FGM - it's not the snip, it's not circumcision... it's mutilation - Interview

“All councillors and councils are key in making their communities become FGM aware,” says Ann John, Leader of Brent Council 2001-2006 and 2010-2012, a Brent councillor from 1990-2014 and a leading campaigner against FGM for over 20 years.

“It’s no good councillors thinking it isn’t a problem in their own areas,” she continues, “because populations change and because it is bound up with honour-based violence and violence against women generally and can be hidden. It is also about control of women and their sexuality.”

Ann talks to COUNCILLOR DIRECT about her experiences in raising this issue and the difference in reactions she is seeing now compared to 20 years ago.

What is FGM?

What does Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) involve? A dictionary definition of the word ‘mutilation’ is: ‘inflict a violent and disfiguring injury on.’ It involves the partial or total removal of external female genitalia using a blade or razor, with or without an anaesthetic. In its severest form, the inner and outer labia are removed and the vulva is closed leaving a small hole for urine and menstrual blood with the vagina opened for intercourse and childbirth.

There are no known health benefits for FGM. As a World Health Organisation (WHO) report called ‘Eliminating Female genital mutilation’ published in 2008 states: “On the contrary, it is known to be harmful to girls and women, including being painful and traumatic. It interferes with the natural functioning of the body and causes several and immediate long-term health consequences. For example, babies born to women who have undergone FGM suffer a higher rate of neonatal death compared with babies born to women who have not undergone the procedure.”

The UK government hosted a Girls Summit in London last July to tackle FGM as well as early and forced marriage both domestically and internationally. In total early and forced marriage affects about 14 million girls every year; 1 in 3 girls in the developing world are married by age 18, and 1 in 9 are married by age 15 with some as young as 8 years old.

According to the 2008 WHO report, FGM is most prevalent in regions of Africa, some countries in Asia and the Middle East and certain communities in North America and Europe. It is practised in the UK despite being made illegal in 1985. Last year, the UK Department for International Development launched a £35 million programme that will work in 17 countries to support the Africa-led movement to end FGM.

Action on FGM in Brent

What about on the domestic front? What action has and is being taken to tackle these practices? It’s not an easy road, as Ann John (pictured right) can testify. In an interview in the London Evening Standard published in April 2014, she described the angry reactions to her opposition to a proposal put forward in the early 1990s to make FGM legal in Brent at a time when she was just starting out as a councillor in local politics. After suffering abuse and verbal attacks because of her opposition, she believes her treatment scared off other people from speaking out against FGM for years. But, more than 20 years on, the attitudes towards such a practice have changed and it is no longer a taboo subject. FGM is being more openly discussed and there is an increased desire to bring it to an end. Spreading awareness and knowledge about it is key.

“The biggest community in Brent is Somalian and there was a tendency therefore to see FGM as a Somalian problem,” says Ann John. “But I made a huge effort to raise awareness of how wide-ranging the practice was not just in 28 African countries but also in the Middle East and Asia and so would be occurring among people in those communities living in the UK. It is a human rights issue – the rights of women and girls are being violated and we need to put a stop to it.”

Brent has one of the most ethnically diverse populations in the country. According to the 2011 Census, around 18 per cent of the 300,000 people living there is classed as white British. Campaigners believe that the girls most at risk will have parents from FGM-practising countries.

Ann was Chair of a task group that published a report in 2014 called “Tackling Violence against Women and Girls in Brent.” The task group, set up by the Health Partnerships Overview and Scrutiny Committee, examined three aspects: FGM, Forced Marriage (FM) and Honour Based Violence (HBV).

The group discovered that there was very little data available about the prevalence of such practices within Brent. They met with a number of community groups to gather anecdotal evidence and talked to local and national charities with expertise in these areas. While being unable to say with certainty how widespread the practices are in the borough, they believe they are significant enough to recommend that a mapping exercise be undertaken to establish the number of girls and women at risk.

Raising awareness of such harmful practices within affected communities was recognised as key by the women’s groups that were consulted. One important battleground is in schools and, with the support of fellow councillors Ann has taken the gauntlet into schools in Brent. The group carried out research with school governors and “whilst 64% of respondents were aware of all three offences, only 21% said that they were covered as part of existing safeguarding training” (page 2 of the Report). At Stonebridge School all teachers and other staff at the school have been given training on how to spot the signs of FGM and it has been added to the school’s safeguarding policy.

“Councils and councillors have a vital role to play in making everyone FGM aware,” says Ann. “But it isn’t just one person’s job, people have to work together from council staff to staff in schools to the NHS and police.

“We have carried out some work with Brent FE College to develop the ‘Feel safe, Be safe’ anti-bullying campaign that includes raising awareness of FGM and issues around it as part of its activities. There is a telephone helpline staffed 24/7 plus information and training packages for professionals on honour based violence, forced marriage and FGM and how to spot it. We intervened on behalf of a student and prevented her from going abroad to be married. We also met with the Head of Midwifery at Northwick Park Hospital in Brent that now has posters on noticeboards about FGM. Also when women who have undergone the procedure go into the hospital to undergo FGM reversal surgery prior to birth, they are encouraged to bring close female relatives with them so they can all be counselled together and made aware.

Community groups in Brent are also working to make a difference. The London Violence Against Women and Girls Consortium (VAWG) is made up of 22 organisations working in partnership to provide quality services in communities across London. Ascent is a project of the consortium set up to help those affected by sexual and domestic violence with funding from London Councils. There are 20 Ascent organisations working within Brent covering such activities as advice and counselling, a specialist refuge and domestic and sexual violence helplines.

After her traumatic and stressful experience of reactions as a new councillor in Brent over 20 years ago when she first raised the issue of FGM, Ann now believes the atmosphere has changed.

“For the first time since then I can say that it has never been talked about as much as it is now and the fact that it is recognised as falling within the context of human rights and abuse of children has helped enormously. The highlighting of this issue by the London Evening Standard has played a big part in bringing it out of the shadows and into the public domain.

“During the research for our report, we met with a large number of truly inspiring women who will play the biggest role in bringing about change within communities affected by these issues - but they need our support.”

Useful information and links

UK Government guidelines:
The importance of partnership and multi-agency co-operation on FGM is emphasised in a set of guidelines produced by the UK government called ‘Multi-Agency Practice Guidelines: Female Genital Mutilation.’ Its aims are “to provide advice and support to frontline professionals who have responsibilities to safeguard children and protect and support adults from the abuses associated with female genital mutilation (FGM). As it is unlikely that any single agency will be able to meet the multiple needs of someone affected by FGM, this document sets out a multi-agency response and strategies to encourage agencies to cooperate and work together” (page 6 of the guidelines). The frontline professionals it is aimed at include NHS staff and other health professionals, police officers, children’s social care workers, teachers and other educational professionals.

More information and the guidelines can be found here

Information here about the London Violence Against Women and Girls Consortium

White Ribbon Campaign UK – Men working to end violence against women

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