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British Children Learning Basics of FGM to Curb the Taboos

FGM is underpinned by the desire to control female sexuality, but beliefs around the practice vary enormously. Many believe it purifies the girl, brings her status in the community and prevents promiscuity. Uncut girls risk being ostracized.

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An estimated 137,000 women and girls in England and Wales have undergone FGM, according to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC).
A child in a class, pixabay
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As teacher Tanya Mathiason flicked through a slideshow to display diagrams of male and female genitalia to primary school children in northwest London, no one flinched or giggled.

Instead, the students eagerly discussed the meaning of the words: female, genital and mutilation.

“Break those words down: What does female mean? What does genital mean? What does mutilation mean?” said Mathiason, the head of pastoral care at Norbury School in the culturally and ethnically diverse neighborhood of Harrow.

“It means when someone cuts off stuff?” replied one student.

“Harm?” said another.

By the time they leave Norbury School, all 640 students — both boys and girls — will have learned about female genital mutilation (FGM), a ritual that usually involves the partial or total removal of the external genitalia including the clitoris.

An estimated 137,000 women and girls in England and Wales have undergone FGM, according to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC).

FGM can cause chronic pain, menstrual problems, recurrent urinary tract infections, cysts and infertility. Some girls hemorrhage to death or die from infections. It can also cause fatal childbirth complications in later life.

Young age

As FGM is mostly carried out between infancy and age 15, school principal Louise Browning said she wanted the students to start learning about it in the third year, at about seven years old.

FGM can cause chronic pain, menstrual problems, recurrent urinary tract infections, cysts and infertility. Some girls hemorrhage to death or die from infections. It can also cause fatal childbirth complications in later life.
Representational image, pixabay

“I became more aware that FGM was happening to girls at a much younger age than I thought,” Browning told Reuters.

“Who’s to say that we don’t have survivors in our school? I felt I was letting down my girls by not raising this. Our end goal is for this practice to stop.”

Browning and her team worked with the National FGM Centre, run by children’s charity Barnado’s and the Local Government Association, to devise age-appropriate lessons, which they began teaching in Norbury School in 2015.

It is one of only a handful of primary schools in the country that teaches students about FGM, but raising awareness among parents and children was necessary, she said.

FGM mostly affects immigrant communities from various countries including Somalia, Sierra Leone, Eritrea, Sudan, Nigeria and Egypt — a demographic that is well-represented in the Harrow school.

“Many of our families, our children, come from FGM-practicing communities so it is really important that they have this knowledge, that they leave here at 11 [years old] knowing what this practice is about,” said pastoral manager Mathiason.

Shocking

FGM is performed by Muslims and Christians and by followers of some indigenous religions. People often believe FGM is required by religion, but it is not mentioned in the Koran or the Bible.

“Most people who do it think it’s in their religion … but no religion actually tells you to do that,” said 11-year-old Khadija, who has learned about FGM since she was seven.

“It’s just shocking because it’s most likely to be parents who would do it. They’re the ones who love you and care about you, but instead they want to harm you,” she added.

In March, a London solicitor accused of forcing his daughter to be circumcised was acquitted, increasing pressure on police and prosecutors who have yet to secure a conviction for FGM more than 30 years after it was outlawed.

The prosecution was only the second to be brought under FGM legislation introduced in 1985.

Also Read: U.S. Tobacco Companies Must Put New Warnings on Packaging, Court Says 

FGM is underpinned by the desire to control female sexuality, but beliefs around the practice vary enormously. Many believe it purifies the girl, brings her status in the community and prevents promiscuity. Uncut girls risk being ostracized.

Sonita Pobi, head of training at the National FGM Center, said the lessons helped children make sense of the practice and know who to turn to for help, regardless of their cultural background or religion.

“It’s about giving children the vocabulary to speak up when something is wrong. It’s about making children aware about the hidden form of abuse that may happen to them,” Pobi said.

After learning about FGM at Norbury School, 11-year-old Oliver said he felt empowered to help classmates and friends.

“When I first learnt about it, I was quite scared because it was happening. But once I knew quite a bit about it, I knew that I couldn’t really sort out the situation, but I would know who to speak to,” he said.

His classmate Naylen, also 11, agreed.

“I think the FGM lessons are good for children to learn because … we could make a change to all of these harmful activities,” he said. (VOA)

 

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The Attention Shifts To The U.S. As It Strikes Down FGM Law

Looking beyond the Michigan case, Jones said the key to stopping FGM isn’t just legislation but also education.

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FILE - A T-shirt warns against female genital mutilation. Its wearer attends an event, discouraging harmful practices such as FGM, at a girls high school in Imbirikani, Kenya, April 21, 2016.Image source: VOA

When a U.S. district judge last month ruled a federal ban on female genital mutilation unconstitutional, he undercut the federal government and alarmed anti-FGM activists, who hope to eradicate the practice.

The World Health Organization calls FGM, also known as female circumcision, a human rights violation of women and girls, with no health benefits.

Some 200 million women and girls around the world, mainly in Africa, have experienced FGM, the WHO says.

In his opinion, Judge Bernard Friedman called FGM “despicable,” but also “a local criminal activity” that must be addressed at the state level. In enacting a federal law, he said, Congress overstepped.

Now, local lawmakers, advocates and newspapers are calling for state bans that equal or surpass the scope of the federal law that was struck down.

