Something that decisively chose the subject matter of my column this week was the fact that I wondered whether the subject matter itself was passé. “Has this been covered too many times to have an original angle?” I asked myself, before realising that the last thing that mattered about this subject was whether there could be a new angle. The thing that mattered most, in contrast, was that people keep talking about it. That subject is Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
FGM is the partial or total removal of external female genitalia, undertaken for many different reasons by a variety of ethnic groups. Whilst in the mind of the public the practice of FGM is concentrated most in the continent of Africa, it’s also present in many countries across Asia, including the Middle East. ISIS have allegedly released a fatwa requiring the practice in the conquered city of Mosul, and this has hit the headlines only months after a report by City University estimates that as many as one in 20 women in Southwark has undergone the procedure.
So why is this not getting the recognition it deserves? Of course in certain sections of the population there are campaigns, publicity drives and real action, but I can’t comprehend that an imperceptible shake of the head and a trite ‘isn’t it terrible’ is deemed enough amongst others.
The Trust for London has spearheaded an FGM initiative which has located the community level as intrinsic to wiping out the practice in England. It notes that bringing together religious leaders and providing safe spaces for young women are integral steps to dismissing the concept of its religious necessity and empowering young women to understand the damaging patriarchal ideology behind it. Despite this amazing work, FGM is still a very real part of everyday life for diverse groups of women in London and one charity alone is not enough to put a stop. So where are the men in the suits?
The Home Affairs Select Committee’s 2014 report on FGM admits that the limited amount of police investigations into the matter is one problematic aspect of securing prosecution, mentioning that the blank face communities present when faced with outside authority means it’s hard to collect evidence. Referring to ‘deeply embedded social norms’, the report also emphasises fostering networks between the communities involved and wider society. If this is perceived by different research as the most important factor, it seems like the work being done is too little, too late.
Breaking down the barrier between the predominantly ethnic minority communities involved in the practice and the primarily white public services employed to help is the first step to making it more accessible for victims to receive support. To make sure the girls affected are aware of their rights and the criminal status of the practice is also important – being well informed is half the battle.
The debate at the heart of the issue though: why does the multicultural challenge seem to lock such procedures in place, rather than ensuring that people from different cultural backgrounds can learn from each other? The multiculturalist challenge is trickle-down as well as bottom-up, and until the people with the most power take the matter as seriously as it deserves, it’ll be a harder and harder job for the people with the smallest torches to shine a light into the darkest corners.