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 a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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