Updated: Feb 5, 2019
This article was originally published on Imkann
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is defined as the partial or total removal of the external parts of the female genitalia for non-medical reasons. In the UK, the fight to end the practice has been ongoing for many decades, and FGM has been illegal since 1985.
As activists that fight against FGM, we often get asked why we are fighting this practice in the UK, when the ‘real’ thing is happening ‘somewhere else’. This is where people usually get it wrong. I tell them: when British people go to live in Spain or France, we move with the same mindset and behaviours. Once we arrive in a country our thoughts and beliefs don’t change automatically. In the same way, girls who came from places where FGM is more openly practiced, don’t automatically find themselves in a different family and community context when they move to the UK. Once we understand that, we can start to understand the need for FGM activism in the UK.
Of course, FGM is more complex than a practice that happens in certain ‘cultures’ and ‘communities’. Patriarchy manifests itself in different forms all around the world, and FGM is one of the ways women and girls are controlled by men. Therefore, FGM is primarily about violence committed against women and girls, specifically because they are women.
FGM activism in the UK is growing every year. Many more people know about FGM today than they did just five years ago, thanks to the hard work of activists. One woman who came to the UK and studied FGM is Comfort Momoah. Comfort has recently retired from her work as a specialist FGM midwife and is the driving force of many FGM campaigns both here in the UK and abroad. Using her expertise in supporting survivors of FGM, in 1997 she established the African Well Woman’s Clinic at Guy’s Hospital, offering support, information and surgical reversal of FGM. She has also helped to set up similar clinics across the UK and has run a course to train others in FGM reversals.
Another brilliant UK-based activist is Leyla Hussein, who runs Dahlia Projectwhich she set up in 2013: it is the only counselling service for FGM survivors in the EU. Her Channel 4 documentary “The Cruel Cut” which explored FGM in the UK was nominated for a Bafta in 2014. This documentary was one of the motivating forces behind my own involvement in FGM activism.
Of course, there is backlash and resistance towards any activism which threatens the status quo. One example of this, which is particularly significant to me is an article published in The Economist in June 2016. It read:
‘Instead of trying to stamp FGM out entirely, governments should ban the worst forms, permit those that cause no long-lasting harm and try to persuade parents to choose the least nasty version or none at all.’
For me, this article not only fuelled my motivation to keep on fighting against FGM, but it has also showed me that there is still so much work to be done. It is so critical to obtain a broad understanding amongst both the general public and key stakeholders who have the power to change policy that abuse in any form, no matter how small it may seem, is still abuse. In the same way, no matter what type of FGM is being performed, however ‘small’ the injury might seem, the motivation behind it is still the same, and it is still an act of violence.
As activists, we have seen progress towards ending FGM since 1985, but when we are fighting an issue that prominent figures think is ‘foreign’ and happens ‘somewhere else,’ we fight with an awareness that it is going to take time. I am motivated by the objectives of the Global Goals and I hope to see FGM end by 2030. However, for that to happen as a society we need to have a better understanding of FGM is, and how it fits in to a spectrum of abuse committed against women and girls because of our position of gender inequality. FGM is an ancient practice of violence in a modern world and we have to treat it as a form of abuse, wherever we are fighting it.