March 30, 2011
The [British] government has abolished the only Whitehall post devoted to work preventing women and girls from the UK being subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM).
Campaigners said the loss of the FGM co-ordinator will undermine efforts to eradicate the practice. Some 24,000 girls among FGM-practising minority ethnic communities in Britain are estimated to be at risk of the procedure, in which part or all of their genitalia is cut off and stitched up without anaesthetic.
The news comes a month after the government launched guidelines to help frontline workers in health, education and social services identify and prevent FGM, and pledged its commitment to ending the practice.
But charities say that without a central government co-ordinator, crucial efforts to raise awareness among professionals on a local level, where the issue is often still not understood, could be seriously hampered. Some girls are "cut" in the UK, while others may be taken abroad in the summer holidays.
"This is a real step backwards," said Diana Nammi, director of the Iranian and Kurdish Women's Rights Organisation. "We feel it speaks about a real lack of commitment from the government and a marginalisation of this hugely important issue The new guidelines were an important step forward but efforts are now needed to ensure that they are actually read and acted on, and the government should also be working to change attitudes towards FGM within communities.
"Without a dedicated person in government to drive efforts forward, it's hard to see how this will happen. The coordinator was a link between all the organisations working in this area and now that's been lost."
She added: "We were hoping to see another post created to tackle honour killings, so we were shocked to see the one for FGM being taken away instead.
"This is only one person's salary. It's not a lot amount of money for the government but it has a huge effect within the community."
The Home Office would not comment on the funding for the role, held by Alan Webster. Responsibility for work on FGM will now be shared between officials in the Home Office, Department of Health, Foreign Office and Department for Education as part of their other duties.
Naana Otoo-Oyortey, the executive director of campaigning group Forward, said: "The government has failed to commit in terms of targets, financial resources and a strong strategic direction on FGM.
"This is made worse by their failure to ensure effective coordination of the only government action on FGM, which is the implementation of the multi-agency guidelines on FGM."
When the guidelines were launched, Lynne Featherstone, the Liberal Democrat minister for equalities, said: "I have seen first hand the effect this abhorrent crime can have on women and girls. This government is determined to put an end to it."
She wrote on her blog: "One of the challenges we face in putting an end to this practice is the lack of knowledge about how to recognise the signs and what to do when you do recognise the signs."
A Home Office spokesman said: "The work of the FGM coordinator will not end. Rather, it will continue to be carried forward by individual departments where we believe it will be better integrated.
"Female genital mutilation is a brutal act of child abuse, a clear form of violence against women and we remain absolutely committed to eradicating this practice.
"As part of our cross-government programme to prevent and tackle FGM, we have established a forum to support community engagement work to challenge FGM and published new guidelines to raise awareness of this issue with all professionals."