Kevin Curley: Both education and legal action are needed to tackle female genital mutilation in the UK

After meeting girls who have undergone FGM in Kenya, our columnist says we all share a duty to raise awareness of the practice

Kevin Curley says the young women he met in Kenya were deprived of a primary education because of FGM
Kevin Curley says the young women he met in Kenya were deprived of a primary education because of FGM

I spent a week in Kenya in February as chair of Sengwer Aid, a charity which funds village development projects for the Sengwer people.

The most challenging day came when I visited the primary school we have funded in the Cherangani Hills of West Pokot county. After seeing three classrooms full of children getting their first experience of formal education I was asked to meet four girls who had dropped out of school a few weeks earlier to go through what villagers call ‘circumcision’ and we now call ‘female genital mutilation’ or FGM.

Aged fourteen they were proud of what they had gone through and talked excitedly about getting married. Parents celebrated the new status enjoyed by the girls.

  Kevin Curley

I arrived home to discover that FGM had suddenly gained a higher profile. Fahma Mohamed, a Somali girl from Bristol, had mounted a successful campaign on to persuade Michael Gove, the education secretary, to tell all head teachers in England to educate parents and children about the practice. Fahma reckons that as many as 24,000 girls in the UK are at risk of being mutilated either in their own homes or in other countries to which their parents send them.

The Home Affairs Select Committee had begun an inquiry into the scale of FGM and what the police and Crime Prosecution Service are doing to target perpetrators. The NSPCC had launched a 24-hour Helpline after discovering that 1,700 victims were referred to six specialist clinics in England in two years. And then in April Dr Dhanuson Dharmasena, a registrar in gynaecology from a London hospital, appeared in court for the first FGM prosecution under the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003.

Some sector leaders have little enthusiasm for a punitive approach. Hilary Gilbert, founder of the Community Foundation for South Sinai, told me that we need to educate boys and young men so that they do not want their future wives to be mutilated. Vivienne Hayes, chief executive of Women’s Resource Centre, said legal action may do little to eradicate this form of violence against women and girls, because "until there is a joined up approach across government departments, including investment in specialist services, we will not see any significant changes."

David Adam, development coordinator at the Orchid Project, insisted that there is no tension between legal action and education. "Prosecution represents failure because the girl has already been cut," he said. "We need to involve the whole community in dialogue which breaks down taboos. But we also need legislation and healthcare to create an enabling environment in which awareness leads to the abandonment of cutting."

Next month I head proudly for Glasgow and Leeds Universities as my daughters graduate. I am acutely aware that the girls I met in Kenya were deprived of even a primary education because of FGM. These profound experiences persuade me that we all share a duty to raise awareness of FGM so that no more girls in Britain have their lives wrecked by this wretched practice.

Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser

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