‘In 2016, we planned to go to Somalia to see family. The Head Teacher called me in and she read an agreement and she asked me, “Did they make you do this thing?” [Did you have FGM?] I hate that question. It’s personal. It hurts me a lot. Why do you need to know what’s happening on the inside of my legs? She said, “It’s the law, you must answer, otherwise you cannot go, you cannot travel.” I told her. I said “Ok, yes, they did do that to me.” She said “Ok, well that makes you high risk.” She said there was no choice. “It’s my job to refer you to safeguarding.’
Halwa’s Experience with the Head Teacher from ‘ “Stigmatising” and “traumatising” approaches to FGM-safeguarding need urgent review’ University of Bristol Policy Report 46: March 2019 Karlsen, Carver, Mogilnicka, Pantazis
Recently the challenges of safeguarding against FGM arose during a training session I delivered in Bristol. I subsequently became aware of some interesting research carried out in Bristol by Bristol University with members of the Somalian community that was published earlier this year. I thought I would share its key findings, as the research I believe offers some critical insight into FGM-safeguarding for practitioners.
The evidence was collected during six focus groups conducted in the summer of 2018. In total, researchers spoke to 30 mothers, fathers and young adults about their experiences.
Overall, it was felt (worryingly) by researchers that some current approaches undermined rather than enhanced effective FGM-safeguarding. Not only that, this poor safeguarding also undermined efforts towards the creation of a truly integrated society – or in other words, made families feel stigmatised and alienated.
Researchers said that:
‘…a sense of the exploitation of a disempowered community pervade discussions of FGM-safeguarding’. Safeguarding authorities are seen to put pressure on families to comply with demands which are stigmatising, unjustified, and contrary to their rights as British citizens. They are perceived as indifferent to whether this engagement is traumatising, offensive, confusing or inaccurate, both in terms of the specific information on FGM they circulate and the risk within particular families.
FGM-safeguarding in schools typically occurred when parents asked to take their children on holiday during term time. Professional guidelines indicate that coming from an FGM-affected community, maternal experience of FGM and planned travel to an FGM-affected country do not, in themselves, constitute a level of risk requiring referral to social services. However, participants believed that Somalis in Bristol were referred to social services as a matter of course, simply because they were going on holiday, regardless of destination or length of stay. Some mothers were asked by school teachers about their experience of FGM, directly contravening local guidance. Such encounters were reported as upsetting, invasive and offensive. They stigmatised, traumatised and alienated Somalis and their children, damaging their relationship with and trust in schools.’
In conclusion, the researchers proposed a number of policy changes which included:
• All organisations involved in FGM-safeguarding must acknowledge the ways in which these negative experiences reinforce a sense of Somalis as a ‘suspect’ and stigmatised community.
• All organisations involved in FGM-safeguarding must address the negative impact these experiences have had on service engagement and trust, and on the sense of inclusion of Bristol Somalis in wider British society.
• Schools and educational authorities must ensure that all approaches to FGM-safeguarding concur with existing guidance. The recent work undertaken by Bristol City Council to clarify this guidance will provide schools with valuable support towards achieving this.
• Statutory authorities must develop more collaborative approaches to FGM-safeguarding policy planning, development and implementation – to involve diverse sectors and affected communities – to improve its sensitivity and accessibility and minimise risk of stigma.
To ensure that all professionals are adhering to guidance, refer to local FGM safeguarding guidance. In Bristol this includes a recommendation to carry out a structured risk assessment:
Low risk factors include considerations like which county do the family originate from, and how much FGM is practiced in that country.
High risk factors include the possibility that parents may have expressed explicit supportive of FGM practice, and talk around the topic of the child ‘becoming a woman’ and a ceremony as a ‘rite of passage’.
Practitioners should NOT:
Talk to parents without doing a Risk Assessment first
Ask a mother if FGM has been carried out on her, unless they are a trained health professional.
Female Genital Mutilation or FGM, is an extremely harmful physical form of abuse practiced on girls. It can be common in many communities in Africa and Asia, and causes extraordinary acute and chronic physical and emotional suffering. For many years it has been an offence for anyone:
• to perform FGM in the UK, or
• to assist in the carrying out of FGM in the UK, or
• to perform FGM on any person overseas, or
• to assist in FGM carried out abroad (even in countries where the practice is not a criminal offence).
The Serious Crime Act 2015 brought new legal powers to safeguard against FGM:
• ‘Regulated professionals’ (health, social care professionals, teachers, childminders) have a duty to report to police if it is known (physical evidence or direct disclosure) FGM has taken place on a girl under 18 (Ring 101).
• If there is a risk of FGM in under 16s, a FGM Protection Order can be made (Ring the local referral agency).
Anyone who fears that someone is at risk of FGM can apply to a family court for a FGM Protection Order. This includes people who think they could be victims themselves or are already victims, local authorities, teachers, doctors, social workers or other third parties. FGMPOs will help to safeguard girls who are at risk of FGM at home or abroad. If the court makes a FGMPO, the specific conditions could include confiscating passports or travel documents to prevent girls from being taken abroad, or stopping someone from bringing a ‘cutter’ to the UK for the purposes of committing FGM on a girl.
For more information about FGM, Mandy Parry will be offering training in partnership with Delegated Services.
For the recent University of Bristol research report:
For more information on safeguarding against FGM in Bristol: https://bristolsafeguarding.org/children-home/professionals/policies/#FGM
For the FGM guidance in Bristol: https://bristolsafeguarding.org/media/1160/fgm-ssafeguarding-17-20.pdf