Petition victory marks real hope for FGM eradication

Young people working with the charity Integrate Bristol are hitting the headlines for their groundbreaking campaign against female genital mutilation

Very little has been done about the ancient practice of female circumcision – known as female genital mutilation (FGM) – for a very long time.

Theoretically it is illegal in many of the countries where it is most often practiced, including Somalia and Egypt, and FGM was officially criminalised by UK law in 1985. But the legislation lay dormant and to date not a single person has been prosecuted for an FGM offence (although the first trial began earlier this month after two individuals including a London doctor were accused of carrying out FGM on a woman who had recently given birth).

As a deterrent the law has been wildly unsuccessful: since 2011 over 3,000 women have been treated in British hospitals following genital mutilation. Evidence suggests 24,000 girls under 15 are at risk, and that there are around 66,000 victims of FGM in the UK.

These statistics come from the Guardian, which is backing a campaign led by 17-year-old Fahma Mohamed, a trustee of the charity Integrate Bristol. Somali-born Mohamed urged Michael Gove, the secretary of state for education, to write to every school in the country requesting that they teach students about FGM before the summer holidays. In FGM-affected communities, this period is chillingly known as the ‘cutting season’: girls are cut at home or abroad, their absence thus unnoticed by teachers, with the long break from school supposedly allowing time for recovery. Whether girls can wholly recover from the psychological and physical scars is another question.

Mohamed’s petition on launched on 6 February and is one of the site’s most successful. It now has over 234,300 signatures.

Politicians pay attention to numbers like that, and the Scottish government quickly took up Mohamed’s request. The campaign was also supported by police crime commissioners, the Royal College of General Practitioners and UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon. The UK Department for Education seemed a little more reticent.

“I have a question for Michael Gove,” Mohamed told the Guardian. “Is he scared of me? I’m just a student who is passionate about this, and apparently he just wants to ignore this issue and hope it will go away.”

“This is a such a huge step to helping us eradicate FGM forever”

She was eventually granted an audience with Gove, and on 25 February, after praising her “fantastic work” and “inspirational campaign,” Gove pledged his support to doing “everything we can to end [FGM].” He will now write to all primary and secondary schools in the UK, urging them to implement FGM education before the summer holidays, and remind them of their responsibility to protect young people. Gove also agreed to visit Mohamed’s school, the City Academy in Bristol, one of only two with an FGM-awareness project, to find out how FGM can be taught age-appropriately.

“This is a such a huge step to helping us eradicate FGM forever,” wrote a delighted Mohamed.

But the campaigners do not consider their work finished. Nimco Ali, co-founder of FGM charity Daughters of Eve, who was also present at the meeting with Gove, told the Guardian that “Mr Gove is a bit late to the party … Now he needs to get on the dance floor.”

These passionate students from Bristol are a creative, taboo-busting force. In 2011, a group of 27 female students made Silent Scream, a 10-minute documentary-drama about a family affected by FGM. Since then there’s been a radio drama, a play and many songs written on the topic, as well as the national FGM conference.

“We could break the cycle so the next generation is safe,” stated Mohamed’s petition. The campaigners believe that education is stronger than the Crown Prosecution Service or police force, which have struggled to deter the practice or bring justice to girls who have suffered. Rather than failing to chase cutting out of communities with threats, they believe tradition must change itself.

Experiments in Kenya show this is possible. Projects led by Maasai women aim to end cutting by displacing its role in coming-of-age rituals and by providing alternatives that respect other traditional cultural practices.

If you tell a community to change a way of life commonplace for centuries, will they? Unlikely. But if compelling voices speak up from within that community, it’s different. And teaching young people that FGM is harmful before they have their own children is far more likely to stop the practice in the UK in the long term. Mohamed and her colleagues have their sights firmly set on the future. “I really think change is going to happen!” she tweeted.