How prevalent is FGM in the UK really?
Last Monday was apparently FGM Awareness Day, and that means there were a lot of FGM stories in the media with vain attempts to interpret figures in a new way to make a story out of them despite their lack of statistical significance. This year it was the ‘news’ that a charity revealed that FGM victims present to the medical services every hour, or rather that a case of FGM was either discovered or needed treatment 8,656 times between April 2015 and March 2016. The BBC headlined this as “FGM victims need medical attention ‘every hour’ says charity”, when in fact the figures do not indicate that at all. The BBC mentions that no successful prosecutions for FGM have ever occurred in the UK, which the Home Affairs Select Committee (a parliamentary committee) has called “a national disgrace” in a report last October, but nobody appears to be considering why this might be the case.
To take the statistics mentioned in last Monday’s reports, the figures state that “there were 8,656 times when women or girls attended doctors’ surgeries or hospitals and the problem was assessed”, according to ITV News, and a new case is recorded on average every 92 minutes. However, this simply means that a woman who has undergone FGM needed any medical treatment and the fact of genital alteration was observed; it did not mean she had a complication specifically arising from FGM. News reports, which all seem to be rewrites of the same press release or wire copy, do not mention what type of medical treatment the women had sought or whether the treatment would have been ramified by the FGM or whether a doctor had asked as a matter of routine (e.g. when a woman or girl registered at a doctor’s practice). A new case being discovered does not mean it happened in the UK, of course; the cutting would have been done years earlier, most likely in the woman’s home country. It is possible that the figures include multiple presentations by the same woman.
As for the lack of any prosecutions in the UK, it is always assumed that there is some sort of conspiracy not to prosecute, the usual claim being that teachers, social workers and other professionals are afraid of being branded racist. I find this difficult to believe in 2017 given that it is a stereotype of Somalis, even though it is found across east and west Africa among Muslims and others, and since 9/11 there has been a barrage of material in the media identifying Muslims as problems, as people who will not integrate, and attacking multiculturalism as the cause of backwardness and terrorism (I know Muslims in the UK who have been asked by NHS staff if they have experienced FGM, despite being western converts not from any of the countries where it is practised). FGM is not a taboo subject; it has been in the news every few months, at least, since the 1980s and has been a staple of discussions about “cultural relativism” for decades. If there is a lack of aggression in reporting suspected cases of FGM, it may well be because it may lead to the break-up of settled families where no other abuse is taking place and the necessity of taking some of the children into care when the care system does not have good outcomes and its places are needed by children whose parents cannot look after them or those who are in further danger. FGM can only be carried out on the same victim once; other forms of abuse can be repeated.
I have always been sceptical that FGM is prevalent in the UK. Rumours abound of girls going on holidays to places like Kenya during the summer break and show signs of FGM afterwards (e.g. always spending a long time in the toilet), but the zero conviction rate is significant. When one considers other forms of abuse, it is widely acknowledged that the conviction rate is a fraction of the total incidence, but nonetheless there is that fraction. There are good reasons why the conviction rate is different; other forms of abuse are carried out for the perpetrator’s gratification, while FGM is thought to be beneficial, at least socially within their cultures; the family members who arranged for it may still be providing for the victims, even paying to put them through university; the children who had been mutilated still love them. However, surely there should be at least a few cases where none of these things is the case, where someone who arranged FGM for their daughter or niece was otherwise abusive, where someone had become estranged from their family and had no difficulty reporting them. Given the large diasporas of people from the regions where FGM is or has been the norm, if there were enough cases of it that were traceable to the UK, surely some cases could have been brought.
Last year, the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) published statistics on the 5,700 newly recorded cases from April 2015 to March 2016. They said that they could identify 43 cases (self-reported) in which the victim was born in the UK, and 18 cases where the cutting took place in the UK, and roughly ten of these consisted of genital piercings rather than cuttings (recording of such things became NHS policy in 2015). Such figures are available for only a minority of the total, but it does not indicate that the instance of FGM among girls born in the UK is that high, and crucially it is not high enough to overcome the impediments to successful prosecutions. People point to other factors indicative of the practice remaining part of people’s cultures, such as women coming to shelters with their daughters or of FGM Prevention Orders being taken out, but even where there was genuine risk of FGM and not mere suspicion (or other motives for seeking the order), it indicates prevention, not actual FGM. Avon and Somerset Police have applied for 10 such orders in the 18 months since they were introduced, in an area with a high Somali population; hardly a sign that all the Somali families are looking into this for their daughters. In one case involving three Nigerian girls served with such an order, the case was ultimately found to be false, motivated by desire to settle in the UK.
It’s significant that a clinic in west London for women who have experienced FGM, offering trauma support and deinfibulation (re-opening of a closed vulva) is being closed as a result of the local council withdrawing funding (local councils have had their funding cut for all services over recent years; pressure on social care is the best-known consequence). FGM is a gift that keeps on giving for politicians; they can use it as a stick to beat immigrants with, persistently exaggerating the incidence and communities’ devotion to it, raising alarming but spurious statistics every few months, while knowing they cannot stop it all because the actions necessary would cause more harm than good, yet they withdraw help from actual victims.
I find the media coverage of FGM thoroughly unsatisfactory also, even in papers like the Guardian. It is prurient, sensationalist, often borderline racist, too willing to believe the worst of the communities involved and impervious to facts that contradict their cultural biases — continuing to claim, for example, that FGM is demanded by men, when all evidence is that it is older women who carry it out, often against the wishes of the girls’ parents; in west Africa, FGM is the ritual for initiation to the “Bondo society” which consists entirely of women; the practices and the societies are generally accepted and openly defended; the western media never contemplate reasons for FGM’s decline other than western influence (e.g. in the case of Muslims, contact with other Muslims from regions where FGM is not practised and never has been), and habitually quote out-of-date statistics which, if still true, would mean that all their campaigning had had no effect. FGM seems to give white liberals a chance to exercise their inner racist, to feel superior, to make assumptions about others they would not otherwise make and adopt a “white man’s burden” attitude that has otherwise gone out of fashion. Until someone brings hard evidence (rather than rumours and hearsay) of British girls being subjected to this on a significant scale, I will continue to treat the scare stories and massaged statistics about FGM in the British media as foreigner-bashing.
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