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The impact of FGM safeguarding guidelines on Somali women living in Wales

Welsh government’s safeguarding guidelines around female genital mutilation are being accused of targeting Somali women and FGM survivors

Women who had FGM as children are facing renewed trauma because safeguarding guidelines force them to tell their doctor

Awoman who has experienced first-hand the invasive procedure of female genital mutilation (FGM) would never dream of inflicting that pain on anyone, let alone her own child.

However, safeguarding guidelines in Wales state that because she is a survivor of FGM, her child is automatically considered at risk and can be referred to social services.

In Welsh government’s latest policy report on violence against women, it said the pandemic had exacerbated the risk of domestic and sexual abuse for many people and as FGM is classed as gender-based violence, it is also considered to be on the rise because of lockdown conditions.
Due to these concerns, in September, Welsh government circulated a fact sheet for teachers containing warning signs that indicate when a child is at risk of FGM.
But what is not included in these conversations is how government-issued safeguarding guidelines and ‘warning signs’ cause harm to communities they say they are trying to protect.


Do the numbers lie?

The most recent statistics on FGM in Wales tell us that in 2018 Cardiff and the Vale Health Board had the most “newly recorded cases” with 271 and that FGM is most prevalent in the Somali community.
But charities such as Hidden Voices UK, who have a branch in Cardiff and work with FGM survivors, say these statistics are not only out of date but are misleading because FGM is no longer practiced in that community.

Zainab Nur, co-founder and manager of the branch, said the statistics included older women who had FGM when they were children and therefore, the “newly recorded” cases were actually historical cases that did not take place in Wales.
“There is a generation of girls who never had FGM because we made changes to prevent it,” she said, “it’s a diminished practice.”

Cardiff Women’s Aid has also said any new referrals it gets for FGM are usually older women who had it years ago and are dealing with the after affects.
However, Zainab regularly deals with cases where innocent Somali women are referred to social services based on what she believes are discriminatory safeguarding guidelines.


Hidden Voices UK’s latest video discusses the impact of FGM laws on African communities
Treated like criminals

Two guidelines are being disputed.
The first states if a parent or relative plans to take a child out of the country or if a child talks about visiting their family’s country of origin where FGM is historically practiced, they are considered at risk.
The other is if a woman had FGM in the past, her child is also considered at risk, and in both cases, the family may be investigated.

You would never ask somebody if they had been sexually abused and assume that would happen to their child just because it happened to them

Zainab Nur

The guidelines are accused of targeting the Somali community and demonising survivors of FGM for something that happened to them as non-consenting children.
“These women have been traumatised,” Zainab said, “you would never ask somebody if they had been sexually abused and assume that would happen to their child just because it happened to them.”

Alt Cardiff

 

Hidden Voices UK argue the voices of Somali families and FGM survivors are being ignored in this debate

Another young Somali woman living in Cardiff, who we are calling Sana, said she had a negative experience with safeguarding guidelines in her own family.

Sana’s relatives told their doctor about plans to take their children on holiday to Somali Land to visit family, and it resulted in an investigation by social services.

“It was a casual conversation, but the trigger words were ‘I’m going back home,’” she said, “that’s all it took for suspicions to be raised.”

Doctors are obliged by law to report anything that may be considered a risk indicator, but Sana said these indicators need updating if women are being placed under suspicion with no credible evidence other than the fact their family is from a particular country.

The guidelines in question are published by Wales Safeguarding Procedures but, they are a product of a 2011 report by the All-Wales Child Protection Procedures Review Group, a board of healthcare professionals that both Sana and Zainab believe do not represent their community.

If the approach stigmatises some when it’s trying to protect others, then is it really operating in the right way?

sana

Welsh government says there are steps to reduce inappropriate reporting with statutory guidance on how social services should respond to reports that a child is at risk of FGM.

This guidance also states any risk factors must be considered in the wider context and not seen as evidence that FGM has taken or will take place.

Waste of resources

Bawso, an FGM charity that works closely with Welsh government, advises in its resource pack that although professionals should be sensitive to issues of culture and race they should not let fears of being branded ‘racist’ or ‘discriminatory’ weaken the protection required by vulnerable girls.

However, despite all these efforts, Zainab said inappropriate reporting is still taking place and is wasting social services’ time and money.

Sana agreed and said, “I want to stop FGM, and I would be the first person to report a case if I saw it. But, if this approach stigmatises some when it’s trying to protect others, then is it really operating in the right way?”

