Getting a prosecution after so long is fantastic and a key part of ending female genital mutilation (FGM) in the UK. Whatever the outcome, this prosecution sends out a strong message that FGM is illegal and will not be tolerated. It also illustrates that FGM is allegedly still taking place in the UK despite the progress that has been made.
Some may say that it is long overdue, considering that laws have been in place here since 1985. What has made it possible for us to move the issue to the centre of health and social care policy is the growing voice of the younger generation of survivors of FGM who demand that the state protects them from the abuse of FGM. The Metropolitan Police and the Crown Prosecution Service have responded accordingly to this call and have done a great job in breaking down the barriers.
This is a watershed moment and also a time to reflect and acknowledge the huge strides that have been made from when I started working on the issue over thirty years ago. We are not there yet but FGM is well on its way to being truly mainstreamed in the UK – with thanks in particular to The Evening Standard, The Guardian, and The Sunday Times newspapers for helping us position the issue firmly in the national consciousness.
Although getting a prosecution is vital, it is only one part of the solution. Eliminating FGM in the UK requires a 'joined-up' approach that includes simultaneous actions directed at prevention, protection, provision of services, prosecution and partnerships across disciplines and with civil society groups. It is only through this ‘systems’ approach that we will prevent the practice going underground and assure protection for all girls from FGM.
The good news is that we have seen a tidal wave of change in the last two years, as health professionals have become more engaged. The NHS has commenced discussions related to documenting FGM in the UK, largely due to the dedication of Jane Ellison, formerly Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on FGM and recently appointed Public Health Minister, pushing forward the recommendations of a recent research report sponsored by the Home Office.
Last year’s Intercollegiate Report by the Royal Colleges and partners Equality Now and Unite the Union also produced a technical paper to support the identification, recording and reporting instances of FGM in the UK. At the core of this is early identification and prevention of FGM by frontline workers.
More recently, there have been some indications too that the education ministry, which was the missing link in the joined up work, may be finally acknowledging the obligation to play its role in both safeguarding girls at risk and providing support to young survivors of FGM.
Front line professionals with a responsibility for child well-being need to be clear that FGM is child abuse and an extreme form of violence against women and girls. Everyone should be aware of what their roles and responsibilities are in relation to health promotion, documenting, reporting and safeguarding.
However, several gaps in the implementation of policy continue to exist. There is still resistance by some professionals surrounding mandatory referrals and sharing information on FGM. Another area which needs much more extensive work and funding is the provision of services – particularly psychosexual counselling – for survivors of FGM.
A key reason why a prosecution has taken so long is due to the fact that young survivors fear reprisals from family and community members if they disclose. They need a safe space to meet as well as psychological and emotional support to speak out. Some initiatives such as Leyla Hussein’s ‘Dahlia Project’ do exist but they are few and far between and absolutely under-resourced. [delete sentence] Until survivors are empowered and provided with the space, services and support they need – we will not be able to really get to grips with the issue and the silence surrounding FGM will continue to be a challenge.
We are on the crest of a wave – a tipping point – in terms of ending FGM in the UK. We need to ensure that every single girl is protected and part of this means that survivors are provided with a safe space to speak to help break the cycle of abuse.
The public is increasingly engaged and motivated to act. The relevant policy is in place and front line professionals are being slowly equipped with the tools and information they need to ensure that FGM is streamlined into their child safeguarding procedures.
There is no reason to continue to fail our girls.