Emerging Voices features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This article is by Becky Allen, former intern in the Women and Foreign Policy program.
Female genital mutilation (FGM)—a practice that poses severe health risks to women and girls—is widespread in the developing world: of the women and girls living in the twenty-nine African and Middle Eastern countries where the practice is most prevalent, more than 125 million have been cut. Widely considered a form of violence against women, studies indicate that FGM can result in both psychological and physical consequences.
Yet FGM occurs in the Western world as well. Activists claim that FGM has been on the rise in both Britain and the United States in recent years, especially given increased rates of immigration from countries where the practice is prevalent. A 2014 study by the City University London and Equality Now found that over 137,000 women in England and Wales have undergone FGM. Another 20,000 girls are at risk each year in the United Kingdom. In the United States, where the practice is masked in greater secrecy, the numbers are difficult to determine, though some estimates put the figure in the hundreds of thousands.
In response to this growing issue, the British government and UNICEF co-hosted Britain’s first annual Girl Summit to raise awareness of FGM on July 22. The summit aimed to launch a movement to eradicate the practice within a single generation. As Susan Bissell, chief of child protection for UNICEF, affirmed: it’s time to “up our game”—even in the West.
So far, the British government is following through on its mission. Prime Minister David Cameron announced that tougher legislation will make it illegal for parents to subject their daughters to FGM. The existing 1985 British law banning the practice targets the performer of FGM or the guardian responsible for taking a girl to undergo the procedure abroad. Even so, local authorities have knowingly overlooked perpetrators of FGM. It was not until this year—thirty years after the law was enacted—that a successful prosecution occurred in Britain.
The British government has also pledged £1.4 million (about $2.4 million) to establish an effective system for identifying girls who are at risk for FGM in Britain. Under the new system, special training will be provided to teachers, social workers, health professionals, and police officers. Moreover, the country’s citizens have been mobilized to act on this front: just last week two doctors teamed up to open the world’s first clinic for child victims of female genital mutilation. In addition to providing medical and psychological support, the clinic will liaise with police, social services, and community groups to identify and safeguard girls who are at risk for the procedure.
Lastly, Britain has increased training sessions for airport personnel, teaching them to identify both potential victims and performers of FGM. Not only do parents take their daughters to their native countries to be cut, but a new trend in which “cutters” come to Britain to perform the practice has also recently emerged. Since the launch of this operation in July, thirty families have been stopped according to Gatwick Airport officials.
The United States has joined Britain in the campaign to end FGM. Last month, the Obama administration announced plans to conduct a national study that will research the consequences and risks of FGM in the United States. The U.S. government also recently developed a preliminary working group on FGM, which is expected to devise strategies for fighting the practice through education.
The strategy taken by the Obama administration will help policymakers develop a nuanced understanding of FGM before enacting relevant legislation. The approach stands in contrast to a 2010 proposal by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which suggested that the United States legalize a “ceremonial pinprick” of girls to dissuade families from taking their daughters abroad to undergo the full procedure. The 2010 proposal sparked an uproar, raising questions about the nature of FGM and parents’ intentions. As one critic pointed out, “We don’t let people… beat their wives a little bit because they’re going to do it anyway.”
The United Kingdom and the United States have the opportunity to step up in the fight against FGM in their countries. Through new legislation, enforcement of existing laws, and training programs for personnel who are in the position to identify girls at risk, these nations can address the growing issue of FGM in their own backyards.