Not enough is being done to stop female genital mutilation, with only a minority of cases ever reported – but a community-based response can have a positive impact, says children's charity
A totally horrific practice still takes place all over the world that can cause girls significant problems and complications in childbirth later in their lives. It even still occurs in the United Kingdom, with 24,000 under-16s in danger of having this highly humiliating operation. It is known as female genital mutilation.
As you would expect, FGM has been illegal in the UK for nearly 10 years. But not one case has resulted in a prosecution in that time. The question we have to ask ourselves is, why not? And what can the government do to help protect these girls from having sensitive parts of their body removed?
The Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 was approved by the government to try to help safeguard these girls. It includes significant penalties: a 14-year jail term for those found guilty of female circumcision. Clearly, the intentions of the act are strong. But the problem is that it has not been particularly successful in helping to safeguard the estimated 66,000 women who have already been subject to this form of abuse.
The victims of these terrible crimes are often too frightened to report their parents to the police, so few cases come to light. When police do investigate, they often do not receive the full backing of the local community.
Despite only a minority of cases being reported, there are obvious patterns that emerge. The victims are girls whose families live in countries where FGM is part of the culture. In most cases, they fail to turn up for school or come back after school holidays. It is easy to see changes in their behaviour, as they often complain about pain, bladder or menstruation problems – all things that could be easily identified by both schools and medical staff.
It is absolutely essential that all medical professionals undergo training programmes on FGM, and schools need to help increase awareness of the issue amongst staff and students. It is only at this point when we will see legal action being taken. It is similar to the first legal cases around domestic violence that took place many years ago: successful prosecutions for FGM often hinge on the awareness and understanding of the danger by all relevant partners such as friends, family and the police.
For the child, of course, it is much easier if efforts are focused on preventing it occurring in the first place rather than prosecuting afterwards. In 75 years' experience of working with children Plan UK have found that preventing FGM in African countries such as Mali and Kenya is a three-step approach that can have clear positive impacts.
The first step that needs to be taken is through health professionals, who have to actively channel a message into the community about the dangers surrounding FGM. The second step involves developing community champions against FGM and getting the support of the local people, teachers and local authorities. And the final step of this process is to liaise with both parental and children's groups to help increase awareness of the steps that people can take and who they can talk to if they believe a child is being threatened by FGM.
This approach will enable areas to be declared FGM free. It has already been implemented in Mali and has seen instant success, helping to create a domino effect, which has led to more and more villages being declared FGM free. It can be a slow process as it all depends on reliable information, trust and understanding but this example demonstrated that it can work in the developing world – so why can't it work here? By joining forces we can help to protect 24,000 girls from FGM.
Jason Tucker is a digital marketing executive working with Plan UK, a children's charity campaigning to end female genital mutilation