 

There are fears the resources of social services are being wasted on dead end referrals which are preventing new FGM survivors from getting help

Women who have experienced the pain of FGM understand it better than anyone and would be the first to say it should be stopped. But the guidelines tell them they are not trusted with their own children because they were violated when they were their age and because their family is from a particular country.
One of the most important things to understand here is all parties have the common goal of ending FGM, but this is not going to happen if the voices of survivors and the affected community continue to be ignored.

 


The law surrounding FGM

Female genital mutilation became a criminal offence in the UK in 1985 with the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act.

This was replaced in 2003 with the Female Genital Mutilation Act which stated it was also an offence to take a child abroad for FGM and the maximum penalty increased from five to 14 years of imprisonment.

Nobody was convicted of FGM until 2019.

The impact of anti-FGM laws on African communities in the UK

Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, it was known that there were early settlements of African communities in port cities in Britain.
Some of these early migrants attempted to maintain their heritage. Many maintain links with their families and with their homeland, through adherence to cultural traditions. For some female as well as male circumcision were among the customs that was continued to practice, even though they settled in western countries.

Female circumcision first became a criminal offence in the UK in 1985, with the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985. This was replaced everywhere except in Scotland by the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003, which modernised the offence of FGM, including assisting a girl to carry out FGM on herself. It also created an extra-territorial offence to deter people from taking girls abroad for FGM, and increased the maximum penalty for FGM offences from 5 to 14 years’ imprisonment. Nobody was convicted of FGM until 2019.

From 2010 onwards high profile campaigns led by activists, professionals, charities, and community organisations, supported by politicians, made FGM a household issue. They claimed there was an epidemic of FGM in the UK, with the practice happening in secret under our noses, or overseas during the school holidays. The very few cases seen were described as the ‘tip of the iceberg’. There was no evidence of more, but certain activists and campaigners, many from the African diaspora, promoted these myths and were believed, supported by an unquestioning media that thrives on sensationalism.

Another piece of legislation, the Serious Crime Bill 2015, was passed as a result. It created an FGM Mandatory Reporting Duty, which required specified regulated professionals (health, social care and education predominantly) in England and Wales to report known cases of FGM in girls under 18 years old directly to the police. FGM Protection Orders were also elaborated to protect potential or actual victims of FGM. These could involve restrictions like surrendering passports and not being allowed to travel abroad with their children. They caused huge upset and inconvenience when imposed, often by overly zealous professionals with little or no evidence of risk.

Do these laws protect children? There is no evidence to suggest they do. They have not been reviewed or evaluated and there are no data on the number of children actually protected by them nor reasons documented as to why safeguarding was considered necessary. Many affected African families believe they were targeted only because they come from traditionally practising communities, despite them no longer practising or supporting FGM themselves.

I was one of the first campaigners to support the FGM law. However, since then, as a social worker, I have learnt from African communities who shared their stories that instead of being supported, they feel targeted and racially profiled, based on what are in reality discriminatory FGM safeguarding policies. These policies have been developed into safeguarding measures, with the implementation of discriminatory risk indicators.

Unfortunately, what has transpired is that hundreds of families have been unfairly targeted by professionals, leading to inappropriate police investigations, care proceedings, and children placed on FGM Protection Orders. Thus, the FGM laws have greatly affecting so many in our communities, especially those who have no assistance to fight a system that has accused them unjustly.

In 2018, I encouraged several women to share their stories in a BBC Wales news feature in June 2018. One young mother that disclosed that she was circumcised as a young child in Africa, while living under the care of her maternal grandmother, was subject to care proceedings as she was considered a risk to the baby girl that she just gave birth to.

More recently, in January this year, a family in Slough was featured on the Victoria Derbyshire Show, as all their five children were taken into care, as they disclosed that they were emigrating to Africa. We gave examples of women who were being referred to safeguarding only because the mother had FGM as a child and her children were falsely considered to be ‘at risk’ of FGM automatically, if FGM is still prevalent in her country of origin. 

FGM training by local authorities and the NHS also teaches staff that a major risk indicator includes women who disclose that they had FGM as children in their country of origin – as all being likely to have their daughters cut. Thus, migrant African women who have had circumcision are being victimised for something that happened to them as children even when they have no wish or intention to maintain that tradition.

When accessing health services like antenatal, gynaecology or paediatric, patients are asked whether they have had FGM. Women are surprised at being asked such a personal question so insensitively. But they answer truthfully because they do not want to lie to the authorities. They do not anticipate the consequences of telling the truth, i.e. the risk of their daughters being removed. This is highly traumatic. If the child is removed, it is a major fight to get them back, often requiring the help of legal experts and advocates over many months.

