Photo: Omar Mayow, Journalism student at UWE
There is a narrative underpinning much FGM training that gives the idea that all Somali girls are at risk of FGM
By Abdi Mohamed | On Monday 9th April, Somali Parents Against Stigmatisation (SPAS) held their first community meeting. The group was formed following the collapse of the female genital mutilation (FGM) trial in Bristol in January, which judge Lambart described it as “deeply troubling” and deemed the evidence being riddled with “inconsistencies”. The group aims to enable members of the Somali community participate the FGM campaign, promote the rights of parents and families, and tackle misconceptions.
The focus of the meeting was to enable parents increase awareness of relevant legislations and promote the rights of children and families. The meeting was also planned to provide a platform for parents to share and discuss about their understanding and experience of the FGM campaign and the impact that the ‘Bristol Model’ has had on the lives of their families.
Following presentations from a trainee solicitor and a social worker, both of Somali ethnic origin, who explained the FGM legislation, personal rights and care procedures respectively, a Somali mother who has lived in the Uk for 23 years talked about the inhumane way that professionals treated her and how they violated the rights of her children.
The mother of eight, who has worked with schools and the community in her neighbourhood, told the meeting what she endured after she told her school that she is going to take the children on holiday. “I booked holiday tickets for my children in 2016 and I informed the school by requesting an authorised absence of one week,” she said.
“The school accepted my request. Subsequently, I had a phone call from a social worker who said that they, social services together with the police, want to talk to me before we go. But a lone male police officer with uniform visited us who said that there was no social worker available to accompany him and that he wanted to talk about FGM, because we were going to Morocco which is one of the countries that practice FGM [contrarily, available data from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNICEF show the prevalence FGM rate in Morocco is zero percent]
“The police officer asked to gather all the children as he wants to talk to all of us, including the youngest daughter who was two-and-a-half years at the time. He demanded to see our tickets and passports, and questioned why my husband had booked his ticket separately and why is he coming back early.
“He then explained what is FGM and how women are cut to the children. My children got shocked. I have never told them about FGM because it is something that I have never intended to do to my daughters. My younger son said that he has never heard about women getting cut and questioned what it is being cut.”
The mother also talked about what she had been put through and how her young daughter had been examined without evidence after their holiday in Morocco. “After we came back from the holiday, my youngest daughter started nursery. In no time, I had a phone call from one of the nursery staff who asked me what had I done to my daughter because they had seen blood [around her genitalia] when they were changing her nappy.”
“When I came to the nursery, I reiterated what I told them over the phone and asked them if I can see the nappy with the blood. They replied that they had thrown away the nappy as the blood was very small, like a very small pimple. And they told me that I should take my daughter to the doctors as she needs to be examined.
“The doctor examined her extensively and said [the examinations show that] nothing had been done to this young girl, and he would write to the nursery.
“I have never touched my daughter, but they [nursery staff] just made excuses to examine my daughter. At the moment I have nightmares about going on holiday. But we want to ask the Government if signing this form [a written undertaking] is a must or not.”
This is not an isolated case. It is a trademark for the over-conceptualised, romanticised approach of the ‘Bristol FGM model’ which is based on assumptions, misinformation and intimidation, coupled with a racialised campaign which targets and profiles certain ethnic groups in our communities.
Sucdi Ahmed, Staff Nurse at NHS Bristol, shared her experience with those attended the meeting. Her story reinforces local media stories that Somali parents feel they are discriminated against by authorities. “I was asked to come to the school when I completed the holiday form,” said Mrs Ahmed. “Then I had a meeting with the headteacher and a safeguarding officer who talked about FGM and the law, but when I told them that I know about it very well because I am a nurse, their behaviour had changed.”
“Instantly, they said that they would not inform the social services [because of my status]. However, I asked them that they should refer me to the social services because I wanted to understand what other parents go through.
“Just two days before my flight, I had a knock on my door. And when I checked through the door viewer, I saw that it was a man and a women, but did not open it because I was expecting no one. They did not go away because they could hear that somebody was inside, and they left a voice message on my phone.
“I called them back when I finished my house work; they were waiting about thirty minutes and I let them in after they identified themselves: a social worker and a plain-clothed police officer. I asked them why they had not make an appointment, but they said they had assumed that I will be in [because, stereotypically, they thought it is highly likely that a Muslim woman would always be at home].
“They explained the reason of their visit and the consequences I will face if I cut my daughter. Then they demanded that I ought to sign a form [a written undertaking] and also sign on behalf of my husband who was at work. But their behaviour changed when I answered the last question about the profession, which made them realise that I was a nurse.”
