We need explicit messages about FGM
What did you get up to in the summer holidays?’
That’s the question children around the world will be asking each other when school returns after the summer vacation.
But for some girls, their summer will be tainted by a terrifying and illegal experience, one which will affect them for the rest of their lives.
According to The Guardian, between 500 and 2,000 girls will innocently set off on holiday this summer, only to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM) – often at the hands of their own family.
Dr Comfort Momoh, Public Heath Specialist at Guys and St Thomas Hospital in London who set up the African Well Women’s Clinic, has warned in the past that “‘this is the time when all the professionals need to be really alert.”
Even those who don’t go abroad are at risk from so-called ‘cutting parties’ at which a whole group of girls may undergo the procedure in a sort of mass ‘ceremony’ in which parts of their external female genitalia are cut and removed.
Which is why it is so essential to keep the issue of FGM in the headlines during these summer months.
So it was with horror that I recently read an article in The London Evening Standard about a women’s group in South London who were staging a sit-in at a primary school over a row about an advice poster warning about the dangers of FGM.
The local council had allegedly accused the Lambeth Women’s Project of leaving ‘sexually explicit’ material around in areas where children could see it.
The poster was, of course, meant to be seen by children. It was sponsored by the police to promote services for London girls at risk of FGM.
The real story got lost in the argument between the women’s group and the council about money and was a missed opportunity to promote the dangers of FGM to readers.
If even one parent had thought twice after reading the article about taking their daughter home this summer holiday to undergo the procedure, that would have been one less damaged child.
And if that parent had passed the message onto another parent and another, potentially whole communities would hear the message being reinforced again and again – that FGM is dangerous, abuse, and totally unnecessary. It is also illegal.
In the UK it carries a maximum sentence of 14 years imprisonment. To date, there have been no prosecutions under UK legislation.
According to a recent report on BBC’s Newsnight, the UK is seen as a soft touch in Europe for its failure to prosecute, thus encouraging people from many communities to send their daughters to the UK to have it done.
In all, about 28 African countries practise FGM as well as Yemen, Kurdistan, Australia, Saudi Arabia, America and Canada.
Nine women were recently sentenced in The Ivory Coast for performing FGM -a small, but significant step forward, marking the first time a case like this has resulted in a prison sentence in the country.
Sadly, they only received two years each.
In Liberia, newspaper reporter Mae Azango has been in hiding since writing an article on FGM, which appeared on the cover of FrontPage African for International Women’s Day in March.
Although the paper is known for its investigative stories, the backlash was intense, with women threatening to cut Azango herself and warning that she had been told to stay away from the story. She was also told he would be killed if she went to rural Liberia again.
The privacy surrounding the procedure and the secrecy with which it is done mean that exact figures are hard to come by.
And that’s why it’s so wrong to describe the material about FGM on the poster in that London school as being ‘sexually explicit’ and as if it was therefore somehow inappropriate.
If being explicit can prevent deaths and a lifetime of health complications from FGM – then yes, it’s appropriate is to be as explicit as necessary.