Thursday, 4 June 2009

Tuesday 2nd June, King's, London

I know, I know - I've got my days back to front. Today IS Thursday, but this post belongs in a Tuesday.

So, better late than never.

I was privileged to be an interloper at a day's training at King's College, London. Training for midwives. There were about eight motivated participants and we sat through a number of lectures about the impacts of FGM. Some wonderful presenters.

The Met Police outlined Project Azure, which really concentrates on prevention of FGM, both in this country and outside of it. It is:

1. An offence to commit FGM
2. An offence to assist a girl to commit FGM on herself (boy - some sort of arcane loophole that had to be closed here!)
3. An offence for someone in the UK to arrange or assist FGM outside of the UK, even if not a UK national
4. Any act done outside of the UK, by a UK national

The example we were given was if a girl's father makes a phone call to his country of origin to arrange FGM, then the mother takes the girl back to the country, then the grandmother/cutter commits the offence - who in that line of perpetration can be prosecuted?

Answer - all of them.

In reality, there has not been one single prosecution for FGM in the UK. There is now a £20,000 reward (£10k from the Met, £10k from the Waris Dirie Foundation) for any evidence leading towards prosecution. I imagine this figure will go unclaimed for some time. The stigma in communities about disclosure will be strong and no doubt, the mistrust of authorities will run deep.

Another chasm between reality and actuality came from the talk given by the Chair of the London Safeguarding Children Board - when they came to compile statistics, there were only 2 cases of FGM recorded in London. Given that a recent report by Forward (A Statistical Study to Estimate the Prevalence of Female Genital Mutilation in England and Wales, 2007) identified up to 20,000 girls under the age of 15 at risk to FGM in these areas, it can be seen that the reported figures show anomalies.

Christine mentioned in her talk that the DoH may be close to appointing a National FGM Co-Ordinator. Hmmmm - watch this space.

The vivacious and heart-warming Prof Jacqueline kept us motivated for over an hour, with her talk on FGM and health promotion. In response to one of my questions, she replied that her touchstone was working with women like the midwives I was sitting with. That those in the front-line of healthcare would always be the touchstone of what was really going on. This struck me as so true.

As we spilled out into the summer Waterloo sunshine for lunch, I had a long chat with Cath, a fellow VSO returned volunteer. She spent her placement in North West Kenya, a place called Pokot. She spoke movingly of the circumcision rite that she was invited to attend all those years ago. Of the girls, aged around puberty, dressed up, draped on stones, with the entire village amassed to watch the proceedings, but far away, up on the crest of a sort of hill. The girls legs were held open and one by one, the cutter went quickly towards each and in one stroke, removed the labia and clitoris. One trainee cutter was clearly having her first go, because as she removed the genitals, she held them up in the air and whooped with achievement.

Later, Cath was invited by a conciliatory woman, beckoned through the bushes and came across the girls, all lying down, legs parted, for further cutting. Now the ceremony had passed, they were being "tidied up." She spoke of one girl whose face held such fear, whose mien had huge dark beads of sweat all over it as she was held and cut again.

Cath then told me of going back this year, to an event with Traditional Birth Attendants where a local chief spoke out against FGM, where the 80 or so TBAs were thinking of not cutting any more. One of the things she outlined was that TBAs were seeing the effects first hand of what cutting did to the girls, who were now old enough to be mothers and had problems delivering.

I asked her to see if she could follow up to see what led the village chief to speak out on FGM. For this surely is a huge part of it. If community elders are involved, then locally decided change can empower people. One of the TBAs told Cath that her church was preaching against it and this led her to change her mind - God had created us with these parts, who were we to remove them? Cath mentioned the juxtaposition of how normal the rite was with the horror of witnessing it. And of how the girls asked her afterwards to buy them soft drinks, as if as a reward for what they had gone through.

So, that was Tuesday. Off to Hil and Verity's for a summer supper overlooking the common as the light fell gently across the green and the day faded. Talk of capitalism, fires, Kenya and FGM interspersed and we all thought of our chum Julia, close, close, close to her due date. The sweet peas I bought in a careless, fun interaction about men with the flower seller outside Clapham Junction, glowed pinkly, as luminous as the dusk sky.

137 bus home in all of 20 minutes and thoughts of young girls and Africa flurry through my mind and take me to sleep.

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