological scars. For some girls it is a death sentence.

Let’s be absolutely clear – Female Genital Mutilation is child abuse and an extreme form of gender violence. But for too long the world hasn’t wanted to talk about a harmful practice that is a centuries-old part of life for many communities. Too little was invested in ending FGM; too little money, too little research, too little attention.

It’s time we broke the silence. Today is the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation, and along with campaigners across Africa and the UK I am calling on the international community to raise their voices, back the African-led anti-FGM movement to end FGM within a generation.

There are at least 125 million women worldwide who have been subject to FGM. In countries like Egypt and Somalia, more than 90 per cent of girls and women have been cut. Here in the UK thousands of girls face being sent abroad in the “cutting season” of the long summer holiday.

We won’t stand aside as this violence is inflicted on girls in the UK and around the world. That is why Britain is now the world’s biggest supporter of activity to end FGM. Last year I launched a £35m programme that aims to reduce FGM by 30 per cent over five years in at least 10 countries.

We know that thousands of communities across Africa are deciding to end the practice. This is being supported by real African commitment. Last week I was in Ziniaré, a village in Burkina Faso that has abandoned female genital mutilation. During my visit I went to the Suka clinic for FGM survivors, set up by Burkina Faso’s remarkable First Lady Chantal Compaoré. They showed me horrifying, harrowing videos and photographs of the damage that FGM does to millions of girls and women.

Lynne Featherstone in Burkina Faso. Photo: Jessica Lea/DFID

But I also saw hope being restored by the dedicated staff who provide reconstructive surgery to dozens of Burkinabé women every week. This allows these women to have sex, give birth safely, and avoid a multitude of other health problems. All this costs just 6,000 Central African Francs, or $15, but changes lives beyond measure.

Importantly, attitudes are also changing in Burkina Faso. I visited a school, where I saw a class of 15 and 16 year-olds – both boys and girls – engage in a lively debate about the dangers of FGM and design slogans to tackle the practice. I met police officers who are passionate about investigating and prosecuting potential and actual cases. I joined in a local radio show in which a woman who hadn’t even known that her body was different to those of other women called in to seek help for the first time in her life.

Although 76 per cent of girls and women between the ages of 15 and 49 have undergone FGM in Burkina Faso, the prevalence among girls aged 15 to 19 has dropped by 31 per cent. That is an impressive shift, but there’s a long way to go. Across Africa 30 million girls are at risk of being cut over the next decade.

That’s why the UK Government has announced a range of measures today to end FGM both in Britain and around the world. For the first time ever, all NHS acute hospitals will have to record information on patients who have suffered or are at risk of suffering FGM. A new FGM Community Engagement Initiative is also being launched by the Home Office today.

But we will not see an end to FGM here unless the practice is eliminated worldwide. That is why the Government has today appointed a consortium of leading anti-FGM campaigners to deliver a global campaign to end FGM. This campaign will unite activists across Africa with UK diaspora communities and charities, raising awareness of the fact that FGM is ending, that change is happening and communities are part of the movement against it.

Sometimes people see for themselves the terrible harm FGM can do. In Ziniaré I met Naba Siguiri, a customary chief who lost his 5 year-old daughter while she went through FGM. Siguiri became one of the loudest voices against FGM in his village, which has now ended the practice.

But where people don’t have a personal experience of the damage FGM can do, then other methods are needed to shift people’s opinions. That is why we need a grassroots movement across Africa to change attitudes and help communities become part of the global movement to end FGM in a generation.

If everyone: governments, NGOs, teachers, health professionals, police, religious leaders, communities themselves and even those who perform the practice work together, then we can end FGM within a generation and give millions more girls and women the chance of a healthy and productive life. We cannot end FGM in the UK without ending it in Africa - the two are inextricably linked – which is why we will not rest until FGM follows foot-binding into the history books.

Lynne Featherstone is the Lib Dem MP for Hornsey & Wood Green and a Minister at the Department for International Development

A woman stands near a poster against FGM. Photo: Jessica Lea/DFID
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.