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6 February 2015updated 09 Sep 2021 2:10pm

FGM Zero Tolerance Day: we mustn’t forget prevention is more crucial than prosecution

As the UK's first trial for female genital mutilation ends this week, we must remember that education is key to ending the practice.

By June Eric-Udorie

This week, the verdict was announced for the UK’s first prosecution for female genital mutilation (FGM). Dr Dhanuson Dharmasena was found not guilty of subjecting a mother to FGM after he delivered her baby. A second man, Hasan Mohamed was also found not guilty of aiding and abetting the doctor.

The practice has been a criminal offence in the UK since 1985, and in 2003 it was made illegal to take a UK citizen abroad and perform the practice. However, the trial was the first of its kind in the UK since it was made illegal 29 years ago. France has had many prosecutions, Egypt recently held a trial and five people were recently jailed over FGM in Uganda.

What we can learn from all this is that prevention must be prioritised over prosecution. The lack of training available for frontline professionals is a major problem. A 2012 study found that only 25 per cent of physicians surveyed had received proper training on managing and recognizing FGM. This is an insurmountable issue, especially if we consider that nearly 2,000 cases of FGM were newly identified in England from September 2o14 to December 2014 according to statistics released by the Health and Social Care Information Centre.

As I sit opposite Lisa Zimmerman, teacher at City Academy Bristol and co-founder of young people’s charity Integrate Bristol, I am struck by how calm she is. Young people run around the school, chatting loudly as they prepare for their next conference on Saturday 7 February, which focuses on ending female genital mutilation (FGM) and gender violence through education.

While discussing the verdict of the trial, Zimmerman tells me prosecutions will not necessarily ensure that the practice ends:

Regardless of the result, a prosecution is great news and sends out a strong message that this practice will not be tolerated. But what really matters is prevention. The only way to ensure that we prevent and protect girls from this practice is through education and teachers must be at the forefront of this. We can’t end FGM without educating and including the next generation in the conversation.

Zimmerman has a valid point. With an estimated 66,000 girls under the age of 15 at risk of FGM is the UK alone it is important we realise that educating teachers, frontline professionals and the general public about the dangers of this practice is key to ending it. Until we make education a top priority, we will continue to fail young girls, just like we failed the FGM survivor at the heart of this trial. A “joined-up” multi-sector approach using prosecutions, provision of services with prevention at the forefront of this is fundamental.

Speaking to DCI Leanne Pook of Avon and Somerset Police, it is clear that she wholeheartedly agrees with this:

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The police service is committed to investigating reports of FGM and prosecuting offences where there is sufficient evidence and such action is deemed to be in the best interests of the child involved. However, we recognize that prosecutions are only likely to result when another girl has been cut and is faced with the lifelong consequences of FGM. For those reasons, the prevention of FGM through partnership working is the priority for the police service.

The eradication of female genital mutilation will depend on changing the mindset and belief system of a whole generation. A long-term programme of FGM education embedded within the national curriculum is vital to empower the parents of tomorrow to say ‘no’ to FGM and other forms of gender-based violence and oppression and to make better and safer choices for their daughters.

The young people of Integrate Bristol have led the fight to include FGM education in the school curriculum. Last year, their petition backed by the Guardian gained over 230,000 signatures within weeks and forced Michael Gove to write to all schools about FGM. They are an example of one such group who will be part of the generation that says “no” to FGM.

Nimco Ali, a leading anti-FGM campaigner who works with Integrate Bristol believes education is imperative. “You can’t be ignorant about your body or your rights. How else can you protect yourself and demand justice?” she asks. “The reason why these young people are so outspoken is because they have been empowered through education. I want that for girls everywhere.”

As we celebrate International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM, it is imperative that we focus on the positive stories of changing attitudes to FGM in the UK and globally. However, we must also recognise that we all have a duty to protect girls from this inhumane act. 

FGM is not a practice happening in some bush in Africa. It is happening here to British girls and as a society we must stand up to protect these girls. It is not just my business, it is everybody’s business. I was lucky enough to have someone stand up to FGM in my family, but not every girl is as lucky. That is why we all have a responsibility to ensure that no girl is forced to go through this practice, which is a human rights violation and child abuse.

The first prosecution is a step forward in the right direction, but we must not lose sight of what is important, which is protecting girls from FGM and empowering them to be fearless girls with voices loudly breaking through the silence. As the day of rehearsals for the young people of Integrate Bristol comes to an end, sounds of their singing echoes around the building: “The fire will keep burning ‘til the people will see we won’t stop.”

June Eric Udorie is a 16-year-old anti-FGM campaigner with Integrate Bristol. She tweets @juneericudorie. Integrate Bristol are holding a conference on ending FGM and gender violence through education. There will be workshops on effective safeguarding, difficult conversations ad informative and empowering lessons around challenging issues. The young people will also be launching their new song ‘Mama’ and new media-based resource ‘Everybody’s Business’. For more information visit the website: www.integratebristol.org.uk