International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation

Monday 6 February marked the International Day of Zero Tolerance of Female Genital Mutilation.

Here Michelle Miller, Chair of the Edinburgh Child Protection Committee, Chief Social Work Officer and Head of Safer and Stronger Communities at the City of Edinburgh Council looks back at what has been going on in Edinburgh and throughout Scotland in the last year to raise awareness.

Female genital mutilation is defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. Its effects can be catastrophic in terms of physical and psychological impact on victims. The procedure is not carried out under surgical conditions, but typically in domestic premises, without anaesthetic, with the victim being forcibly held down by adults, and by use of unhygienic implements such as broken glass, razor blades and knives. The procedure has no health benefits for girls and women and can cause severe bleeding, infection, infertility, complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths. The psychological trauma is severe and long-lasting.

In January 2014, Jenny Marra, MSP, lodged a motion in the Scottish Parliament calling for the Scottish Government’s commitment to fund a scoping exercise to assess the scale of female genital mutilation across Scotland, commit tangible action to tackle female genital mutilation and to protect those women and girls at risk of this violent torture. The motion received cross-party support and Tackling Female Genital Mutilation in Scotland: A Scottish Model of Intervention was published in 2014. The recommendations from this research paved the way for Scotland’s approach to identifying female genital mutilation and tackling it effectively.

Scotland’s National Action Plan to Eradicate Female Genital Mutilation (female genital mutilation) was launched at Glasgow Rape Crisis Centre on the 4 February 2016 by the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Communities and Pensioners’ Rights.

Publication of the Scottish Government multi-agency guidance Responding to Female Genital Mutilation in Scotland is pending, subject to revision of the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014.

Female genital mutilation is not a recent phenomenon, simply because it is relatively recently that we have begun to consider how to tackle it. Research estimates it to have been in existence for around 5000 years. It is a deep-rooted cultural practice, which contrary to popular belief, has no basis whatsoever in any religion. However, it is commonly seen as a rite of passage to adulthood and a prerequisite for marriage. In certain societies, a woman may be denied the right of marriage if they have not been subjected to female genital mutilation. Procedures are mostly carried out on young girls sometime between infancy and age 15, and occasionally on adult women.

The WHO has estimated that over 125 million girls and women alive today have undergone some form of female genital mutilation in the 29 countries in Africa and Middle East where female genital mutilation is concentrated. It is most common in the western, eastern, and north-eastern regions of Africa, in some countries in Asia, and in the Middle East.

Female genital mutilation is a hidden form of abuse, and as such there are no clear figures for its prevalence in Scotland. What we do know, from 2011 census data, is that there were 23,979 people born in one of the 29 countries identified by UNICEF as an ‘female genital mutilation-practising country’, living in Scotland; and that there are communities potentially affected by female genital mutilation living in every Scottish local authority area. Between 2001 and 2012, 2750 girls were born in Scotland to mothers born in a female genital mutilation-practising country.

It is vitally important we understand that not all girls and women from “practising communities” are at risk of female genital mutilation. Initiatives in families, communities and countries of origin are having an impact on shifting attitudes towards the practice.

Female genital mutilation has been unlawful in Scotland since 1985 and legislation was strengthened with the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation (Scotland) Act (2005). Since May 2015, it has been an offence under the Serious Crime Act (2015) for UK nationals, or habitual UK residents, to carry out or facilitate female genital mutilation abroad. There have been no prosecutions or convictions for female genital mutilation in Scotland to date.

In partnership with African Women in Scotland against female genital mutilation, the Edinburgh Child Protection Committee held an event on Saturday 4 February. A ministerial address was given by the Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities, Angela Constance MSP. The event raised awareness about all types of female genital mutilation; it gathered support from concerned political leaders, faith leaders and communities affected by female genital mutilation; and it shared examples of good practice in tackling female genital mutilation from Scotland and abroad.

On Monday 6 February, an event was held in partnership between the Edinburgh Child Protection Committee and Bright Choices. This event targeted practitioners working in Health, Education, Police, Social Services and the Third Sector, who were keen to learn more about female genital mutilation and our approaches to tackling it in Edinburgh.

Edinburgh and the Lothians’ Female Genital Mutilation (female genital mutilation) Protocol will be made available to practitioners in Edinburgh in the coming weeks. This is complemented by the NHS Lothian Single Agency Procedures for the Protection of Girls and Women at Risk from Female Genital Mutilation. Both documents have been developed over a period of 2 years, with extensive consultation and engagement with practitioners, affected communities and survivors of female genital mutilation. The protocol is developed for all services, agencies, organisations and individuals responsible for protecting and promoting the health and welfare of women and girls. It sets out how agencies, individually and together, can protect girls and women, and how to respond appropriately to survivors of female genital mutilation. It specifically covers how to identify whether a girl (including an unborn girl) or young woman may be at risk; how to identify a girl or woman who has undergone female genital mutilation; and how to protect those at risk and support those already affected.

During the last year, we have held training and awareness-raising sessions on forced marriage, honour-based violence and female genital mutilation. Further training will be delivered in 2017-2018, specifically in relation to our inter-agency protocol, to help staff identify and tackle female genital mutilation effectively.

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