Every summer girls are taken abroad to be cut – in unhygienic conditions, without anaesthetic and certainly without consent
Three weeks ago the Guardian joined a campaign to try to stem female genital mutilation, inspired by a 17-year-old Bristol school student, Fahma Mohamed. In that short time, more than 230,000 people have backed it by signing a petition asking the education secretary, Michael Gove, to insist that all schools teach their students about FGM. It has been praised by the UN general secretary, Ban Ki-Moon, and the girls’ education campaigner Malala. It has generated poetry and raps, and some heartbreaking testimony.
There is a strategy behind the objective of requiring teaching about FGM. It is the best hope for making a difference. The law has failed: not a single prosecution more than 20 years after it was expressly outlawed. That is partly because it is a traditional practice that takes place behind a wall of isolation, in communities where elders consider it necessary for religious and social reasons. Only now is the first prosecution thought to be close, but thousands of girls are at risk. Precisely how many is unclear, because the information is not collected. That is changing. The health minister Jane Ellison has asked the NHS to start gathering data. The Department for International Development is investing in education programmes in Africa, South Asia and Indonesia where FGM is prevalent. That leaves one Whitehall department that has yet to engage. It is already being tried in Scotland. It uses trusted people in trusted environments. Children’s charities and FGM campaigners all agree. School is the place to learn about FGM.
So the specific objective has been to ask Mr Gove to give schools the authority and the obligation to teach about FGM, in the way they consider appropriate for their student body. It would help those at risk, making sure they understand that the practice is illegal in the UK, and telling them where to turn for help. For schools where pupils are not directly at risk, learning about the issues raised by FGM is an valuable aspect of an education that considers morality and ethics.
Perhaps 24,000 girls in Britain face the threat of FGM. Every summer hundreds are taken abroad to be cut – often in unhygienic conditions, without anaesthetic and certainly without consent, as our research has confirmed – while they are on what is supposed to be a holiday with their extended family. It is an experience that will leave them terribly scarred, physically and emotionally. There is evidence that it is happening in the UK too.
Mr Gove has responded to the campaign by offering to meet Fahma Mohamed. That meeting takes place on Tuesday. From time to time, the Guardian has been critical of some of Mr Gove’s schools policies. But no one would accuse him of lacking courage or determination. That is what our campaign needs, now.