Despite Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) being illegal in the UK since 1985, there have been no prosecutions for this disturbing practice. A culture of secrecy within communities in which it occurs combined with misplaced cultural sensitivities has allowed this practice to thrive among certain sections of British society in recent years. However, increased awareness and campaigning around the issue is forcing politicians and others to make a stand and crack down on the practice.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), somewhere in between 100 and 140 million girls worldwide have been subjected to a form of FGM. Furthermore, growing migration from countries in which the practice is present is causing an increase in FGM in parts of Europe and North America. According to a recent Channel Four programme called 'The Cruel Cut', presented by a brave and outspoken victim of FGM called Leyla Hussein, an estimated 24,000 British girls are at risk of FGM, and 66,000 British women and girls are living with terrible consequences of this practice.
The vast majority of reported cases of FGM in the UK have taken place within the British-Somali community, which is also predominately Muslim. Therefore, many see this as a Muslim issue and FGM as a Muslim practice. As someone who was raised in a conservative Muslim family of South Asian extraction, I had never heard of this practice until a few years ago. In most parts of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh the practice is unheard of and certainly not viewed as part of the Islamic faith. In East Africa, on the other hand, the practice is widespread and the vast majority of young girls, both Muslim and Christian, in countries such as Egypt, Eritrea and Somalia are forced to undergo FGM.
However, the practice is not condemned by all Muslims either and there are various Prophetic narrations, of varying authenticity, in which the practice is praised and recommended. Defenders of FGM, therefore, are able to root their defence in scripture even though it is not a widespread Muslim practice. There are, nevertheless, an increasing number of British Muslim organisations that are campaigning against FGM. In any case, it is a fundamental violation of one's human rights and the practice should be stamped out regardless of scriptural justifications. Fortunately, there is evidence to suggest this is finally starting to happen.
In November 2012, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) announced plans to crack down on the practice, following years of campaigning by various human rights groups and individual campaigners. In November 2013, a comprehensive report entitled 'Tackling Female Genital Mutilation in the UK' was launched in the House of Commons. The report emphasised the importance of treating FGM as child abuse, conducting an awareness campaign and holding frontline health professionals accountable. The London Metropolitan Police made their first arrests for FGM last week when two individuals suspected of performing the practice on a five-week-old girl were detained.
The above outlined developments have raised hopes that FGM is now being taken seriously. We could even witness the first prosecutions for FGM in the UK in the next few months, which could have a deterring effect. However, a culture of secrecy still surrounds the practice and many girls are taken abroad at an early age in order to have FGM performed on them. Therefore, the nature and scale of the problem suggests we could be waiting many more years before the practice is really stamped out in the UK.
In my humble opinion, conducting an awareness campaign is the key to tackling FGM in the UK. We already have brave and articulate voices like Leyla Hussein that could front such campaigns, and a number of anti-FGM lobby groups already exist. However, these awareness campaigns need to tailor their messages so that they resonate with members of hard to reach communities in which FGM is widespread. Such messages need to focus on the negative health effects and challenge some of the myths and superstitions that drive the practice.
Ghaffar Hussain is head of research at Quilliam, a counter-extremism think tank. Visit the website for more info.