Today, on International Women’s Day, David Cameron is set to announce the largest international investment ever to fight Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
Earlier this week Lynne Featherstone MP laid out ambitious plans to eradicate FGM within a generation. But this Government initiative – a hugely welcome one – must not forget the long-running efforts of charities and the international diaspora here at home.
FGM, as Featherstone recognises, is not a problem confined to Africa. It is thought to affect up to 140 million girls and women worldwide, with 24,000 girls at risk each year in the UK.
While Governmental support and funding is an essential component of efforts to combat FGM, it’s vital to remember that the statements released this week are a response to decades of activism on the part of international charities and organisations.
National and international policy provides a legislative framework to be used as a tool to abolish FGM. But alone it is not sufficient. Leyla Hussein, who comes from a FGM practicing community and runs the prevention charity Daughters of Eve, asks that the government invite wider consultation from those who have worked against FGM . “Speak to women like me”, she says, “I know what I’ve gone through.” Hussein worries that “frequently victims of FGM are used just to tell the story, but not as part of the decision making process”.
Nevertheless, the Government’s statements this week will no doubt help provide personal suffering with a political platform.
They will bring intimate issues, frequently shrouded in taboo and silence, into the public arena and allow women the opportunity to articulate their own thoughts and feelings. Take for example Madina, who appears in The Cutting Tradition, a film by FGM charity SafeHands for Mothers: “After I saw the suffering my daughter had to go through”, she says “I decided not to circumcise my granddaughters.”
Voices like Madina’s tell us important things. They make clear this is not an issue that can be subsumed beneath anxieties about upsetting relative cultural values.
The UK government has been wary of being accused of modern-day colonialism under the guise of international development, as Lynne Featherstone admits: “‘FGM has been considered too taboo and, frankly, too difficult to tackle.” But FGM is a child protection issue and a question of violence against women. The government must – and according to international development secretary Justine Greening will – provide programmes that address the complexity of the issue.
For the roots of FGM are complex and numerous. It needs to be understood in context. In the developing world the practice is associated with child marriageand limited female education and economic independence.
That’s why the holistic approach of the programmes announced to coincide with International Women’s Day is so laudable. These programmes include a new partnership with the World Bank to give women access to and control of economic resources in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as issuing guidelines for teachers, social workers and NHS staff here in the UK. Let’s hope that the government makes good on its promise that policy engages constructively with the women who have been victim of FGM and the girls who are at risk, and do as Leyla Hussein implores: “You have this legislation, now use it.”