A dinner table is not usually the place where you are likely to be confronted by a moral dilemma. A friend of mine had spent some time recounting amusing tales of his colleagues at work. We asked him for more and so he recalled a passing comment from a workmate a few weeks beforehand. The quoted party was described as a ‘lovely guy, very devout’. He had just gone to have his six year old daughter circumcised. The table sat back in an almost unanimous moment of shock as the jovial atmosphere subsided. After a few murmurings, we decided to check that female circumcision was illegal in the United Kingdom. It was not surprising to find that female genital mutilation is classed as child abuse. There was an almost palpable sense of relief around the table. It was as if we had done our bit by confirming its illegality. There was an unspoken consensus that agreed something must be done about it. But not by us of course. Someone else was addressing it. Even though we tried to push it out of our minds, we left the dinner table with a burden that we had not wanted.
My friend had not paused to consider whether female genital mutilation was illegal in the UK. Our heads were flooded with questions that we could no longer hold back. Whose duty is it to report a crime? How far do we draw the line away from issues in the distance before we stop considering them our problem? Should we put the person who mentioned a crime in the difficult position of having to act? Should they report it? Should we? How difficult is it to turn in a friend to the police? How will we step in to protect the next victim? We all knew it should be reported and yet none of us wanted to.
This piece is not looking to kick-start a new campaign against female genital mutilation after it suddenly felt a little closer to home, nor is it intended as a full-frontal attack on the practice. Such back patting from people who can read about problems in a newspaper often does nothing for those who are affected. Rather, this is addressed to people who, like myself, knew of it but never thought they’d come across it. These issues are often uncomfortably close. The question becomes about what people in our position should do. I would argue that it is our responsibility to report FGM or other such issues. If by this and other articles a way can be found to bring FGM to an end, then it is worth the time. This is a difficult topic so clarity and honesty are required to try and navigate a path through it without the conversation descending into a senseless argument. It is worth stating at the outset that I find there to be no justification for FGM at all, be it moral, religious, or some other convoluted reason for this procedure on a young girl. Nevertheless, the path towards eradicating it requires a more careful approach than just that of condemnation.
There can be a certain cynicism when claims about FGM rates come your way. I knew that many young girls and women around the world suffer from having had it performed on them but, like many issues, I had never sought out the figures myself. The rates in the UK are alarmingly high. Plan International UK estimates that 1 case of FGM is reported in England every 109 minutes. 170,000 women and girls are living with the consequences of FGM in the UK and a further 65,000 girls aged 13 and under are at risk of FGM. This is not a distant problem. The NHS categorises four types of FGM: clitoridectomy, excision, infibulation, and other harmful procedures such as piercing, cutting, scraping, or burning the area. It is commonly performed by traditional practitioners, who have no medical training using non-medical tools. There are no health benefits from any form of this procedure. This is unanimously agreed on by medical professionals. Therefore, arguments against FGM should not take on a form of cultural superiority and should rather be wholly concerned with the health of the individual. There is nothing in this piece that I hope conveys a sense of condemning the communities that practice it as barbaric as this achieves very little but animosity. The company at the dinner table knew that one young girl’s health was at stake and, if we didn’t report the practitioner, perhaps more girls would be in danger.
It is often stated that FGM is practised against a girl’s will or with her requiring to be restrained but, as with any issue, there is a required nuance in how we try to understand it. There are numerous tales of girls that have undergone the procedure and then spoken out about how the procedure has negatively impacted their lives. Many would not speak out against those that did it to them, however. This is because FGM is a deeply ingrained cultural practice, often performed by respected members of the community or close family members. How many children would want to send their parents to jail? This gives the practice an emotionally constructed shroud of attachment to the community that means a simple and easy statement of condemnation from those outside does nothing to hasten the decline of this practice. Often, rejecting FGM from within the community bears a high social cost for an individual. Therefore, those outside a community must offer support to those inside who have rejected the practice, suffered from it, or themselves are campaigning against it. Knowing that there are many complexities within a community make reporting instances of FGM from outside, especially when a friend may be part of that community, even more difficult.
However, the law is there to protect and cultural barriers should not prevent people from reporting crimes they know of. Those who are known to carry out the procedure should be prevented and face jail. There has to be robust legal deterrence in place as education in itself will not be enough to prevent FGM in the UK. This should be done while also empowering those within the community to speak out against it knowing they won’t be ostracised rather than as a brutal clampdown that will alienate much of the community we seek to help. Even if the correct answers are on one side of an argument, the best way is the one that seeks to avoid confrontation.
It is too easy for many of us to ignore FGM. I would suggest that first and foremost reason for this is the fact that FGM has never been a part of the cultural history of the UK. Therefore, until the growth in communities who do practice it came about, it has never had to be confronted. The seeming distance of the issue is a real phenomenon, and it is only exacerbated by the failure of integration between communities that mean that it is even easier to avert our gaze to practices such as these that endanger the health of young girls. It also seems fair to suggest that many avoid the topic as they don’t want to seem culturally insensitive. This is an understandable concern but I would suggest a morally unjustifiable one. While we should not alienate communities who engage in practices like FGM, we should not be blind to these practices either. We naturally shy away from these difficult questions but with such an approach no progress can be made. The way forward is one that balances an understanding of different nuances in communities separate from our own and an ethical imperative to ensure that the health of women in the country is not compromised. As I finish writing this piece, my friends and I are in the process of deciding how to report the incident revealed to us at the dinner table. The law should protect and unite, not demonise and divide.