Jacqui Hunt, director of Equality Now in Europe: FGM is clearly a human rights abuse
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a global issue, affecting more than 125 million girls and women in at least 29 countries. In half of the countries where FGM is practised, most girls undergo some form
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a global issue, affecting more than 125 million girls and women in at least 29 countries. In half of the countries where FGM is practised, most girls undergo some form of genital cutting before age five. The consequences of FGM infibulation are severe, often leading to lifelong and irreversible complications with fertility, sexual health and giving birth after FGM.
Jacqui Hunt is the Director of Equality Now’s Europe office, an international human rights organisation that has been at the forefront of campaigning for laws to criminalise female circumcision for more than 20 years. 1000women spoke to her about the global movement to end FGM and to give women and girls control over their bodies.
Understanding FGM: Why is it done?
For Jacqui, the definition of FGM in international human rights law makes it quite clear female genital mutilation is a human rights abuse recognised by the United Nations and its member states because it involves inflicting harm upon a woman or girl as a result of her sex. To a large extent, female circumcision is deeply rooted in gender inequality and discrimination.
“It is all wound up in this view of a girl and needing to control a girl and her sexuality,” Jacqui explains. “I think that societies in general, not just in those that practice FGM, are quite scared of a girl’s sexuality.”
She notes the similarities between FGM, chastity belts and foot binding. “All these different practices look at controlling women’s behaviour and their sexuality. FGM is another manifestation of that, which is why I would call it a human rights abuse and not a specific practice to any particular community.”
Female circumcision has often been rationalised as a rite of passage, involving a mixture of cultural, social and religious traditions associated with fidelity.
“It’s linked very closely to marriageability,” Jacqui says. “It’s about commodifying the girl child. If you can make a good marriage for her, that also reflects well on you.”
FGM in the UK: Pushing for prosecutions and better treatment
While FGM has been illegal in the UK for over three decades, there has yet to be a single conviction, which the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee has declared a national scandal.
“The push to have a prosecution is much more about sending a signal we’re serious in the country about addressing FGM,” Jacqui says. “If you have a law in the books and you never use it, people think what’s the point in having it.”
While there are often complex family dynamics behind FGM, a part of the reason the issue has gained little traction legally is to do with societal taboos. “If you were cutting off a finger, everyone would be in outrage,” she explains. “They would see it and they would see the immediate physical harm. It’s only because you transfer it to a girl’s genitalia that it becomes seen as private.”
The lack of reliable data on the scale of the problem is another key barrier. In 2014, Equality Now worked with the late Efua Dorkenoo OBE, the pioneering FGM activist, Senior Advisor to Equality Now’s End FGM programme and founder of FORWARD (Foundation for Women’s Health Research and Development) and City University London, to undertake research into the prevalence of FGM in the UK. The research estimated there were 60,000 girls up to the age of 14 in England and Wales who were at risk of undergoing infibulation.
However, Jacqui said it is very difficult to establish exact numbers: “Just because you come from a country where it is practised doesn’t mean you come from a community where it is practised, and even if you come from a community where it is practised it doesn’t mean that you practise it.”
From a treatment standpoint, anti-FGM activists were shocked by plans to close the Acton FGM Community Clinic in West London due to funding cuts – where FGM figures are highest in the country. Jacqui acknowledges the impact of austerity measures on public services, but feels combatting the practice is an integral part of any local authority strategy to tackle violence against women and girls.
“It’s really important that services exist, not just medical services, but also psychological services,” she says. “Sometimes it’s very difficult to ask for help, especially for something that you’ve been told is not something that should happen… You have to have really well trained people to be able to encourage women to come forward, to help and support them, if they need that help.
“I don’t think any society can afford to have groups of people who are marginalised, overlooked and without a voice.”
Ending FGM: The SDGs and changing legislation
Concrete measures are now being taken to address FGM. In 2015, the UN General Assembly adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, which set goals and targets in areas of critical importance for humanity over the next fifteen years. For the first time, the gender equality goal includes a specific target on eliminating FGM.
Social norms are also being updated. Legislation related to FGM has been introduced in 24 out of 29 countries where it is practised. Communities where girls have run away to get an education instead of undergoing FGM have seen the benefits of their daughter returning with better qualifications and jobs to support their families; this has a powerful impact on driving holistic and societal change.
The decline in FGM in some communities may also be partly to do with immigration. “People are moving around a lot so they’re talking to each other,” says Jacqui. “Even people coming to this country use the law for when they go back home as leverage in their own communities so they can avoid having it done.”
When asked if FGM could be eradicated by 2030, Jacqui remains optimistic. “I think there’s loads of hope. There’s loads of hope because we are having a joined up approach. There’s hope because young people are speaking up such as Integrate UK, and voices of survivors are also being promoted.”
“If you look at the demographics of who it’s done to now, the prevalence rate is going down in urban centres with age. We have so much better communication these days – people are talking about it and they can go and ask questions. I think eventually, with all the focus and all the energy and the support, it has to die out.”
Find out more: Taking action to end FGM
Equality Now is a co-founding partner of The Girl Generation, a social change campaign celebrating the Africa-led movement to end female circumcision within a generation. To find out more about Equality Now, visit their website, follow them on Twitter and like them on Facebook.
You can also take action on behalf of all women and girls affected by FGM by signing the petition to Save the Acton FGM Community Clinic, and sending letters to the United Nations and the governments of Liberia, Egypt and the United States.