The Integrate Bristol campaign held something of a celebration at Bristol City Hall this week, and it has a lot to celebrate in its work against female genital mutilation (FGM). Since the group took on the issue, FGM has moved from something that the victims themselves were unable to speak of to something that is discussed in schools, on Newsnight and in parliament. But the route to acknowledgement, and from there to action, hasn’t been smooth. In 2011, a group of schoolgirls, in association with Integrate, collaborated on a film about FGM called Silent Scream. The girls involved faced such hostility from some quarters that they came very close to giving up completely, and it took a last-ditch private meeting to revive their purpose.
Muna Hassan, who co-directed Silent Scream, presented the film’s trailer at Bristol City Hall this week. “We’d like to thank everyone here who supported us,” says. “And there are people here who tried to stop us. We’d like to thank you, too. You showed us why we need to do this.” Hassan herself is now a university student and an articulate campaigner in her own right. This illustrates one of the striking aspects of Integrate’s work: the way that leadership is taken on by those who first encountered the programme as children, with young women like Hassan becoming mentors to the girls who follow her.
There are believed to be at least 60,000 victims of FGM in the UK, and leadership at community level is vital to tackling this form of abuse. But it also requires political leadership, and at the Integrate event, that is represented by Lynne Featherstone MP, parliamentary under-secretary of state for international development: “We can end FGM in a generation,” she tells the audience, and she means worldwide, not just in the UK. She explains that the DfID is taking the lead on the issue because it affects the African diaspora. That means the UK government has a moral responsibility both to the home countries of immigrants to the UK, and a pragmatic reason for attempting to end FGM worldwide: it is often committed against girls when they are taken to visit family in Africa. Protecting British girls demands an international approach.
So it’s very positive that the DfID has allocated £35m to combating FGM. Featherstone explains that this is “a pot of money that for the most part goes towards work in the wider world,” but £1m of that is allocated to work in the UK, and that domestic agenda is being pursued in close collaboration with other departments. Children’s minister Edward Timpson is working with chairs of safeguarding boards; Jane Ellison, the recently appointed minister for public health, has already taken an interest in FGM within her constituency; and Keir Starmer, the director of public prosecutions, has an action plan towards the first prosecution of FGM in the UK.
Featherstone is also working with David Laws, the minister for schools. And this touches on what many anti-FGM campaigners feel is a great missed opportunity: in June this year, an amendment calling for the provision of compulsory sex education in schools was defeated in parliament. For Nimko Ali of the Daughters of Eve anti-FGM campaign, who works with Integrate Bristol, education is the key to keeping women and girls safe. “If you’re ignorant about your body, you’ve got less chance of protecting yourself,” she explains.
FGM has always been a practice of silence. It is intended to make women quiet and compliant: Ali remembers early on in her campaigning, a woman telling her, “If your mother had sorted you out and cut you, you would behave and not do this work.” And it requires silence to continue: when girls name this form of abuse and speak out against it, they have the power to end it. The Integrate Bristol event ends with a group of girls on stage, singing a song they wrote themselves: “Nobody deserves cutting, it’s cruel and it’s dangerous,” they harmonise sweetly, and the sound they make fills the void where violence dwells.