This month, I spent a week at the 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at the United Nations headquarters in New York. The session was on violence against women and girls. About 6,000 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and government delegations from around the world were represented at CSW. Nearly 100 NGOs were from the UK.
Debates ranged from child marriage to girls’ access to primary school education, issues where the UK seems quite progressive. But there are others where we stand alongside countries seeking a solution to a problem; female genital mutilation (FGM) is one such challenge.
Three million girls are thought to be at risk in Africa, but the UK is not immune to this form of gender-based violence. No one knows the exact figures, but it is estimated that in the UK, 20,000 girls are at risk and 66,000 women are thought to be living with the consequences of FGM.
FGM is a curious term. It often gets banded about in meetings and referenced in speeches without clarity about the real experiences of women and girls. This results in professionals and the public distancing themselves from the ensuing injury and trauma.
There are four forms of FGM, which range from the removal of part, or all, of the clitoris to the sealing of the vaginal opening through a repositioning of the labia. The consequences include infection, urine retention and fatal haemorrhaging immediately after the procedure; damage to the reproductive system; complications in childbirth; and mental health difficulties.
The trauma of the procedure and enduring impact cannot be overstated. It is a risk faced by girls born in the UK, who often go missing from school so that the procedure can be undertaken abroad. It is crucial that vulnerable children are identified in advance, and that FGM is considered a potential cause if girls do go missing.
During the CSW session, the UK government pledged £35m to prevent FGM through education and by challenging cultures or arguments that seek to justify the practice, which spans 28 African countries in addition to the US, New Zealand, Canada, the UK and other parts of Europe. Ascribing the practice to one particular culture or country is inaccurate. And there is no one justification that is used. Some view it as a preservation of hygiene or cleanliness, others as a matter of “honour”, and some consider it as a means to avoid social exclusion. Taking a preventive approach within the UK, and around the world, is critical. Unlike France, in the UK no one has yet been convicted for FGM.
It is crucial that FGM is recognised as violence and as a live issue for UK children. Professionals such as teachers and midwives need to be aware of the signs and able to offer the appropriate protection to either prevent the abuse, or the harmful consequences. While the government’s revised action plan on violence against women and girls, published earlier this month, demonstrated the progress that has been made in tackling gender-based violence, it also illustrated how much there remains to address. Female genital mutilation is one of those reminders.