The FGM controversy

Saturday 18 October, 10.00 until 11.30, Hammerson Room, Barbican Contemporary Controversies

Over the past year, female genital mutilation (FGM) has rarely been out of the headlines, from Channel 4’s Cruel Cut video, to high-profile campaigns by the Evening Standard and the Guardian. In December 2013, the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee set up an inquiry into FGM; the former education secretary Michael Gove wrote to schools urging them to protect girls from ‘this very serious form of child abuse’. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers has called on school staff to watch for signs of FGM and to scrutinise holiday requests from members of communities that practise FGM. In May, police and border officials ran an awareness-raising campaign at airports, intercepting families suspected of going abroad to inflict FGM on their daughters. What has prompted all this? While FGM is practised in some African, Middle Eastern and Asian countries, there is no evidence that it is widespread in Britain. It has been prohibited in the UK since 1985, and it is also illegal for British citizens abroad. Nevertheless, it has only recently become the focus of widespread political concern. The first criminal charges for performing FGM came only in March 2014.

Most people agree the practice has no place in modern society but others, including some women from the diaspora who’ve undergone the practice, have expressed concern about the hostility they face from anti-FGM campaigners. A minority in the UK argue FGM is akin to male circumcision, and that in a multicultural society, we should respect traditional practices. Nevertheless, even some of those who view the practice as barbaric warn that anti-FGM campaigns demonise the very communities they claim to be trying to protect. Dr Katrina Erskine, consultant gynaecologist and head of obstetrics at Homerton Hospital in London, has accused the director of public prosecutions, Alison Saunders, of putting politics before the welfare of women, warning that the case selected for the first prosecution (involving an adult woman who had just given birth) risks deterring other doctors and midwives from giving appropriate care. If teachers are to be held responsible for discovering instances of FGM, how can any screening system avoid seeming racist, or are entire school populations to be checked as a matter of course? Nevertheless, others insist action must be taken, and young girls should not have their bodies sacrificed on the altar of moral relativism and political correctness.

So how should we deal with this issue? Is tolerance of different cultural practices a necessity in plural Britain, or is it time to set a benchmark for what is and isn’t acceptable? To what lengths should authorities go to identify potential victims and practitioners of FGM? Is it the job of NHS staff to report routinely any suspicions to the police, or the role of local education authorities to protect children from their parents? If so, where does this leave the notion of parental autonomy? And why has FGM become such a hot topic right now?

Listen to the debate:

Lisa Harker
director of strategy, policy and evidence, NSPCC

Bríd Hehir
writer, researcher and traveller; retired nurse and fundraiser

Dr Christine Louis-Dit-Sully
research biologist with a life-long interest in social and political issues

Para Mullan
senior project manager, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development; FCIPD

Produced by
Bríd Hehir writer, researcher and traveller; retired nurse and fundraiser
Para Mullan senior project manager, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development; FCIPD
Recommended readings
The Emperor's New Clothes? The dangers of the anti-FGM campaign

A Battle in Print essay. Bríd Hehir argues that the campaign against FGM in the UK is built on dubious statistics and prejudices about Africans. Rather than the current focus on bans and coercion, she argues a more nuanced approach is more likely to reduce the prevalence of FGM and would cause less harm.

Bríd Hehir, Battle in Print, 14 October 2014

Britain's first FGM clinic for girls to open in London in September

Britain's first specialist clinic for child victims of female genital mutilation (FGM) is set to open in London next month.

BBC, 18 August 2014

Teach Five-Year-Olds How To Object To Genital Mutilation, Says Top NSPCC Official John Cameron

Children as young as five should be taught about female genital mutilation (FGM) in school to empower them to

Louise Ridley, Huffington Post, 11 August 2014

Female genital mutilation : the case for a national action plan

It is estimated that 125 million women and girls worldwide have undergone FGM

House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, 25 June 2014

FGM-politics based on emotions, not facts

Both female genital mutilation and forced marriage became part of the political agenda in Norway as a result of media publicity.

Kristin Marie Skaar, Kilden, 10 June 2014

'FGM is bad, but it’s not child abuse,' says London-born victim

When London-born Jay was a teenager her mother suggested she join a secret women’s society in Sierra Leone. There would be a big party, new dresses and she would be treated like royalty.

Emma Batha and Chiara Ceolin, Rueters, 15 May 2014

Leyla Hussein on FGM:

As a young girl, Leyla Hussein was forced to undergo female genital mutilation. Here, she explains how she struggled to come to terms with the betrayal

Leyla Hussein, Mumsnet, 6 November 2013

Circumcised women can have healthy sex lives

Contrary to popular belief, women who have been circumcised can lead healthy sex lives and achieve orgasms, an expert has told SBS’s Insight.

Lin Taylor, SBS, 29 August 2013

National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers

Female genital mutilation strategies for eradication

, 1989

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) declining globally

According to a 2013 UNICEF report ‘the dangerous centuries-old tradition is now on a slow but steady decline in key areas around the world’

Bríd Hehir, Nursing Blog,

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