Culture and the crime

A new report has revealed shocking statistics about female genital mutilation (FGM) in Britain. But political correctness about "culture" means the true origins of the crime are not being disclosed

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Victims of a culture?
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Anne Marie Waters
On 6 February 2014 20:03

The horrendous crime of female genital mutilation (FGM) was highlighted again in London recently at an event in Parliament for the launch of a new campaign group, Justice for FGM Victims UK, which produced a report revealing shocking new statistics about the practice. 

According to the report, written by journalist Julie Bindel, the number of women who have undergone FGM in Britain, as well as the number of girls at risk, is now around three times higher than previously estimated: there are approximately 170,000 women in the UK who have suffered FGM and a further 65,000 are at risk (a decade ago the figures were 65,000 having undergone the procedure, and 20,000 at risk). 

I have written about FGM numerous times, but I never do so without providing a full description. There's a good reason for this; as was revealed again on Tuesday night, far too many people simply don't understand its severity. Here is the World Health Organisation

FGM is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. It reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women. It is nearly always carried out on minors and is a violation of the rights of children. The practice also violates a person's rights to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death.

Female genital mutilation is classified into four major types.

1. Clitoridectomy: partial or total removal of the clitoris (a small, sensitive and erectile part of the female genitals) and, in very rare cases, only the prepuce (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoris).

2. Excision: partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora (the labia are "the lips" that surround the vagina).

3. Infibulation: narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the inner, or outer, labia, with or without removal of the clitoris.

4. Other: all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area. 

FGM causes severe pain and indignity to women. A GP at the event spoke of a patient she had seen who had been defecating through her vagina, the wall between vagina and anus having completely eroded — a condition known as fistula.

According to the anti-FGM campaign group Forward, 15 percent of fistula cases in Nigeria have resulted from FGM. FGM also causes painful urinary tract infections and can make sex and childbirth unbearable. 

Despite this, and the despite the fact that the crime carries a 14 year prison sentence in Britain (although no prosecutions have ever been made), there is an alarming lack of information and knowledge among health and legal professionals.

For example, in 2012, the Metropolitan Police reported that its Child Abuse Investigation Command had received no correspondence whatsoever regarding the enforcement of FGM laws the previous year. Of 161 health authorities that responded to a survey carried out by Justice for FGM Victims UK, only 92 said that they provided any staff training on FGM. Furthermore, local authorities admit that even when a case comes to their attention, appropriate child protection steps are not taken (despite legal obligations to do so), and police are often not informed.  

Justice for FGM Victims UK makes several recommendations as to how FGM can be successfully tackled, most of them sound. The group calls for prosecutions to be made and a strong message sent to practicing communities that FGM will not be tolerated.

Secondly, a multi-agency approach with police, health services, and local authorities mandated to share information regarding actual and potential cases is endorsed.  

There is however one recommendation which I feel contains an important misjudgement, and that is the notion that FGM is not in fact a cultural matter. "It's not culture, its child abuse" was the thrust of feeling at the event. I'm afraid I have a different view — the fact is, it is both.  

A young woman who spoke, who had herself been subjected to FGM, stated that this had happened to her not because she was of Somali origin, but because she is female. I am filled with admiration for this woman, her contribution is vital and she is immeasurably brave. I must however respectfully disagree.

The fact is that I am female and it hasn't happened to me, nor has it happened to the vast majority of the world's women. This is because FGM only occurs in a handful of countries, and sadly it is ingrained in the culture of those countries.   

As was noted at the event, 97 percent of Kenyan girls suffer FGM, that figure is 98 percent for Somalia, and around 94 percent in Egypt. It is difficult to argue then that FGM is not a part of the culture of those countries.

This is very much a cultural issue. That is simply a fact, and one we must face if we are to tackle this crime. So why are we so reluctant to do this?

There is a general consensus in Britain, promoted overwhelmingly by writers and speakers of a left-wing persuasion, that all cultures are equal and of equal value. To deny this, in the minds of many, would amount to racism. This is despite the fact that the majority of cultures, irrespective of race, do not practice FGM, thus proving that race is not a factor. 

Moreover, to confront the cultural reality of FGM would involve something very uncomfortable indeed; it would involve acknowledging that, when it comes to the treatment of women and girls, some cultures are simply better than others. If cultures we speak of disapprovingly happen to be ones comprised largely of people of non-white ethnicity, this becomes more uncomfortable still. 

The event in London focussed on the need to change the debate around FGM, and I completely agree. But rather than argue that FGM has nothing to do with culture and is solely a human rights abuse — which it undoubtedly is too — the real change that needs to take place is how we think and talk about culture.

"Culture" currently resides in a protective bubble. It is almost exclusively spoken of in a positive sense, and it has been erroneously equated with race so as to give it a protection it does not deserve. That protection must be removed.  

Anne Marie Waters is spokesperson for the One Law for All Campaign and council member of the National Secular Society. She is a writer and speaker on democracy and human rights, and campaigns for gender equality and to end cultural and religious relativism

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