20,000 girls may be at risk of female genital mutilation in the UK. The charity Forward urges schools to watch out for the signs
Although there are many different types of FGM, almost all involve the removal or cutting of some part of the female genitalia. Health risks from this practice include urinary tract infections, infertility, and the spread of tetanus and HIV from unsterilised blades. Because most FGM is carried out on young children under duress and without anaesthetic , there is almost always a psychological fallout.
FGM has been illegal in the UK since 1985, but new legislation in 2003 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and in 2005 in Scotland, also made it an offence to force a child to undergo FGM abroad. Despite the introduction of this legislation there have been no convictions.
Clare Chelsom, an officer working for Project Azure, the Metropolitan police's leading team against FGM, said at the launch of this years prevention campaign: ‘We know that FGM can be seen as an act of love for children. We know that some parents would like to say no to FGM but feel under pressure. We’re more interested in the perpetrators making money from this practice than the parents.’
Chelsom believes that the lack of convictions is due to the fact the offence is under-reported: ‘Like most cases of child abuse, we have to rely on a child telling on their parent or in some cases their whole community. There may be fears of authority, language or immigration issues. In some cases, hard-to-reach communities may not even know the law.’
According to Forward’s fact sheet: ‘The justifications given for the practice are multiple and reflect the ideological and historical context of the societies in which it has developed. Reasons cited generally relate to tradition, power inequalities and the ensuing compliance of women to the dictates of their communities.’
Signs to look out for
Suspicions may arise in a number of ways that a child is being prepared for FGM to take place abroad. These include knowing that the family belongs to a community in which FGM is practised and is making preparations for the child to take a holiday, arranging vaccinations or planning absence from school. The child may also talk about a ‘special procedure/ceremony’ that is going to take place.
Indicators that FGM may already have occurred include prolonged absence from school, with noticeable behaviour change on return and long periods away from classes or other normal activities, possibly with bladder or menstrual problems. Some teachers have described how children find it difficult to sit still and look uncomfortable or may complain of pain between their legs or talk of something somebody did to them that they are not allowed to talk about.
Where children might be at greater risk
Forward’s recently published research, A Statistical Study to Estimate the Prevalence of Female Genital Mutilation in England and Wales, is available from the Forward website. This research identifies areas of England and Wales where children may be more at risk of FGM based on the numbers of people resident from known FGM practising countries.
Forward identifies 29 African countries where FGM is known to be practised to some extent; Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Somalia and Uganda are identified as having the highest numbers of women who have experienced FGM.
However, as the research points out, defining risk based on country of origin may present a false view; families may change their attitudes towards FGM as a result of living in another culture and may have moved to a new country to escape pressure from their community to have their daughters subjected to FGM.
Forward’s research recommends that further research into the risk of FGM to children in this country should be undertaken. It also recommends that all professionals with responsibility for safeguarding should be made aware of FGM as a form of child abuse and how to refer their concerns. Forward suggests that schools should be prepared to talk to families where they have concerns that the family may be planning to take their daughters abroad to undergo FGM and make them aware of the law.