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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"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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