The woman’s response is recorded in her antenatal notes and in her child’s health record. In England, it should also be centralised to NHS Digital. Although this does not always happen, it is sometimes done without the women’s knowledge or permission. This is a violation of confidentiality. Women have stopped seeking other healthcare that they need as a consequence, which is not an outcome anyone should accept.

The data are published in quarterly and annual NHS reports. But the number of FGM cases reported are regularly misrepresented as “new cases” when in fact they are mostly historical. Children with FGM accessing services also have this data recorded, but most of these cases are also historical. The few new cases reported are genital piercings in white, pregnant teenagers, recorded only because this is also classified as FGM under the law and “discovered” during antenatal care. Nobody seems to want to question this.

In fact, only a small number of migrant African women living in the UK seek healthcare specifically for problems with FGM, which often occur when they marry or are trying to get pregnant, while the FGM itself took place when they were children.

Another important issue is the inaccurate FGM data that are constantly being reported in the mainstream media, based on a misunderstanding of what has been recorded. These data imply that there are a large number of girls in the UK being cut, in the UK. This false information has been circulated at FGM safeguarding and training events as well as in the media by certain anti-FGM activists and educators. 

Before the reporting system was initiated in 2015, a City University report by Professor of Perinatal Health, Alison Macfarlane and anti-FGM advocate Efua Dorkenoo, had estimated that in 2011 approximately 137,000 women living in England and Wales, born in countries where FGM was practised, had undergone FGM as children in their home countries. The authors were not able to estimate the numbers of women and girls born in England and Wales who had undergone FGM, nor could they assess the numbers ‘at risk’ of FGM. Their work made it clear that it is important not to assume that these women’s daughters were or are at risk, as many families have given up FGM on migration and attitudes have changed substantially. This fact has been lost in the past five years, during which the pursuit of those who may cut their daughters has grown out of all proportion to the numbers of children actually at risk.

In conclusion, it is wrong to assume that everyone who is of African origin, who came to the UK as a child from a country where FGM is or was prevalent, still supports FGM. In fact, most women of African descent have said the opposite, especially young women who have been born in the UK, who say they would never let it happen to themselves or their children. Much has changed in the last 20 years in this regard. Racial profiling is a form of discrimination; it is against the law and must stop. The training of those responsible for safeguarding children from all kinds of abuse must also change as a result. The mainstream media have been given false information; they need to question it. FGM is certainly still a problem in a number of other countries, but exaggeration of the problem helps no one and causes harm.

I have worked with communities and advocates on this issue across the UK. I have not heard of any cases of children who have been cut in the UK, and we believe that if cases exist they are rare. A growing number of people who oppose FGM, as I do, agree with me.

WATCH THE DISCUSSION: Moderator: Muna Mona Ibrahim. Speakers: Zainab Nur and Olly Roti
Imprisoned for the crime of being an African woman

The Shifting Sands piece (Injustice arising from pursuit of FGM prosecutions-UK), and Marge Berer’s excellent blog (Prosecution of FGM in the UK: Injustice at the intersection of good public health intentions and the criminal law) discussing in detail the 2019 FGM prosecution and conviction, invite various observations.

Although written in restrained language, Berer’s is a well-reasoned but damning indictment of a trial which has every appearance of being a gross miscarriage of justice caused by ignorance and apparent bias affecting all of the main participants. This view is corroborated by others who attended the trial at London’s Central Criminal Court (Old Bailey).

The context is a societal background of universal brainwashing by the anti-FGM ‘industry’, reciting a narrative constructed in the 1970’s through the blinkered cultural perspective of white, radical feminists. This narrative is exaggerated, largely untrue, and almost irrelevant to the situation in the UK today, yet it continues to be recited verbatim by the mainstream media and accepted uncritically by politicians, state agencies and charities.

This has led to a criminal law which is racist, sexist, hypocritical and intrusive, and a political ‘crusade’ in the form of a frenzied ‘witch-hunt’ to obtain the first conviction for FGM. This has caused enormous social damage to innocent families and their communities. In this case it has destroyed a family and inflicted social harm on both children far greater than any possible consequence of the alleged crime.

Successful proof of a crime normally requires clear evidence of a motive, a ‘weapon’ and an opportunity.  All three of these elements were conspicuously absent in this case.

