Government attention and public awareness has reflected this and the number of organisations working to end FGM has increased dramatically. This, of course, can only be good news in the campaign to end this human rights abuse. However, as attention to FGM grows and more people become involved we must remember the girls and women at the heart of this campaign and ask ourselves: Are we really talking about FGM to the right people?
Estimates show that 24,000 girls under the age of 15 are at risk of FGM and with the average age for girls to undergo FGM between 5 to 8 years old, we know that young people are disproportionately at risk of FGM. Our experience shows that women and girls who have undergone FGM in the UK often go their entire lives without speaking about their experiences. FGM, as with most issues relating to female sexuality, is a taboo subject among practicing communities and girls are reluctant to speak out among family, let alone with people outside the community.
This is sometimes due to embarrassment, the fear of getting their families in trouble, or the fear of being misunderstood, judged or mocked. Lacking a safe space to talk means young people have nowhere to go to ask for help, or ask questions, find out about support available, or just have their experiences acknowledged. One of the gravest consequences of this silence is that the myths and misinformation that often underlie the practice go unexplored and unchallenged, and medical and emotional support available is not accessed.
FORWARD is an African diaspora organisation that has been working to end FGM in the UK, as well as Europe and Africa, for 30 years. With this experience we are continually aware that keeping women and girls at risk of, or affected by, FGM at the heart of the campaign is the key to creating permanent social change. Involving young people, and our Schools Programme in particular, is one of the ways we ensure we are reaching the right people; the girls most in need of information about safeguarding and services available and both the girls and boys that will be able to create change for the future.
Many people are surprised to learn that FGM takes place in the UK and to UK citizens but it is common for girls to be taken to their countries of origin to undergo the procedure. Due to the often long healing period, summer and other school holidays are a particularly high risk time when girls might be taken abroad to undergo FGM. Schools with well trained staff, a good relationship with pupils, their parents and the wider community, and a proactive response to the issue of FGM are best placed to safeguard girls at risk.
Our Schools Programme grew organically from our Youth Programme, through which we had been working with young people on the issue on FGM for years. Ever increasing demand from schools eventually necessitated the development of a specific programme and specialist services. Schools themselves were identifying the need for FGM engagement and often felt unprepared and uncertain of how to begin.
Our Schools Programme has three main aims:
- Helping schools to create a safe, supportive and open environment.
- Equipping teachers with the knowledge to better respond to FGM.
- Raising awareness of FGM with students and empowering them to be involved in ending FGM.
We know that young people are more likely to talk and listen to each other, so we build on this by equipping young people with the information and skills necessary to provide peer support and create change. Since it formally launched in early 2013, we have worked with around 11,000 students in London (including 500 primary school pupils) and around 1,600 members of staff.
We believe that reaching young people, and those working with them is fundamental to ending FGM and their contribution to the campaign is invaluable.
Empowered with knowledge and understanding, schools can make links outwards and act as catalyst in their wider community. Strategic schools work should expand beyond the classroom and engage communities, health, support services and local government. School and youth involvement in the campaign to end FGM supports the belief that FGM is everybody’s business and we must work together to collectively challenge stigma, shift norms, develop policies and pledge commitment and resourcing to end FGM.
A longer version of this article was originally posted on Safer Schools.