A woman in Kenya walks past a Stop FGM banner. Photo: Getty
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How far have we come in a year in the fight against FGM and child marriage?

A year after the Girl Summit's commitments were made to end female genital mutilation, it is time to assess the progress against the practice in Britain and globally.

It was exactly one year ago when I stood on a stage, absolutely terrified, as I introduced myself as one of three MCs to over 600 civil servants, campaigners, heads of state, ministers, government representatives and young people. It was the first ever Girl Summit, an event co-hosted by the UK government and UNICEF with the sole focus of mobilising efforts to end female genital mutilation (FGM) and child, early and forced marriage (CEFM) in a generation.

Since the summit, where it was declared that these harmful traditional practices "must end", progress has been made and the momentum has continued.

On Friday, Bedfordshire police issued a FGM protection order where by seizing passports, the police force has prevented the travel of two girls thought to be at risk of the practice. The summer holidays are known as the "cutting season", a time where girls are thought to be most at risk of being taken abroad to undergo the practice of FGM.

The practice, which involves the partial or total removal of the external genitalia of women and girls, is thought to have affected between 110 and 140m girls worldwide, with 65,000 girls under 15 being at risk in the UK.

Detective Chief Inspector Nick Bellingham of the force’s Public Protection Unit told the Telegraph: “With schools breaking up for the summer holidays today, we will continue to use this legislation where needed to prevent young girls who we believe may be at risk from being taken out of the country”.

When I spoke to Nimco Ali, a leading campaigner against FGM who co-founded the charity Daughters of Eve, it is clear that she welcomes this portection order, but worries that the focus should not only be during the summer holidays. Ali says:

We cannot slip back into thinking that it’s only in the summer or only in certain communities. Now we understand that it’s a form of violence against women and girls and a child abuse issue, we must keep the conversation going. Are there times when girls are at a heightened risk of FGM? Yes. But we have to be on guard all the time because perpetrators are very smart. If perpetrators think we’re only looking at this issue around the summer, then they’ll change it to another time.

This is a view shared by the co-founder of Integrate Bristol,  Lisa Zimmermann, who believes that the implementation of safeguarding through education is fundamental:

The key thing that is still missing is Personal, Social, Health Education (PSHE) in schools with the inclusion of FGM and gender based violence. Education is vital and I have found that peer education is the most effective model. We need all teachers to be empowered so that they feel confident not just about FGM but about gender based violence. And this is key because we can no longer see FGM as an isolated issue but in the context of gender based violence, gender equality and respect.

Through our outreach work, we’ve reached over 4,000 people this year alone and have empowered countless girls. One girl has been able to talk to her nieces who lived in Europe that weren’t protected by the law and the cycle has been broken. Another girl was able to disclose to me about her FGM and the fact that she was able to do that is incredible. It’s about educating the younger generation and breaking cycles so that girls can be empowered.

Across the pond, the fight to end FGM may still be in the early days, but it continues. A petition started by Atlanta based Jaha Dukureh in partnership with Equality Now and The Guardian gathered over 220,000 signatures, meaning that the US government committed to an updated prevalence study on FGM.

A study by the Population Reference Bureau found that 507,000 American women and girls have either been – or are at risk of being – subjected to FGM. Federal law dictates that it is illegal to perform FGM on a girl or knowingly transport her to inflict FGM upon her, but 26 out of the 50 states in the US are yet to enact anti-FGM legislation.

Shelby Quast, the Policy Director of Equality Now, said:

The US can be a global leader on efforts to end female genital mutilation (FGM). However, we must first get our own house in order. Although there is a federal law which bans FGM, there is a need for a comprehensive inter-agency approach to address the practice that will last throughout this administration and beyond. We urge the US to provide a public update on its plans to ensure all efforts to end FGM are sustainable and supported with funding, and support and encourage state efforts to end FGM at local levels.

***

In Malawi, 12 per cent of girls are married by 15, and 50 per cent by 18. Until earlier this year, the legal age of marriage was 15. After advocacy efforts by civil society and girls’ rights campaigners, the minimum age of marriage was changed to 18.

One of these campaigners was Memory Banda, an 18-year-old girls’ rights activist who refused to get married, and carried on with her education. Banda’s sister got pregnant aged 11 after going to an "initiation camp" where she was taught how to sexually please a man. Now, she is 16 and has three children. Speaking at the TEDWomen conference, Banda spoke candidly about how legislational changes were not the only pieces in the puzzle needed to protect girls – there needs to be a societal shift as to how girls are seen.

She ends this powerful talk by saying: “This is a moment when millions of girls worldwide will be able to say, ‘I will marry when I want.’”

At the surface, it may seem like child marriage has been banned in Malawi, and the final step is to ensure the law is enforced. However the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Bill may outlaw child marriage, but cannot overwrite the Constitution stipulating that girls and boy aged 15 to 18 may marry with parental consent. It is also worth noting that the Constitution does not specifically prohibit the marriage of children under 15, but merely directs the government to “discourage them”.

