The Fabian Women’s Network, which celebrates its 10 year anniversary this year, has been at the forefront of the campaign for women’s power, rights and equality. We have come a long way – but there is still much to do.
For example, we shouldn’t forget the challenges we are still facing in the UK to tackle female genital mutilation (FGM), which has been illegal in the UK for 30 years under the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985. The Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 makes it a criminal offence to take a child out of the UK for the purposes of FGM abroad and carries a punishable sentence of 14 years. Despite this legislation in the UK, not a single person has been successfully convicted for carrying out FGM.
Gone are the days that people refer to FGM as ‘Female Circumcision’, which was how it was referred to when I first became aware of it as a student studying for my masters in International Law and International Relations. I remember trying to have discussions about this practice, with some of my peers who felt quite uncomfortable discussing it. I also remember that there was little knowledge or discussion about this practice publicly. However, in the past year FGM has become a popular topic of discussion. I personally believe that Fahma Mohamed’s petition which was backed by The Guardian, helped raise the visibility of this issue. The petition demanded former education secretary Michael Gove write to every school in the country to urge them to safeguard girls from FGM. The petition attracted over 150,000 signatures and I remember the petition doing the rounds amongst my friends, work colleagues and social media.
Last March saw the UK’s first two prosecutions over FGM which were announced by the Crown Prosecution Service. This was seen as a positive step towards making a stand against FGM. However, last Wednesday a doctor who stood trial for performing FGM on a woman who had given birth to a child in the Whittington hospital in London was acquitted, in a widely criticised trial that critics argued should not have been brought to court. It emerged at the trial that the doctor had been given no training on FGM, either as a medical student or a postgraduate, or in his supervised training as a junior registrar. Following the trial Medical professionals will be asked to note on a child’s record if they are at risk of FGM. This is a positive step and I recall Naana Otoo-Oyortey MBE, the Executive Director of FORWARD (Foundation for Women’s Health Research and Development) suggesting that this should be done when she spoke at the event I organised on behalf of the Fabian Women’s Network last April. This new national system will ensure that data, including details of a family’s origin, will now be gathered from acute trusts, mental health trusts and GPs. This is seen as a push to improve the NHS response to FGM. The new system will start in September 2015 and will see data be published quarterly and annually by the Health and Social Care Information Centre.
Despite the slow progress in taking these cases to court – with the Met stating that 17 cases have been put forward to the CPS. Only one was taken to trial and was acquitted; four other cases are under review. A woman travelling with an eight-year-old girl was arrested at Heathrow on Friday over alleged conspiracy to commit female genital mutilation (FGM). This follows the police officers carrying out an FGM awareness operation alongside officers from the UK Border Force.
There has been a push for health care professionals, local authorities and teachers to play a greater role in reporting FGM. Much of this progress has been down to really active anti-FGM campaigners, some of whom have been FGM survivors such as Leyla Hussein and Alimatu Dimonekene. Just last week Donate the Dress was launched to raise funds for the FGM charity, Desert Flower Foundation to support them in their aim to open the UK’s first FGM Support Centre.
The government has adopted a tough approach and announced late last year details of its new FGM Unit, which will help to deliver training workshops and roadshows, work with police to improve the identification of offenders and act as a hub to identify and share best practice. The only way FGM can become history, is if we have a discussion as to why it’s practiced and that means engaging with communities that practice it. Prosecution is not the only way forward. Community engagement goes hand in hand with it.
Abena Oppong-Asare is a Councillor in Bexley, the Deputy Leader of the Labour Group, Shadow Cabinet Member for Education and Policy, Research and Stakeholder Co-ordinator of the Fabian Women’s Network
The Fabian Women’s Network celebrate their tenth anniversary on Tuesday, 10 February 2015 from 18:00 to 20:30 at Royal Society of Chemistry, London W1J 0BA. For more information click here