The Prosecution, presumably desperate to obtain a conviction to justify the political crusade, was highly aggressive and, unable to present specific evidence, resorted to culturally and racially biased character-assassination of the defendant. The Defence appears to have been ineffective, and arguably negligent in not lodging an appeal.

Two young children (a three year-old girl and an eight year-old boy) were repeatedly interrogated over a long period until they finally changed their stories to align with what their interrogators wanted to hear. The boy declined to give his evidence in court.

The Judge admitted evidence brought by the Prosecution which would normally be excluded as highly suspect or irrelevant.

Medical evidence was inconclusive.

The Jury, probably also subconsciously influenced by the insidious anti-FGM narrative, appears not to have understood its duty to convict only if a case is proven beyond reasonable doubt.

The injury to the girl (loss of her inner labia) was little different to cosmetic labiaplasty which is available to white teenage girls on the NHS. There was no suggestion of damage to the girl’s clitoris, which is normally implicated in the most commonly described types of FGM, and lasting consequences are likely to be minimal. Despite this, the mother was sentenced to 14 years, the maximum term allowed. This makes it difficult to avoid a suspicion of extreme bias in favour of the political crusade, with total disregard for the welfare of the girl, the defendant and her wider family.

The Criminal Court proceedings are reminiscent of previous shocking miscarriages of justice:

In Orkney, in the 1990s, allegations of ritualistic satanic abuses led to children being removed from their homes in dawn raids, parents prosecuted and families devastated by what turned out to be nothing more than a figment in the lurid imaginations of a group of social workers and local police officers.

In the early 2000s, mothers Sally ClarkAngela Cannings and Trupti Patel suffered the tragedy of multiple cot deaths. They were prosecuted and imprisoned for murder on the basis of ‘expert’ medical evidence which was later shown to be fundamentally flawed. Despite the absence of evidence of guilt, and without alternative explanations, it was simply assumed that the mother, the person least likely to have harmed the children, was guilty of their murder.

Berer also refers to previous attempts at prosecution which were thrown out of court by either Judge or Jury. Sir James Munby, in his thoughtful judgement in the Leeds case, urged caution in reaching a conclusion which would impose further hardship on implicated children. In contrast, the proceedings described in the Old Bailey trial have characteristics of a ‘kangaroo court’, determined to reach a guilty verdict irrespective of evidence, and to impose the maximum sentence without consideration of its damaging effects on the girl and other innocent parties.

The anti-FGM industry has doubtless been celebrating the imprisonment of this unfortunate woman, using it as a pretext to seek additional public funding to support their interventionist cause. It will be intersting to see whether their celebrations continue when another girl sustains a straddle injury and bleeds to death because her parents, terrified of facing a similar prosecution, do not take her for emergency medical attention.

The woman should be released immediately and the family re-united pending a properly supported appeal or re-trial. The proceedings described gave the mother as little chance of a fair trial as a medieval women suspected of witchcraft being thrown into a pond to see if she would sink or float. She has been sentenced to 14 years in prison for the only crime proven beyond reasonable doubt: that of being an African woman.

UK Somalis ‘racially profiled’ over FGM

 

By Rachel Stonehouse
Victoria Derbyshire programme Published13 January (BBC News)

Parents are wrongly being arrested and having their children taken into care due to the stigma around female genital mutilation (FGM), members of the UK Somali community have told the Victoria Derbyshire programme. They say figures suggesting tens of thousands of girls are at risk in the UK are inaccurate.

“Social services with the police came to the house, removed our children and arrested my wife. We didn’t know what the allegations were – nobody said anything, nobody asked us anything, it was just really a shock,” said Yusef – not his real name.

The father-of-five said he and his wife had a “good” meeting with their children’s school to tell them the family was relocating to Somaliland for a while.

But four days later the couple were arrested and their children taken separately into foster care, following a safeguarding referral by the school.

They say they were wrongly accused of planning to take their children abroad for FGM.

“Children must be safeguarded – but not if the danger is just assumed,” said Yusef. “They are supposed to verify or investigate it properly, don’t just presume something is going to happen based on someone’s background or ethnicity.”

But police and health workers said safeguarding policies were there for a reason – and protecting children had to be a priority.

‘Huge epidemic’

FGM – intentionally cutting or injuring the female external genitalia for non-medical reasons – is understood to be practised in some African, Asian and Middle Eastern countries.

It is illegal in the UK and carries a sentence of up to 14 years in jail – the first successful prosecution took place last year.

Zainab Nur

 

Zainab Nur said people in the Somali community were being victimised

In Yusef’s case, the police took no further action and the children were returned.

