Posted: Monday 16th May 2016
If someone told me one day I’d appear on the national news announcing loudly that we need to ‘liberate the genitals’ I’d have laughed them out of the room. Until I was about 19, I couldn’t say “bra” without having to have a lie down in a dark room afterwards.
Yet last week saw me inviting the British people to do just that. In many respects, the Channel 4 interview was a call to arms to urge the public and professionals to treat FGM in the same way as all other forms of child abuse.
Simply put, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) involves the cutting of female genitals to take away pleasurable sensation and the mistaken belief that it’ll be more hygienic. In some communities, the vagina is stitched up to prevent penetration.
200 million women and girls are living with the effects globally and those figures don’t begin to take account of the very significant number who have died as a result of FGM.
There’s only one reason FGM is performed and that’s to control women. In cultures where it’s practiced, uncut women are regarded as unsuitable for marriage because their sexual ‘purity’ is uncertain. Paradoxically, although it’s patriarchy that allows this horror to persist, FGM is perpetrated by mothers, grandmothers, aunts and other females - women who’d normally offer comfort and refuge to that child.
Women live with the consequences of FGM every day and nonetheless bestow this debilitating legacy upon their daughters.
And therein lays one of the major challenges we face in eradicating FGM: the role of parents in arranging it. More often than not, girls who are cut come from loving families where parenting is otherwise appropriate.
Understandably girls who’ve had this done to them rarely speak out because of the likely consequences for their parents. This adds to the complexity of FGM investigations, but this shouldn’t be considered as fatal to achieving successful safeguarding and prosecutions.
Our success at solving homicides proves evidence can be secured without requiring the victim’s testimony. We need to apply the same principles in tackling FGM.
We’re now entering the summer ‘cutting season’ where girls are at a greater risk of FGM, through being taken out of school for extended periods and returned to countries where it’s carried out.
The healing time required for certain types of FGM means they’ll need a long time for the physical wounds to heal. The physical and psychological health consequences are unlikely to ever go.
From mid-May until the end of the summer term, our FGM referrals are likely to rise significantly. This has been the pattern for the last five years and reflects the growing public awareness of FGM. These may well come from schools when parents apply for extended holidays. When this happens, we have a joint response with social care, intended to be supportive to parents and children, while being very clear about the law.
In many cases, the visit may satisfy the FGM concerns and the travel plans will be allowed to continue. In other cases, there will be risk factors that cannot be reconciled and we may need to apply for more formal protection measures.
This is the first year FGM Protection Orders have been fully available. Avon and Somerset Police has already had a number of successes with these orders. While they are relatively new, which can be daunting, help and advice is available.
These orders and other partnership interventions protect girls from being cut in the first place and that should always be our priority.
There are always going to be complexities in proving these cases and a successful prosecution has yet to be secured anywhere in the country.
In an FGM investigation, every line of enquiry must be identified, exhausted, revisited and exhausted again if there’s to be any hope of gathering sufficient evidence to prove the offence.
FGM is a hidden issue. Even in the communities where it happens habitually, it’s not discussed openly. However, as awareness develops and attitudes change, there are as yet untapped opportunities to build relationships and develop intelligence.
This summer, your intervention or response to intelligence may prove critical in protecting a girl from the horror of FGM."
DCI Leanne Pook
Avon and Somerset Police Lead for response to FGM
*This blog was written for Avon and Somerset police officers and staff but has been shared more widely to mark the launch of the summer FGM campaign