by Matt Forde
National Head of Service for NSPCC Scotland
Female Genital Mutilation – so difficult to comprehend and uncomfortable to address that we have grown accustomed to the less discomfiting acronym of ‘FGM’. But, as we approach International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation on 6 February, it’s worth recognising that that the true meaning of this term is quite simple – it’s child abuse.
Female genital mutilation is the term used to describe procedures which include the removal of part or all of the external female genitalia for non-therapeutic reasons. Typically, though not exclusively, performed on young girls between the ages of four and 10, the practice is both medically unnecessary and excruciatingly painful.
Also referred to as ‘cutting’, ‘female circumcision’ and ‘initiation’, its consequences range from severe bleeding and problems urinating, to cysts, infections and infertility. It can also lead to complications in childbirth and an increased risk of newborn deaths.
Girls and women who have been subjected to female genital mutilation also suffer serious psychological damage. Research carried out in practising African communities found that women who had undergone female genital mutilation suffered the same levels of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as adults who had experienced early childhood abuse.
Practiced worldwide in as many as 42 African countries and in parts of Asia and the Middle East, as many as 3,000 women and girls are thought to be at risk of female genital mutilation in Scotland today. But, given the very hidden nature of FGM, the lack of awareness amongst professionals and the cultural reluctance to report it, the figures we cite are almost certainly an underestimate.
Female genital mutilation has been a criminal offence in the UK since 1985 and in 2005 Scottish legislation was introduced making it illegal to take girls abroad to be ‘cut’. Yet astonishingly, in the three decades since the practice was criminalised, not a single prosecution has been made.
So why is there such reluctance to speak out against FGM? It could be due in part to the stigma felt by victims themselves, who fear being rejected by the community or not getting married, and may well avoid seeking help as a result. In which case, if we wait until a victim comes forward who is prepared to support a prosecution through to its conclusion, the unfortunate truth is that we could be waiting a very long time.
There may also be a tendency among well-meaning Scots to perhaps turn something of a blind eye to the practices of other cultures and religions. But intolerance to female genital mutilation has nothing to do with culture or skin colour – the law in this country applies to absolutely everyone.
The barriers to preventing, uncovering and prosecuting female genital mutilation are extensive. This is where we believe the NSPCC’s FGM helpline can play a significant role. But it’s not a standalone solution. There’s a role for everyone here – professionals, communities and victims – to help increase awareness of the issue, and commit to doing everything in our power to eradicate it from society. We have to proactively think about ways to bring about a case without the need to rely on a victim’s evidence.
We don’t claim to be experts in this area and we’ll be the first to admit that it’s very early days in Scotland. However, we are keen to understand how we can best contribute to preventing and protecting children in Scotland from female genital mutilation.
The Scottish Government is currently drafting a strategy aimed at tackling ‘all forms of violence against women’, and within that we’d like to see a national FGM awareness campaign – similar to domestic abuse, knife crime and HIV.
To date there has been no development of national multi-agency practice guidelines or protocol in Scotland around female genital mutilation. We need to be clear about what needs to be recorded by frontline professionals, and under what circumstances health workers, midwives and GP’s who detect evidence of female genital mutilation should be passing that information to the police.
There is no justification for female genital mutilation – it is child abuse. It is a barbaric form of violence against girls and women, a violation of children’s rights, and it carries a penalty of 14 years imprisonment.
Anyone who is worried that a child is at risk of or has been a victim of female genital mutilation can contact the NSPCC helpline 0800 028 3550 or email [email protected] for information and support.