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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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.