The “oppressive and aggressive” behaviour of campaigners and professionals has undermined the goal of the FGM legislation, without a doubt of a shadow. The legislation was designed to protect children from harm and to uphold their human rights. “The English law is just and fair,” commented a young lady who was at the meeting, “because I read English law – I am a law student. But the people who deliver services are not fair, because they are ‘white’ and I am a ‘black’ woman … the meeting was enlightening and I understood a lot [about the harassment faced by Somali parents and racial stereotypes].”
Available evidence corroborates the above-mentioned unfairness and stereotypes. Notes of an anti-FGM stakeholder meeting held on 3rd April states: “[T]here is a narrative underpinning much FGM training that gives the idea that all Somali girls are at risk of FGM and it is assumed to be the most extreme form … there is a danger that anti-FGM training could therefore reinforce stereotypes and fuel anti-Somali and also Islamaphobic feelings.”
“Hate crime can occur if we allow FGM to be closely linked with particular communities,” Alex Raikes, director of Stand Agains Racism and Inequality (SARI) told the stakeholder meeting. “The practice is not prevalent in Bristol within the longer standing Bristolian Somali communities [she was told] … FGM is overtaking CSE [child sexual exploitation], DV [Domestic Violence] as a safeguarding priority and it is given more priority than other issues like the underperformance of Somali boys in schools and the criminalisation of Somali men.
“FGM had now become so linked to the Somali community that it’s often the first thing people say to her when she is discussing [about the] Somali community,” Alex Raikes said.
Superintendent Andy Bennet, Bristol Police Commander, who was present at the stakeholder meeting acknowledged the police’s response was not desirable. “It sounds like we may not have been proportionate in our response,” notes of the meeting say.
Superintendent Bennet, who is also the force lead for hate crime, said, “He needs to make sure there is no evidence that human rights are being breached or any action is disproportionate [and] they always need to make sure that they police in evidence-based way.”
This clearly shows that Bristol’s FGM model, which has the full support of the politically elected leadership – both Bristol mayor, Marvin Rees, and Police Crime Commissioner for Avon and Somerset, Sue Mountstevens – is detrimental not only to the welfare and safeguarding of young girls, but also to the work of law reinforcement officers who always need to take ‘evidence-based’ approach. For instance, the number of girls at risk of FGM in Bristol is based on estimates as there are no reliable data available; the NHS data on FGM has been “falsely inflated” and FGM cases performed in this country were actually legal piercings carried out on adults according to the Mail on Sunday.
PCC Sue Mountstevens: “So many of our communities feel that when the police and social care come in they are going to take their children away from them, so it is not surprise that they don’t want to engage.”
Moreover, misinformation and lack of acknowledgement of the contribution made by affected communities are said to be stumbling blocks to eradicating FGM. PCC Sue Mountstevens believes that communities are not engaging. “So many of our communities feel that when the police and social care come in they are going to take their children away from them, so it is not surprise that they don’t want to engage,” she told Home Affairs Committee Roundtable Discussion in 2016.
This believe may have influenced the local FGM guidance and law reinforcement work in the region. DCI Leane Pook, the FGM police lead for Avon and Somerset, told Channel 4’s FGM Detectives documentary that she thinks “practicing communities understand that they have to adjust their practices to evade law enforcement, it’s about making sure that people don’t get caught.” This is a myth, indeed.
On the contrary, there is a body of evidence which shows what the Somalis have achieved and how they have tackled the barbaric practice. In the early nineteen-eighties the military dictatorial regime in Somalia outlawed the practice, and the first international conference on FGM [this Youtube video is bilingual Somali-English] was held in Mogadishu in 1988. After the collapse of the central government in 1991, the campaign to eradicate FGM has continued with the support of Somali Islamic scholars and international NGOs. And the newly elected president of Somaliland promised that he supports the complete eradication of FGM because it is about ‘gender equality’.
However, instead of engaging the community and building on what they have achieved over the last 35 years, the FGM campaign has been turned to a competition: a conviction trophy. The race to get the first conviction and achieving a landmark victory has not only damaged the spirit of the campaign to eradicate FGM but has damaged community trust too.
Isolating the communities and harassing families will achieve nothing but criminalisation. Anti-FGM activities, guidelines and convictions should be based on evidence, rather than assumptions. Rakhia Ismail, Labour councillor in Islington in North London, stressed the importance of prosecuting those who break the law. “If people are carrying out FGM they should be convicted, but in three decades we are yet to see any concrete evidence that this is happening in the UK,” reported the Guardian.