Saffron Karlsen, Senior Lecturer in Social Research, University of Bristol
Christina Pantazis, Professor of Zemiology, University of Bristol
Magda Mogilnicka, Research Associate in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, University of Bristol
Natasha Carver, Lecturer in International Criminology, University of Bristol
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), whereby the female genitals are deliberately injured or changed for non-medical reasons, is considered by the UN to be a “global concern”.
International organisations often report statistical evidence that 98% of women and girls in Somalia/Somaliland have undergone FGM.
Because of this international evidence, girls born to Somali parents living in the UK are considered to be at high risk of experiencing FGM. Yet research shows that attitudes towards FGM change dramatically following migration and therefore girls in the UK are unlikely to be put through this procedure.
Concern over the practice of FGM has led the UK government to create policies intended to protect girls at risk. Known as FGM safeguarding, these policies require professionals – such as teachers, healthcare or youth workers – to report to the police any concerns that a child has had, or could be at risk of, FGM.
Our research presents the views of Somali families living in Bristol with experience of FGM safeguarding. Our findings were collected during six focus groups with 30 Somali men, women and young adults during the summer of 2018.
Somalis in our study were committed to ending FGM, but felt detrimentally affected by existing approaches to FGM safeguarding. A sense of the exploitation of a disempowered community pervaded our discussions.
Many of the people we spoke with felt that FGM safeguarding led those in positions of authority and trust to put pressure on families to comply with demands that are stigmatising, unjustified and contrary to their rights as British citizens.
Women experienced FGM safeguarding repeatedly in routine health visits – with midwives, GPs and health visitors. They felt that medical staff prioritised getting information for government FGM statistics over their health needs – without considering the trauma this could cause.
The women spoke about how health professionals repeatedly “put salt on the wound” caused by their own experiences of FGM through relentless and insensitive questioning. In response, participants reported avoiding or being scared to access medical care. One of the women we spoke to told us:
Before they cared about your health and how the child was feeling. Now it’s just FGM.
FGM safeguarding in schools usually occurred when parents asked to take their children on holiday during term time. Instead of appropriate guidelines being applied, participants believed that Somalis in Bristol were referred to social services by schools as a matter of course – regardless of any identified level of risk to their children.
These experiences stigmatised, traumatised and alienated Somali families, damaging their trust in schools. As one of the people we spoke with explained:
I thought that safeguarding was when a child is in danger. But for us it was just because we were Somali.
Referrals to social services frequently led to unannounced home visits by social workers and (sometimes uniformed) police. These visits scared and traumatised children and received particular condemnation from the people in our study.
Safeguarding officers were described as failing to respect people’s rights to privacy and autonomy. The people described how officers would separate and interrogate family members – including children – and physically search property without justification.
Everyone a suspect
Participants repeatedly said that FGM safeguarding treated Somalis like criminals. They felt distrusted and that their needs were ignored. There was a sense that the whole Somali community was targeted unfairly.
They also described the safeguarding policy as inherently racist and felt that wider political and media debates on FGM directly contributed to their personal experiences of racist violence. As one of the participants said:
Everybody is a suspect. You are guilty until you are proven innocent.
The people in our study said that their experience of FGM safeguarding had undermined their strong sense of being British and made them feel like they were living in a hostile environment. They also described the ways in which the important work being done by Somali activists to reduce FGM was being ignored and this fed into negative stereotypes about Somali culture.
People in our study felt that these heavy-handed approaches were encouraged by incorrect beliefs that FGM was still popular among the British Somali population. Our participants explained that people living in the UK were much less supportive of FGM than was assumed. This view is supported by other research in this area. This questions the value of using FGM statistics from Somalia/Somaliland as the basis for understanding FGM risk to Somali people living the UK. One of the people we spoke to said:
We are trying to find our identity as British Somalis and we don’t want FGM to be part of that.
This is why a government review of the statistical evidence underpinning FGM safeguarding policies is urgently needed to find better ways to establish FGM risk.
Healthcare workers must also address evidence which highlights that FGM safeguarding in medical settings can lead to poorer care and traumatise FGM victims.
Similarly, schools must ensure that all approaches to FGM safeguarding are in accordance with existing guidance. Home visits must also only be carried out once reasonable risk has been identified – and conducted in a way that doesn’t feel distressing, criminalising or coercive in nature.
Our research shows that FGM safeguarding services in Britain could be doing great harm, even to the people they intend to protect. Only by working together can services be developed that work for everyone.