Nimko Ali: We need to start seeing FGM as child abuse

If we only see this as a 'cultural phenomenon', we do a disserve to thousands of girls and women suffering in silence.

You’ve been campaigning against FGM for a while now – do you ever encounter reactions that surprise you?

Obviously we encounter hostility from certain people, but I think the most surprising reaction for me is when people I talk to about FGM immediately start asking personal questions about sex. You wouldn’t believe how many people have asked me questions about the mechanics of my own sex life – mayors, politicians, ministers, the list goes on.

 A lot of people presume that because you’re talking about genitalia, sexual questioning is on the agenda, even when it’s very personal. I’ve deliberately put myself in the firing line for that, because I know how traumatic it might be for another survivor to have to answer those questions. And I understand the childish curiosity about my sex life – but FGM is about the life of the entire girl, her trauma and her mental wellbeing. It’s not just about your sex life.

If politicians, mayors, ministers and so on are misunderstanding the issue so fundamentally, what hope is there?

I always think of politicians in terms of whether they’re ‘fanny forward’ or not. Jeremy Hunt turned up to speak  to me and he knew absolutely nothing about FGM, he was even asking me about the most basic procedural details that he could easily have Googled five minutes before. But then he started tweeting last week about recognising FGM as child abuse and that made me really happy. He may have known nothing a week before, but I now consider him ‘fanny forward’. I may disagree with his views on other issues, such as abortion, but him declaring that FGM counts as child abuse sends out a powerful message.

Why has it been so difficult to get people to recognise FGM as child abuse in the past?

We’ve really had to fight hard against people’s conceptions of FGM as a ‘cultural difference’. I’m campaigning about FGM here in the UK, speaking to British girls who have undergone it, and I still get told that it’s an ‘African thing’. This idea prevents any action from being taken. Abuse is abuse, and there are people who are embroiled in what I call the ‘SOAS effect’ or the ‘gap year experience’ who think that tolerating FGM somehow makes them culturally open-minded and non-racist. But violence against women is violence against women, wherever you come from and whatever you look like. As a survivor, I can tell you that.

So what will recognising FGM as child abuse do in practical terms?

It will do so much. A watershed moment for us was when the NSPCC got on board and started talking about it in terms of child abuse. Since I started campaigning against FGM, I’ve noticed time and time again how we have the information and we also have the structures to deal with abuse here in the UK, but in the case of FGM, these just don’t come together. Frontline staff who deal with children, like teachers and social workers, have an abundance of this information – they just don’t pass it on. At an All-Party Parliamentary Group meeting two weeks ago, a doctor told me that she sees girls in her clinic who have undergone FGM all the time. I said, ‘Why haven’t you told the police?’ and she replied, ‘Well, I’d want to be anonymous.’ That was so disconcerting. She would never have said that about rape victims; she knows in the case of rape that it’s a clear-cut crime where information has to be passed on. A Metropolitan police officer told me that they have all the resources in place to deal with FGM cases, but no frontline staff are passing on the information they have. Openly recognising FGM as child abuse should change all that.

What can we do for people who have already undergone FGM?

The main thing is to provide adequate mental health support. Jane Ellison, the absolutely brilliant Public Health Minister and APPG chairperson on FGM, has mentioned before how important that is and I agree. Some survivors opt to undergo reconstructive surgery, and some don’t find that that helps with their lives or perception of their bodies at all. Targeting symptoms of post-traumatic stress like flashbacks is just as important, and extremely underfunded.

Is there a wrong way to campaign about FGM?

There are a lot of charities who will go into usually African communities, spread the message for a while, and then declare those communities ‘FGM-free’ without any proper follow-up. Statistics have shown in the past that this sort of campaigning does little to nothing to change perceptions of women or rates of FGM.

Targeting FGM is about calling abuse what it is, whether that’s genital mutilation or domestic violence or whatever. And it’s about a wider culture that supports violence against women and categorises women as the property of men. People say that we can end FGM in a generation because Chinese foot-binding was ended in a generation – but let’s not forget that foot-binding was eradicated because men wanted women to start working in the fields for them. I don’t just want to stop people practicing FGM so they can move on to another form of gendered violence. I want to empower girls and women, and send out the message loud and clear that they are humans in their own right, with their own decisions to make, rather than the belongings of men whose worth is defined by their husband.

Join the discussion about FGM on Twitter using #StopFGM

The Cruel Cut is on Channel 4 at 10.45pm on Wednesday 6th November

If you believe that a child is at risk or has been a victim of FGM, the NSPCC helpline to call is 0800 028 3550

Support for FGM survivors is available at the Daughters of Eve website

Nimko Ali and some 'fanny forward' art. Image: Nimko Ali
Holly Baxter is a freelance journalist who writes regularly for The Guardian and The New Statesman. She is also one half of The Vagenda and releases a book on the media in May 2014.