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

Lynne Featherstone is a Liberal Democrat peer.

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The polls appear positive for Remain but below the surface the picture is less rosy

If you take out the effect of the drift towards phone polling, the last month has seen an improvement in the Remain vote of just 1 per cent. 

The last couple of weeks have looked very good for the Remain campaign – the polls have moved in their direction, the media focus has been on their home-ground issue of the economy, and Leave have had to concede the trade argument and move on to something else.

But, beneath the surface, the picture is less bright. Each of those strengths is somewhat illusory.

While the polls appear to have become more positive, most of the change is a result of shifts in what pollsters are doing, not what the people they poll are thinking.

Analysis by Professor John Curtice shows that early in the campaign just 1 in 7 polls was conducted by phone. Now it is up to 1 in 3.

This makes a big difference to how the race appears because phone polls consistently show much bigger Remain leads. If you take out the effect of this drift towards phone polling, the last month has seen an improvement in the Remain vote of just 1 per cent.  Internet polls are still showing a tied race, compared to a 10 point lead for Remain back in February 2015. All the advantages of incumbency and cross-party support are not shifting the numbers.

Remain’s dominance of the media agenda is also more a function of circumstance that it may appear.

Part of it comes through the use of the civil service machine to generate stories, something every incumbent has the right to do. That advantage ends today as election rules kick in which legally prohibit the government from producing pro-Remain news. The civil servants who did everything from crank out Treasury analysis to plug in Barack Obama’s microphone will have to twiddle their thumbs till the end of June.

The other reason Remain was able to keep the focus on the economy was that Leave wanted the spotlight there too. The defining feature of the official leave campaign was its desire to neutralize Remain’s lead on the economy so that people can afford to vote on issues like immigration and sovereignty.

Leave have clearly failed in that aim. Their pro-trade arguments ran aground when President Obama said a post-Brexit Britain would be ‘at the back of the queue’ for such deals, and they have not found a way back. Remain have restored their dominance of the economy, which for a time looked shaky. Just as importantly, the proportion who say the economy is key to their decision is up 17 points since February, and it now outranks immigration in Comres’ data.

The question is whether that increased salience of the economy will persist or not.

The next few weeks will not see the same convergence of agenda. Leave were always going to focus on immigration at the end of the campaign. They hoped to do that from a position of strength but they will be doing it out of weakness - either way, the effect is the same.

The palate of issues is about to broaden. Broadcasters will no longer be able to run a single story saying “today Remain said leaving was bad for the economy, while Leave said it wasn’t”. Instead the news will have to balance a range of issues including immigration – and so the terrain will shift to help Leave.

Remain have done nothing to try and close down Leave’s strongest issues, and now it is too late. Their plan from here on in has to be to try and make risk, and in particular economic risk, the only thing at the front of voters’ minds.

The next few weeks will be the real test for both campaigns. If Remain can keep the focus on the economy, they should glide home comfortably, and their media team will deserve enormous praise. But if Leave can shift the agenda, perhaps aided by incidents that inflame the tabloids and force broadcasters to pay attention to the issue in the same way voters do, then things could still move towards Brexit.

James Morris is a partner at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and worked as a pollster for Ed Miliband during his time as Labour leader.