By Vanessa Diakides, Schools Programme Coordinator
‘If a girl is not cut she’ll grow up to be a slut’: FGM victim reveals horror of mother having her circumcised as a BABY so she wouldn’t bring shame on her family” Headline, Daily Mail, 9thApril 2015
“‘I hope you die painfully’: vile abuse aimed at anti-FGM women” Headline, Evening Standard, 14th November 2013
“David Cameron orders crackdown on summer surge of FGM cases” Headline, Guardian, 13thJune 2015
Over the past few years media attention on female genital mutilation (FGM) has increased dramatically. From a subject that most people would have struggled to define, many members of the general public are aware of and concerned about ending the practice. Government attention and public awareness has reflected this and the number of organisations working to end FGM has increased dramatically. This, of course, can only be good news in the campaign to end this human rights abuse. However, as attention to FGM grows, and often the sensationalisation of the subject with it, and as more people become involved we must remember the girls and women at the heart of this campaign and ask ourselves: Are we really talking about FGM to the right people?
Estimates show that up to 60,000 girls under the age of 14 are at risk of FGM, and with the average age for girls to undergo FGM between 5 to 8 years old, we know that young people are disproportionately at risk of FGM. Our experience shows that women and girls who have undergone FGM in the UK often go their entire lives without speaking about their experiences. FGM, as with most issues relating to female sexuality, is a taboo subject among practising communities and girls are reluctant to speak out among family, let alone with people outside the community. This is sometimes due to embarrassment, the fear of getting their families in trouble, or the fear of being misunderstood, judged or mocked. Lacking a safe space to talk means young people have nowhere to go to ask for help, or ask questions, find out about support available, or just have their experiences acknowledged. One of the gravest consequences of this silence is that the myths and misinformation that often underlie the practice go unexplored and unchallenged, and medical and emotional support available is not accessed.
FORWARD is an African diaspora organisation that has been working to end FGM in the UK, as well as in Europe and Africa, for 30 years. With this experience we are continually aware that keeping women and girls at risk of, or affected by FGM at the heart of the campaign is the key to creating permanent social change. Involving young people, and our Schools Programme in particular, is one of the ways we ensure we are reaching the right people; the girls most in need of information about safeguarding and services available and both the girls and boys that will be able to create change for the future.
Many people are surprised to learn that FGM takes place in the UK and to UK citizens but it is common for girls to be taken to their countries of origin to undergo the procedure. Due to the often long healing period, summer and other school holidays are a particularly high risk time when girls might be taken abroad to undergo FGM.
Schools with well trained staff, a good relationship with pupils, their parents and the wider community, and a proactive response to the issue of FGM are best placed to safeguard girls at risk.
Our Schools Programme grew organically from our Youth Programme, through which we had been working with young people on the issue on FGM for years. Ever increasing demand from schools eventually necessitated the development of a specific programme and specialist services. Schools themselves were identifying the need for FGM engagement and often felt unprepared and uncertain of how to begin.
Our Schools Programme has three main aims:
- Helping schools to create a safe, supportive and open environment
- Equipping teachers with the knowledge to better respond to FGM
- Raising awareness of FGM with students and empowering them to be involved in ending FGM
We know that young people are more likely to talk and listen to each other, so we build on this by equipping young people with the information and skills necessary to provide peer support and create change.
Schools are increasingly expected to be experts in a lot of topics, from drugs to cyber bullying, but without formal or mandatory training on FGM for all staff it can be difficult to know where to begin with such a complex, and often unfamiliar, issue such as FGM.
FORWARD’s engagement with students is youth friendly, sensitive and safe. Awareness raising should focus on challenging the social norms and beliefs that fuel the practice. Young people should understand why FGM is being discussed and be able to place FGM in the wider context of violence against women and girls and human rights. Our experience has shown that when young people are fully engaged and understand the issue they are keen to take action, advocate within their local communities and play an important role in the FGM campaign.
But everyone in a school must be on board. From governors, teachers assistants and even dinner ladies, we encourage all education professionals to receive training so they know who they can speak to if they are worried about a student or how to respond if a student approaches them.
Responses from teachers who have received training from FORWARD shows how much staff can gain from a session on FGM: “The staff in our school were saying at lunchtime today that they learnt so much and loved how calm, non-judgemental and matter of fact you were. It was very helpful. I know that the staff feel much better informed and am confident that this will serve us well in our everyday practice, and the safeguarding of our students”. Students also come out of FGM awareness sessions feeling genuinely empowered and motivated to take action, from secondary school students “If I meet people I will advise them not to do it and give them the right information about where to go if they need support and help” to primary school pupils “It was very interesting you were talking about things I didn’t know yet, like if there is a violent event with families, tell someone. Now I know what to do if FGM occurs to a friend”.
We believe that reaching young people, and those working with them is fundamental to ending FGM and their contribution to the campaign is invaluable.
Empowered with knowledge and understanding, schools can make links outwards and act as catalyst in their wider community. Strategic schools work should expand beyond the classroom and engage communities, health, support services and local government. School and youth involvement in the campaign to end FGM supports the belief that FGM is everybody’s business and we must work together to collectively challenge stigma, shift norms, develop policies and pledge commitment and resourcing to end FGM.
For more information about our Schools Programme or to order a Schools Resource Pack (complete with lesson plan, activities, DVD and supplementary information, suitable for year 7+) please email [email protected]