Cllr Mohammed Seedat, Cabinet Member for Jobs, Skills and Community Safety (job-share)
What is FGM?
FGM, also known as female circumcision and female cutting, is a ritual procedure where a women’s genitalia is ‘cut’ – with some or all external genitalia removed with a blade – for non-medical reasons. FGM is recognised internationally as a violation of a woman’s rights but even then UNICEF estimate 200 million women worldwide have had this procedure done to them.
FGM is most prevalent in African countries such as Egypt and Somalia (where over 90% of women are cut), some Middle Eastern countries and Indonesia. London and especially Lambeth has large diaspora communities hailing from countries where FGM is common and as a result the practice was criminalised in the UK in 1985 and the law strengthened to prevent girls being taken abroad for circumcision in 2003.
Why does FGM happen?
In many countries where FGM is an accepted norm, a women’s status within her community is affected by whether or not she has been circumcised. Although it is often women that carry out the procedure and enforce it as a social practice, the reality of FGM is that it’s done to women for status in the eyes of men – fathers and future husbands. Therefore, FGM is considered a form of violence against women and girls.
How bad is the problem in Lambeth?
Although primarily concentrated in 30 countries in Africa and the Middle East, 6415 women were reported to have had their genitals mutilated in England in 2018/19, 44% of them being women from London, and 5% of those women being from Lambeth.
The scars they carry are more than skin deep, with a lifetime of trauma and medical problems not uncommon. In some cases, the ‘cutting’ procedure results in death.
FGM is a man problem
FGM, like forced marriages is for the benefit of men, with women involved in enforcing what are considered social norms, but not necessarily being the beneficiaries. Violence against women and girls (VAWG) is one of the major humanitarian challenges of our time, akin to climate change and global security.
Even in a developed country like the UK, the number of women who suffer violence is huge, with over 5000 instances of domestic violence being reported in Lambeth in 2018/19. Every year over 1500 women are helped by the council’s award-winning Gaia Centre, without which many women may have been left at the mercy of abusive partners, who are nearly always men.
VAWG is a man problem – and it’s about power. About how men derive pride, self-esteem and strength from depriving women of theirs. In Lambeth, we are supporting interventions that focus on men and young boys to help them re-evaluate their conception of ‘manliness’. Programs such as “Becoming a Man” will work with young men in Lambeth to support boys in a positive fashion, rather than being led in dubious pathways by postcode-gangs. The amazing ‘Advocacy Academy’ is a Lambeth based program that inspires and builds confidence in future leaders.
At recent discussion with the #ICFree campaign team from the Advocacy Academy, we discussed at length the difficulties young men face in having to live up to stereotypes of manliness – being assertive towards women, in total control of all situations and even walking or talking in a particular pay so as to not invite accusations of being effeminate or gay. The repercussions on young men sometimes resulted in negative behaviour at school which may then lead to exclusion. At heart of our discussion was the idea of manliness and expected behaviours especially towards women.
In Lambeth, we have studied at length the link between violence against women and girls and violence affecting young people. Challenging FGM therefore forms a core part of our general violence reduction work.
Perhaps if more men were to consider violence against women and girls as one of our biggest challenges, then there would be more money available for dedicated services to help women and a system that supports rather than hinders women and children when they flee abuse. Councils have to bid for time-limited grants meaning creating sustained women’s services must compete with other statutory council priorities like social care.
Most decision makers are still men and having services like the fantastic Gaia Centre we have in Lambeth is not a statutory requirement, which means that women facing abuse are at the mercy of a postcode lottery. If we are to make headway in reducing violence outright, but specifically VAWG, the support system for women’s services needs funding and priority by government.
If we have any hope of reducing violence against women and girls in the future, changing entrenched cultural and societal practices starts with dads and husbands challenging their peers. Convictions for FGM are almost non-existent because daughters do not wish to send their own parents to jail and siblings into care. That is why working with communities is so important – cultures can and will change over time but requires trust between communities and authorities.
To eradicate FGM, we have to start with fathers, who feel no shame in saying their daughter should enjoy all of life’s pleasures. And male imams, pastors and community leaders who can say the name of female genitalia without considering it taboo. Perhaps then women will no longer have to face the terror of being cut.