Tanzania, a neighbouring country to Malawi, has one of the highest prevalence of child marriage in the world. Two out of five girls will be married before their 18th birthday. I spoke to Petrider, a #YouthForChange panel member and it was clear that she wanted to see more change – and quickly: “We have made a call for amendments of the Law Marriage Act as it states the age of marriage is 14 years with parents consent and 15 years without consent.”

Petrider has joined the #YouthForChange panel, a global partnership of young people supported by Plan UK and the Department for International Development. When I spoke to Petrider, she was most excited about the platform the panel would give her to help make a “global impact for girls’ rights”.

This is something that Ali is clearly ecstatic about in the UK, as she speaks with great passion and speed about young people, especially those from the African continent, finally being the forefront of the conversation: “Internationally, the conversation is still happening and we are finally listening to the leading voices which are African voices. I love the fact that young people are at the heart of the campaign with other agents of change.”

The involvement of young people in the battle to end these practices has been vital. For many years in the UK, due to political correctness, FGM was not spoken about, or only spoken about as something that happened to those "poor African girls".

This drastically changed from 2012 with Newsnight where young people from the youth charity, Integrate Bristol were featured on the program. One of those young people is 20-year-old Ifrah Hassan who has been campaigning to end FGM since she was 13. When I speak to Ifrah, the frankness about the subject she has possessed since she was 13 is still there: “FGM doesn’t happen because you are African, it happens because you are a girl and abuse can happen to all women, from all countries, races and religions.”

Tanya Barron, the Chief Executive of children’s charity of Plan UK echoes Ali about the necessity of young peoples’ voices in the conversation. Replying to me over email, she wrote:

Through initiatives like #YouthForChange, it’s young people who are leading that conversation, which can only be a good thing. The challenge now is to continue to translate this momentum into real progress on the ground; to turn gradually changing attitudes into generations free from FGM and child marriage.

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Across the African continent, small steps are being taken every day to end these harmful traditional practices. With the support of Equality Now, the first prosecution was secured against FGM in Egypt which has the highest rate of women and girls who have been subject to the practice in the world.

In Uganda, five people were jailed over FGM. Just recently, Nigeria banned FGM. Countries like Bangladesh and Burkina Faso with high child marriage rates have just begun the legal process of ending the practices for the first time. And Kenya continues to show other countries how a multi-agency approach can truly lead to a national movement to end a harmful traditional practice.

These steps may seem insignificant in the wide scale fight against these practices, but as articulated by Shelby Quast, the Policy Director at Equality Now, they made lead to a ripple effect of change:

There has been some amazing progress over the past year. Nigeria has passed an anti-FGM law, which will hopefully have a ripple effect in other countries which have yet to do so such as Liberia, Mali, The Gambia and Sudan. However, key challenges have continued in countries such as Yemen and Saudi Arabia, which have yet to ban child marriage.

Quast speaks with a brilliant understanding of how far we have come, but how far we have to go. In Yemen, there is no law that bans child marriage. In 2008, ten-year-old Nujood Ali made the headlines when the courts granted her a divorce. In Saudi Arabia, there is no minimum age for marriage, meaning it is perfectly legal to marry even an hour-old child. Even in Nigeria, where the government has brought in anti-FGM legislation, the legal age for sexual consent is 11; there is progress but there are some serious drawbacks too.

But we must not lose hope. Sierra Leone has just ratified the Maputu Protocol, which guarantees comprehensive rights to women such as the right to take part in the political process, control of their reproductive health and an end to female genital mutilation. Alimatu Dimonekene, who was subjected to FGM in Sierra Leone when she was 16, welcomes the ratification of the Maputu Protocol:

The ratification of the Maputo Protocol earlier this month was 12 years in the making. It is a decision that will transform the lives of every Sierra Leonean woman and girl for years to come,  bringing a lot of awareness to issues such as domestic violence and child marriage, equality and women's rights in the country.

***

It is clear that we have made an insurmountable amount of progress in the last year, and some great strides have been taken in the UK and internationally. The important thing we must do is to keep going, even when there are setbacks.

Just as we celebrated the first FGM protection order being used in Bedfordshire, new research from Equality Now and City University found no locality in England and Wales was free from FGM. In the London borough of Southwark, as many as one in 20 women has undergone the practice of FGM, demonstrating that there is a need for all professionals to be trained and aware.

To end FGM and child marriage completely, we must continue to see it embedded in the framework to end violence against women and girls. International Development Secretary, Justine Greening, spoke powerfully at the Girl Summit last year, and she has fulfilled her commitment to placing girls’ rights at the centre of development.

When I spoke to her last week, she summed up for me the relentless attitude we must all possess in this battle for girls’ rights:

When it comes to the rights of girls and women, if you’re not winning the battle, you’re losing it. And so Britain is going to keep fighting this battle, with a growing number of other countries and campaigners, until we win it for girls for good.

Ultimately, these practices will continue until the world begins to see girls as human beings with inalienable rights, one of them being bodily autonomy. Ending female genital mutilation and child marriage are important steps to achieving gender equality – and granting girls their freedom.

June Eric-Udorie is a 17-year-old writer whose writing has appeared in Cosmopolitan and the New Statesman among others.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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