‘Let’s Talk FGM’

Garden Court co-hosts an evening of inspiring talks and lively debate about the issue of FGM with the Fabian Women’s Network. Here, Maria Moodie gives her take on the evening.

Last week, Garden Court Chambers was delighted to welcome the Fabian Women’s Network for an evening of discussion about the pressing issue of female genital mutilation (FGM). On the panel, experts from the fields of law, politics, civil society campaigning and the health services talked about their experiences regarding FGM and made recommendations about what the Government must do if it is serious about ending the practice in the UK.

FGM speaker panel

The panel

Panel members included Dexter Dias QC, Leyla Hussein, Jennette Arnold OBE AM, Naana Otoo-Oyortey MBE, Diane Abbott MP, Stephanie Akomeah and Malek Wan Daud.

Dexter Dias QC, of Garden Court, began the evening by speaking about the report on FGM he co-authored to the Home Affairs Select Committee. The report reached three important conclusions:

1)      That the UK has been in breach of its international law obligations to protect women and girls

2)      That the UK will continue to be in breach of these obligations until an effective mechanism is put in place to prevent FGM from occurring both here and abroad

3)      Since the criminalisation of FGM in 1985, thousands of British girls have been mutilated which amounts to a serious breach of the State’s duty of care

Dexter reflected on the recent developments in addressing the issue of FGM. He highlighted the contributions made by Leyla Hussein and other FGM survivors in their campaigning work and applauded their bravery in speaking out about this practice which is so often shrouded in silence. He also provided an illustrative comparison of white girls being sent each year to Tuscany to have the tips of their fingers chopped off and mused on whether there would be public outrage at this practice if it were happening to white women. Based on his academic research at Harvard, Dexter warned that the causes of FGM are complex, but that that the drivers are clear: gender, sexuality and race.

He equated these drivers to “the perfect storm of three.”

In relation to race, he explained that it is an empirical fact that victims of FGM come almost exclusively from ethnic minority groups. Thus, the issue of FGM has not been prioritised because the rights of women and girls from African and Asian communities have long been ignored.

Dexter argued that it is not enough not for the government to state that it is prioritising FGM, but that politicians must also work to protect practising communities from being maligned. If the discussion about FGM is such that it further marginalises, denigrates and demonises these communities, then community members will seek solace and identity in their traditional practices. The risk being that the very practises the government seeks to eradicate would be perpetuated.

“Let’s focus on prevention, because you can’t go back on FGM,” Leyla Hussein

Leyla Hussein, a leading anti-FGM campaigner and psychotherapist, provided figures to paint a picture of the prevalence of FGM and the urgency with which we need to act:

  • 120 to 130 million women have undergone FGM
  • There are three million women at risk of FGM every year
  • 66,000 women in the UK are at risk of FGM every year
  • Every minute, five girls undergo FGM

Leyla’s documentary, The Cruel Cut, and her determined grassroots campaign have helped highlight issue of FGM within the media, the public and in Government.

Leyla spoke of key developments that have been made, including the fact that as of 1 April 2014 all health professionals must register incidents of FGM.

She also spoke compellingly about her own experience of FGM and her motivation to eradicate this practice in order to protect her daughter. She spoke about her campaigning activities and emphasised the difference that everyone who joins the cause can make.

Interestingly, at her support organisation, Daughters of Eve, she is noticing increasing numbers of white women who seek support following ‘designer vagina’ operations which have gone wrong. She equated this to be reflective of a wider issue affecting all women stemming from the societal pressures placed on women to look a certain way in order to gain male acceptance.

Leyla expressed in no uncertain terms that FGM is child abuse. Once FGM has been done, there is no going back. The focus therefore needs to be on helping children and preventing FGM from occurring in the first place. Overall, there must be a united voice to end all forms of violence against women.

Jennette Arnold OBE AM (midwife and member of the Metropolitan Police Authority and London Assembly) provided a unique insight into her personal experiences as a midwife over the last 30 years and the lasting impact her first encounter of FGM had upon her: she fainted and assumed that the woman had been attacked.

Jennette reflected that every woman who has undergone FGM, and who has gone on to have children, has come into contact with a medical professional who would have seen her ‘cut’. She reflected upon the fact that some medical records fail to even mention FGM because it is considered to be a ‘cultural practice’, and she highlighted this as a barrier to eradication.

Naan Otoo-Oyertey of FORWARD speaks to the audience

Naan Otoo-Oyertey of FORWARD speaks to the audience

Naana Otoo-Oyortey MBE, Executive Director of FORWARD, reflected upon how little progress has been made on the issue of FGM and she recalled a 2000 parliamentary inquiry into FGM that achieved very little. FORWARD is an organisation that works across the UK, Europe and Africa in order to advance and protect the reproductive and sexual rights of African women and girls. Working to eradicate FGM is a key part of FORWARD’s strategy.

Naana advised caution in the use of language used to describe FGM as describing it as a barbaric practice serves only to alienate the people who practise it.

Overall, she stressed the need for a coordinated approach between health practitioners, the police, schools and social workers, and highlighted the need for work to be done at community level.

Stephanie Akomeah also made valuable contributions about the importance of raising awareness around the issue of FGM. Stephanie is a sixth form student who recently conducted a survey amongst her peers on the issue of FGM. She found it troubling that the majority did not know what FGM stood for and concluded that it was vital to raise awareness amongst children and young people.

Malek Wan Daud, family law barrister at Garden Court, recited the relevant articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and those of the Children Act 1989 that seek to protect all children and promote their development and well-being. Malek reflected on his professional experiences of FGM and highlighted the complexity of this issue in ensuring that the child’s best interests are protected.

“It’s about the social control of women.” Diane Abbott MP

The evening concluded with a talk by Diane Abbott MP who observed the way in which FGM has recently risen up the political agenda. She highlighted that central to eradicating FGM, are the issues of raising awareness and consciousness, and focussing on care and support of at-risk women and survivors.

It was clear from the contributions of all speakers that, though there is still much work to be done to protect young girls in the UK who are at risk of undergoing FGM, there are many individuals and organisations dedicated to the cause. The overall message of the event was that prosecutions alone will not stop a practice so engrained within certain communities. If young girls are to be protected, then a multi-faceted, culturally-sensitive prevention strategy must involve actors from the health, education, social work and law enforcement agencies working together. Until such a strategy is in place, the fight to end FGM continues.

To find out more and to join the campaign to end FGM, visit the websites of Daughters of Eve, FORWARD and The Orchid Project.

For recent updates, you can follow Dexter Dias QC, Fabian Women’s Network and Leyla Hussein on Twitter.

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