Female genital mutilation: we can end this practice of silence now

This terrible practice requires silence to continue. When girls name this abuse and speak out against it, they have the power to end it.

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.

There are believed to be at least 60,000 victims of FGM in the UK. Image: Oliver Zimmermann at Zed Productions.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.