Female Genital Mutilation, FGM, judge
A badge reads “The power of labor against FGM” is seen on a volunteer during a conference on International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Cairo, Egypt, Feb. 6, 2018. (VOA)

‘Never again’

The case Friedman ruled on centers around Dr. Jumana Nagarwala, an emergency room physician accused of performing FGM on at least 100 girls in Michigan for more than a decade.

Prosecutors have focused their case on nine girls, aged 7 to 12, from three states. The girls allegedly were subjected to FGM with the aid of Nagarwala and seven others, including the girls’ mothers.

Defense attorneys say the procedure amounted to only a “nick” on the girls performed as part of a religious ritual — not FGM. But they also argued in July that the federal law banning FGM is unconstitutional.

State Senator Rick Jones, who represents Michigan’s 24th district, told VOA by phone that he was shocked to learn about Nagarwala’s case and strongly disagrees with Friedman’s ruling.

Last year, Jones became the spokesperson for a package of bills outlawing FGM statewide. The legislation passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.

Female Circumcision, FGM
The barbaric practice of genitalia mutilation has been banned in developed nations. Wikimedia

Now, Michigan has some of the toughest FGM laws in the country.

Health-care providers convicted of performing FGM face up to 15 years in prison, along with the permanent loss of their medical licenses. Parents who take their daughters to doctors to be cut can lose custody.

The 1996 federal law, meanwhile, stipulated up to five years in prison and fines for medical providers who perform FGM.

“We wanted to send a strong message around the world: Never again bring your girls to Michigan for this horrible procedure,” Jones said.

Across the U.S., 27 states have passed laws banning FGM, many of which have been written in recent years and include penalties that go beyond the federal law, which also criminalizes so-called “vacation cutting,” the practice of taking girls out of the United States to have FGM performed overseas.

News organizations are among those pushing for an expansion of state laws. Last month, the Seattle Times editorial board called for a ban in Washington, one of 23 states yet to outlaw FGM.

FGM
A doctor checks her phone as she poses for a photograph in Mumbai, India, June 8, 2016. The 50-year-old woman defends what is widely considered female genital mutilation within her small, prosperous Dawoodi Bohra community in India. VOA

Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times editorial board said all 50 states should ban the “barbaric” practice, in light of Friedman’s ruling.

Religious ritual?

The health-care providers and families involved in the Michigan case belong to Dawoodi Bohra, a Shi’ite Muslim sect based in India with about 2 million followers worldwide.

According to a study published earlier this year, FGM, called khafd in Dawoodi Bohra communities, is widespread in the sect and involves cutting the clitoral hood or part of the clitoris, without an anesthetic, when girls turn seven.

The study, commissioned by WeSpeakOut, an advocacy group focused on eradicating khafd, also found that three-quarters of Dawoodi Bohra women have experienced FGM.

The severity and nature of FGM can vary.

Health-care providers have identified four types of FGM. Khafd involves Type 1 FGM. Other types involve removing all of the external genitalia and narrowing the vaginal opening.

Jones rejects the idea that there’s a religious basis for the procedure, however it’s performed.

FGM
FILE – A counselor holds up cards used to educate women about female genital mutilation (FGM). VOA

“Across the world, this has been practiced by Christians, pagans, Muslims, even a small Jewish sect in Ethiopia,” he said.

“This is not about a religion,” he added. “This is about men attempting to control women’s behavior by this horrible procedure.”

The WHO identifies both short-term and permanent harms associated with the practice. Immediate concerns include severe pain, infections and, in some cases, death. Long term, women and girls subjected to FGM face a range of physiological and psychological complications that can affect menstruation, childbirth and sexual health.

The United States has been unequivocal in condemning the practice, saying “the U.S. government considers FGM/C to be a serious human rights abuse, and a form of gender-based violence and child abuse” on a fact sheet posted to the Citizenship & Immigration Services website.

Education and legislation

Friedman’s November decision is the latest in a series of setbacks for prosecutors.

Nagarwala spent seven months in 2017 in jail before 16 friends posted a $4.5 million unsecured bond, against the pleas of prosecutors, who argued Nagarwala could silence potential witnesses or even flee the country if released.

FGM
KAMELI, KENYA – AUGUST 12: A Masaai villager displays the traditional blade used to circumcise young girls August 12, 2007 in Kameli, Kenya. Maasai are a pastoral group mostly clustered in the Rift Valley. They practice circumcision on both boys and girls during puberty years as a rite of passage to adulthood. VOA

And in January, the judge dismissed charges that Nagarwala and a second doctor, Fakhruddin Attar, transported minors with the intent to engage in criminal sexual activity, an offense that carries a lifetime sentence.

Nagarwala still faces conspiracy and obstruction charges that could result in decades in prison.

The trial is now set to begin next April, the Detroit Free Press reported last month. However, the prosecution could appeal last month’s decision, drawing the case out further.

Also Read: Somalia Calls To Outlaw Female Genital Mutilation

Looking beyond the Michigan case, Jones said the key to stopping FGM isn’t just legislation but also education.

“What we have to do is continue to fight this worldwide. This is a global problem,” Jones said.

“It is a violation of human rights,” he said. “And I’m going to continue speaking out worldwide against this horrible, horrible practice that must end.” (VOA)