Naana Otoo-Oyortey has recently been appointed Director of FORWARD, a UK-based organisation dedicated to improving the health and human rights of African girls in the UK and in Africa. A major focus of the organisation's work is the eradication of female genital mutilation (FGM).
A new report from FORWARD suggests that 20,000 girls under the age of 15 are potentially at risk of FGM in England and Wales, and that the practice is on the rise in the UK. The study was designed to inform the planning of a comprehensive national strategy in the UK which will help to speed up efforts to end FGM within one generation.
"Here in the UK we do have good Government policy on FGM, but so far no-one has been prosecuted under the dictates of new legislation that came into force in 2004. [Two doctors have been found guilty of serious professional misconduct by the UK General Medical Council.] The problem is that so many different sectors – from social services, to health service providers and community-based organizations – need to work together to provide strategic interventions.
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"In London, some councils are beginning to working together, but elsewhere around the UK there is no clear strategy for organizations working collaboratively to address FGM. So we have good policy and legislation, which is vital, but we need to work much more closely in the co-ordination of education and awareness-raising. If we don't reach local communities, we will not be able to address this issue effectively."
FORWARD is in its second year of a Young People Speak Out project, which has helped both young women and men to speak up about the need to eradicate FGM. These young people, mostly aged between 18 and 22, are promoting awareness amongst families, in schools and on university campuses, giving the eradication campaign a voice and legitimacy.
FORWARD is also part of a network of European countries (Belgium, France, Spain, Sweden, UK) seeking to learn from each other's experiences in order to create best models for interventions. In France, there is no specific legislation criminalizing FGM. However, using other legislation there have been successful prosecution of practitioners. In Sweden, there is a national eradication strategy closely aligned to the work of social services networks.
According to Otoo-Oyortey, there is anecdotal evidence that FGM is decreasing in Africa, but not enough hard data. "In Burkina Faso for example, there is a good system whereby perpetrators can be reported to the authorities but we don't have any evidence that the actual prevalence has dropped. We need hard data to inform our future strategies, in African and in Europe."
This lack of data – if frustrating – is not surprising. With criminalized status in many countries, those who perpetuate the practice of FGM go underground in order to avoid detection. It is also performed on very young women, many of whom are "protected" from the outside world by their families and communities.
There is also – I would argue – the problem that FGM remains a complicated agenda, one that poses some fundamental questions about the control of women's sexuality and health – easier to ignore than discuss, easier to leave alone than address.
And there is an argument that those who seek to eradicate FGM are dabbling with cultural practices and traditions. On this issue, Otoo-Oyortey is very clear. "Every culture has its strengths. FGM is not one of them, in any country."