Slough Children’s Services Trust has now apologised to the family and upheld seven of their complaints, and agreed to support the withdrawal of the FGM Protection Order, if this is supported by both legal advice and the courts.

It said in a statement: “We appreciate that the process of a child being taken into care is always distressing and, unfortunately, due to the nature of safeguarding, can in exceptionally rare cases happen to families where no further action is taken.

“It’s never our intention to cause any family distress, only to prioritise child protection and to work with our partners to avoid the possibility of vulnerable children ‘slipping through the net’.”

Both the police and the Trust said they could not comment on individual cases, but safeguarding was always the number one priority.

UNICEF figures estimate 98% of women and girls in Somalia have undergone FGM. But Somalis living in the UK say this is inaccurate, and means they have attracted particular attention from FGM safeguarding policy.

Research published by City University in 2015 suggested that 144,000 women were at risk of FGM in England and Wales.

Mothers we spoke to in Cardiff said the message from education providers and the media suggested there was a “huge epidemic” of FGM involving their British-born daughters.

Former social worker and Somali campaigner Zainab Nur, from the Hayaat Women Trust, said she knew more than a dozen cases where children were wrongly taken into care because of FGM risk.

“These policies are having a massive impact,” she said. “We’re being victimised, we’re being racially profiled as being at risk of FGM, and it’s affecting us.”

She also says she knows hundreds of cases where families were wrongly being referred to safeguarding.

One mother, Nimo, said she nearly died after undergoing FGM at the age of eight. She says health professionals sometimes made “automatic assumptions” because of her experience.

“I have a diabetic daughter, she had a urine infection and the doctor says to me: ‘Has she had FGM done to her?’ My daughter she didn’t know anything about FGM, she’d never heard of it.

“These things do happen and we get asked because of the children. I was like, ‘Oh my God’, because I haven’t spoken about FGM in a long, long time.”

‘Stigmatise families’

Dr Saffron Karlsen

 

Dr Saffron Karlsen says Bristol University plans further research on FGM in the UK

Researchers at Bristol University spoke to 30 Somali mothers, fathers and young adults about their experiences with FGM safeguarding services.

Dr Saffron Karlsen said increasingly the evidence suggested it was not as a big a problem as it was assumed to be.

She said: “We want to see an end to FGM but the way the current system is set up appears to penalise and stigmatise innocent families, and families where’s there’s no evidence to suggest…that their children are going to be exposed to FGM.”

Protecting girls

But Janet Fyle, policy adviser at the Royal College of Midwives, said she disagreed with the concerns, and that safeguarding practices were there for a reason.

“Professionals have the right to ask,” she said. “We know FGM is happening in this country under our noses – it is important to focus on this as that is the real issue.

“Talking about this issue of stigma is distracting – the priority needs to be protecting girls.”

A spokesperson from the Home Office’s FGM Unit said “any actions taken by public authorities in relation to suspected FGM are based on evidence.

“We introduced tough safeguarding laws which compel certain professionals to report if they have encountered a potential child victim of FGM, regardless of what community they are from.”

And the National Police Chiefs’ Council said police, health and children’s services had a responsibility to protect young people from harm.

Commander Ivan Balhatchet, lead for female genital mutilation, said: “When people tell us they have concerns for the wellbeing and safety of a child, police will always investigate, as the public would expect.

“There will be cases where people have genuine concerns relating to children and they should always feel able to come forward and speak to police. We will treat each individual case sensitively and confidentially.”

Reproduced here with the author’s permission

Judging without knowing us

Victim and criminal: stories from Black women who have been stigmatised by the anti-FGM narrative

February 6th marks the 17th anniversary of the United Nation’s International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation. (FGM).

The ambitious anti-FGM movement that ensued and which actively operates in the UK and internationally, claims to have made great strides in helping to reduce the incidence of this harmful, traditional practice worldwide. Whilst that reduction is welcome, legislative initiatives, policies, surveillance, awareness – raising, and the drive to prosecute have resulted in some Black and Minority Ethnic Communities (BAME) in the UK being specifically targeted and feeling their effects disproportionately.


On Saturday, 8 February 2020, Hidden Voices UK, hosted a theatrical performance called “Judging without Knowing” at Oxford House in Bethnal Green, East London, followed by a panel and open discussion with over 70 people who attended. It was organised in partnership with Women’s Inclusive Team, TALO, Queen of Sheba International, and Acta Community Theatre Bristol.
The event was one of a number of responses to the 17th anniversary of the UN’s 6 February International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), and a ground-breaking one