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.

Photo: Getty
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We're beginning to see what Brexit might look like

 If success means sluggish growth and increasing the amount that the state has to pay to large multinational companies to persuade them to stay, there is growing evidence that Brexit may be a success.

Today’s growth figures are out, and they show no signs of a post-leave vote slowdown, with growth down by just 0.2 per cent, to 0.5 per cent in the third quarter of 2015.

But the really good news is that Nissan will make the next generation of the Qashqai at their factory in Sunderland. Local MPs and the government had both feared that Britain’s out vote would result in the closure of the plant, or at least a dramatic reduction in the size of its operations.

Instead, production will continue, saving 7,000 jobs directly, and many more in both the pipeline and in servicing the needs of the factory’s employees.

All of which is causing the Brexit boosters to proclaim that the fears of the Remain campaign have been shown to be Brexit boosters have leapt on the news, arguing that it shows that the worries about Brexit were a fuss over nothing. Are they right?

Well, sort of. As I’ve written before, it really is worth remembering that we haven’t actually left the European Union yet. And as Mark Wallace – himself an unapologetic Brexiteer – notes, it is fairly clear that, rightly or wrongly, the markets regard Brexit as a bad thing. Many seem to still be betting on an incredibly soft Brexit – or no Brexit at all.

So, anyone celebrating the “success” of Brexit or pointing out that it has failed needs to wait a little while. But even these good figures show some cause for alarm – there is a contraction in the construction industry, generally the canary in the coal mine as far as the British economy is concerned.

And what about the Nissan deal? Reuters are running a story saying that they agreed to continue operating in Sunderland after the government pledged to support and if need be compensate Nissan should Brexit make it harder to operate in the United Kingdom. Neither Downing Street nor Nissan have commented, though Nissan thanked the government for its “support and assurances”, when announcing the deal. I am told by a well-placed source that Nissan did indeed receive guarantees about the future of the plant from the government.

We can expect to see a lot more of that sort of thing in the future. As I've written before, the government's best-case scenario involves not cutting, but likely increasing the amount that it pays both to the European Union and to the EU27 for a level of access to the single market that allows the City of London to maintain its primacy as a financial centre. It's striking that Theresa May has kept a firm line on increasing British sovereignity, by getting out of the European Court of Justice and freedom of movement, but not on reducing the size of the United Kingdom's contribution to the Brussels budget. 

So as ever with any story proposing the “success” of Brexit, the question comes back to how you define success. If success means sluggish growth, and increasing the amount that the state has to pay to large multinational companies to persuade them to stay while still handing over cash to Brussels, there is growing evidence that Brexit may be a success. If success means equalling or exceeding the growth of the United Kingdom within the European Union, while freeing up a cash bounty for public services, the prognosis is less good.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.