David Cameron discusses strategies to end FGM and forced marriage at the Girl Summit last summer. Photo: Oli Scarff/WPA Pool/Getty
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What are the practical steps we need to take to end FGM in the UK?

As MPs discuss a national action plan to end FGM, campaigners explain the practical steps the country needs to take to eradicate this abuse.

It was once an obscure, hidden strain of violence against women. Ignored by the state, its victims were silenced and isolated, their pain dismissed. But, in recent years, female genital mutilation has been brought into the public consciousness. We now have data on how widespread FGM is in the UK, and it tells us that 170,000 women and girls are living with the effects of this abuse in the UK, and another 65,000 girls aged 13 and under are at risk. For the first time, an accused practitioner of FGM is being prosecuted.

But despite all this high-profile conversation, the government is still yet to systematically tackle the growing prevalence of this violent abuse in the UK with the implementation of an organised, national plan of action. Last year, a major inquiry was launched by the Home Affairs Committee to do just that: find practical solutions to end this in this country. Its findings have now been published, and this afternoon, in the stately calm of Westminster Hall, MPs debate whether they feel there is “a case” for government action. 

Grassroots activists fought hard to bring this issue to Westminster. Two major anti-FGM organisations, Daughters of Eve and Equality Now, set up a petition last year which called on the government to end this “very British problem”, and sparked the current inquiry. But now the Home Office has finally responded to their pleas for action, is their proposed course the right one?

The report outlines five clear steps that should be taken to eradicate FGM in the UK:

  1. The achievement of successful prosecutions
  2. The safeguarding of at-risk girls
  3. Changes to the law
  4. Improved working with communities to abandon FGM
  5. Better services for women and girls already living with FGM

Nimko Ali, the co-founder of Daughters of Eve, has written with disarming candour on FGM, as both a survivor and a campaigner. She has repeatedly called for practical solutions to end the practice, insisting that it simply needs to be handled in the same way as all other forms of child abuse. She told me that while she celebrates the fact that action finally seems to be approaching, she feels that some aspects of the report misunderstand the issue, specifically the aim of “working with communities to abandon FGM”. That word, “communities”, she says, is troublesome to her. 

“It’s dehumanising. I wonder, ‘what do they mean when they say communities?’ These girls are Bristolian, or they're Welsh, or they're Londoners. There's no single community identity. I always say, forget culture, forget community, and think about the child.” 

It’s an area of the FGM debate that has been particularly thorny. On Newsnight in 2012, Muna Hassan, a young activist for the equality charity Integrate Bristol, explained how she saw politicians’ slowness to act on ending FGM as a result of both a racist othering of FGM victims, and a fear of appearing culturally insensitive. “What would you do if the girl had blue eyes and blonde hair? Would FGM still be carrying on in the UK?” she asked, before telling David Cameron to “grow a pair and do something about FGM”. Last year, Diane Abbott was criticised for saying that the practice was “embedded in culture”, and said that the government must “understand why people who consider themselves conscientious family members would collude with this process”. 

Ali thinks the idea of “working with” practitioners of FGM is unhelpful. “This is child abuse, it’s as simple as that. You wouldn't negotiate with paedophiles in order to defeat paedophilia. No, you engage with a wider general public.” 

Ali also sees the report’s emphasis on prosecuting practitioners of FGM as misplaced. “Prosecution should not be the priority. Every time someone says, ‘We need to get a prosecution’, I just keep hearing that we've already failed a girl in order to get that prosecution. Preventing FGM is the priority. If we prevent it, then we break the cycle.”

Ali knows from experience that the women directly affected by FGM are more concerned with prevention than prosecution. “I had a conversation with a mother once, who was concerned about her daughter being cut. I asked her, ‘would you want somebody arrested if they cut your child?’ and she said, ‘Ultimately, they committed a crime, but I can never un-cut my daughter’.

“What she said stayed with me, it was so powerful, and so heartfelt. A prosecution can legitimise your pain as an adult, but it can never undo those scars. So I would rather prevent those scars and prevent the trauma, than get someone locked up in prison. Behind every prosecution is a child that has been failed.” 

Mary Wandia, FGM programme manager at Equality Now, similarly prioritises several other prevention strategies over retrospective arrests. She argues that to eliminate FGM, “simultaneous actions need to take place aimed at prevention, protection of girls at risk, service provision and working in partnerships”. While she acknowledges that progress has been made, she notes that “the government has yet to fully engage on several fronts, including the adequate provision of support to survivors, raising awareness at a national level and ensuring that front-line professionals receive appropriate training to ensure that all girls at risk are protected.” 

Anti-FGM campaigners come back again and again to the training of front-line professionals. The Home Office report makes it clear that an awareness of how to help at-risk girls is a vital tool for all professionals working in health care, education, social care, and the police forces. It’s this part of the report that chimes most strongly with the advice of activists. 

Muna Hassan told me that in her mind “one of the most important things the government can do to tackle FGM is to ensure education around gender based violence is statutory in all schools across the UK: in order to end FGM within a generation we need to empower the future generation of parents. Compulsory training and reporting amongst all sectors working with children is also incredibly important. Being able to tell a child is at risk, could possibly save a life.” 

It’s this part of the report that Ali, too, is most hopeful for. “It's about empowerment and education. And we need to give teachers, social workers, and all those people the tools and the confidence to say ‘something’s wrong.’” 

What would Ali say to the MPs debating today? “I think it's great that this conversation is happening, but it's taken a long time to actually get to this point. Let's not play party politics with the lives of young women and children, and let's just move this forward. We can end FGM but it's about working together in order to do that. There are girls who today are three years old, and by the time the next parliament ends in 2020, those girls will be at risk of FGM. So I want to know what the next government is going to do to save them. There are children being born today that we can save.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently a non-compulsory aspiration of campaigners) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.