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FGM: dispelling the myths

Following the first conviction for female genital mutilation in the UK Angie Marriott, a health and social care trainer with expertise in the area, dispels some commonly held myths about the practice

Angie Marriott who trains professionals on how to address FGM
Angie Marriott who delivers FGM awareness training

Published by Professional Social Work magazine - 4 February 2019

  • Myth 1:  FGM is on the decline in the UK

Whilst this devastating practice has been illegal in the UK since the mid-1980s, women and children are still at significant risk.  FGM ‘parties and gatherings’ continue to take place in the UK where girls are cut. 

Statistics suggest there are 11 cases of FGM taking place daily in the UK. Between 2015 and 2017, 15,000 patients with FGM were treated in the NHS, and it was recently reported that the number of child victims of FGM, and those at risk, has more than doubled in a year in England and Wales.

Many cases remain unreported, which means these statistics are very likely to be higher, demonstrating the prevalence of this cruel practice.

  • Myth 2:  FGM is not something most social workers will ever have to deal with

Social workers play a key role in promoting a collaborative partnership approach to managing and protecting girls from FGM, and are increasingly dealing with this dangerous practice.

They are well placed to spot signs and symptoms that FGM has occurred. Frequency of passing urine, complaints of abdominal pain, a child being withdrawn or angry can be key signs that FGM has been carried out. Furthermore, social workers also play a crucial role in identifying children who are at risk, or go missing and do not return after the school holidays.  

  • Myth 3:  FGM is practiced for religious purposes

FGM is practiced for cultural and traditional reasons. It is carried out as part of a celebration of a passage of Rite (to womanhood).  

A fundamental difficulty for health and social care professionals are the cultural and language barriers and fear of being labelled racist by practising communities. Where language barriers exist, social workers must use recognised interpreters and never use family members or people from the community that may place girls in danger. They must also use sensitive language.

Additionally, a significant issue for social workers is the lack of trust and confidence that practising communities have with statutory agencies. Working in partnership with black and minority ethnic (BME) groups who possess expertise and knowledge will assist statutory agencies in engaging positively with communities. Understanding the views and perceptions of practising communities is essential. Remember, the perpetrator of FGM is usually also an FGM survivor and a sensitive approach is important. NHS England recommends that all FGM survivors should undergo psychological support. Social workers must therefore be aware of FGM physical and psychological services that are available and the referral process for survivors.

  • Myth 4:  Tackling FGM is a police matter

Social workers play a strategic role in helping to tackle the issue and must be knowledgeable about FGM law. The Serious Crime Act compels all health and social care professionals to report all disclosures of FGM in a girl under 18 years of age to the police.  However, reporting FGM to the police under the Serious Crime Act (SCA), is still not well understood and many social workers remain unaware about invoking and policing FGM protection orders.

Following an FGM protection order, local authorities must work with the victim and other support services to ensure the highest level of protection. Breach carries a custodial sentence of up to five years.

  • Myth 5:  If it happens abroad it’s outside UK jurisdiction

Under the UK FGM Act 2003, it is illegal to take a girl aboard to have FGM performed.  An FGM Protection Order can be used to protect a girl from being taken out of the UK to have FGM performed and also protects a girl who is at risk in the UK.

  • Myth 6:  FGM Protection Orders can only be applied for by the police

FGM Protection Orders can be applied for by the person who is to be protected by the order, a relevant third party, or any other person with the permission of the court.

  • Myth 7:  there’s little chance of getting a prosecution for FGM so what’s the point of highlighting it?

The first prosecution for FGM in the UK shows criminal conviction is possible. It is a reminder that FGM is unlawful in this country and there is a mandatory duty for health and social care professionals to report it to the police if a child is affected. 

FGM practising communities I work with have not see UK law as a deterrent. Perpetrators are well known to do their upmost to ensure that the practice remains secret and underground. Furthermore, speaking out about FGM is a taboo within practising communities and this may pose problems when interviewing women or girls affected. Children will not report parents, and a major obstacle to prosecution is proving where FGM took place, in the UK or abroad.

  • Myth 8: what we do isn’t going to make a difference

Partnership working is vital. No one agency will solve FGM. As an example, annually I take part in Operation Limelight at Stansted Airport with Essex Police and UK Border Force. Social workers joined the latest event and it was a pleasure to provide training as part of the operational briefing. It is a partner approach to tackling FGM by raising awareness during what we know as the “cutting season” where perpetrators take girls aboard to be cut.

It is not just about raising awareness to the public, it is also about encouraging people to report any concerns to the police.  Such examples of good practice have yielded excellent results and should be mirrored across the sector to share learning.

FGM is a complex multifaceted issue to manage and a joint response is crucial. Social workers play a key role in the coordinated response to safeguarding girls following disclosure or concerns of FGM.

  • Myth 9: FGM has no health consequences

FGM results in long term physical and psychological problems. It is a form of abuse, and a risk to the lives of thousands of women and children.

There are many serious health consequences and complications from severe pain, swelling, excessive bleeding, and infection to infertility and death in some instances.  It is a very dangerous practice.

  • Myth 10:  We don’t have training in FGM so are unable to deal with it

I would urge all social workers to ensure they are aware of their mandatory duties to report FGM in under 18s to the police. In addition, they should be fully aware of what is required of them to ensure that they meet the necessary requirements to safeguard and provide a person-centred approach to managing FGM in line with statutory guidance and legislation.

If we are serious in our duty to protect girls from the abuse of FGM, education, training and empowerment is essential for social workers who manage the risks and safeguarding aspect of FGM to fill the existing knowledge gaps and help tackle this growing issue.

Over the past four years I have delivered training to over 1,500 professionals. Specialist training of this type is invaluable and greatly increases awareness as it allows participants to probe and scrutinise sensitive issues. This inevitably will help them to overcome cultural barriers and fears of racism managing safeguarding risks and disclosure, to protect girls.

It’s important that training is conducted face-to-face and not online, a view supported in a report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate Constabulary, the police watchdog that conducted the first ever inspection of policing Honour Based Violence, Forced Marriage and FGM throughout 43 police forces.

Angie Marriott is a trainer with The Training Hub which delivers FGM training nationwide to local authorities, independent fostering agencies and children’s homes. It will be the first company in UK to offer an accredited FGM Train the Trainer course. For further information visit www.thetraininghub.co.uk or call 0161 884 3000

This article is published by Professional Social work magazine which provides a platform for a range of perspectives across the social work sector. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the British Association of Social Workers