UKIP are not the only ones peddling dangerous myths about FGM

It would be tempting to dismiss UKIP’s newly-announced manifesto policy on female genital mutilation as simply the latest ravings of a delusional binbag of wingnuts. Unfortunately, this delusional binbag of wingnuts seem to attract a lot of media attention, earn disproportionate platforms and, as you might have noticed, more than occasionally see their ravings slide into the policy platforms of supposedly sensible parties.

So let’s see if we can cut the legs off this particular cockroach before it scuttles into anyone’s sandwich.

UKIP’s promise is to “implement school-based medical checks on girls from groups at high risk of suffering FGM. These should take place annually and whenever they return from trips overseas.”

The point which most on the liberal-left have been making (correctly) is that this would be a horrific violation of human rights, a discriminatory, racially-targeted policy that would impose something akin to strip-search and sexual assault of very young (and less young) children at least once a year. Lest there be any doubt, most FGM scarring is not immediately obvious and could only be detected by a full legs-akimbo, smear-test-stirrups style procedure. Let there be no euphemisms or sugar coating here.

If implemented, the policy would also surely result in all kinds of unintended consequences, including children being taken out of school to avoid the examinations (not necessarily because they have been mutilated, either.)  It would be phenomenally expensive and an administrative nightmare.

Beyond all that, however, there is a bigger point which UKIP need to understand, but so too does almost the entire political and media establishment. It is this:

There is no evidence that any girls in British schools are at ‘high risk of suffering FGM’ in the first place. There is only the most scant evidence that any girls in British schools are at any identifiable risk of suffering FGM at all.

As we have noted before on this blog, for the past couple of years the Department of Health has been building up a database of all British (or British-resident) women who have been identified as having suffered FGM. For the past year, they have also been trying to collect data on whether those women were born in Britain, and in which country the FGM was performed.

From the most recent figures, over 1,200 FGM survivors were newly identified by the NHS. (That quarterly figure has been fairly constant since they began recording.) Of those, precisely 14 were born in Britain, and in only 11 cases was the FGM procedure performed in Britain.

Now, it is still not possible to identify cases where a girl was born outside the UK, brought here to live, taken out of the country to be mutilated then brought back again. Such cases could exist. However the smart money would still be that virtually all of the identified FGM survivors in the UK were cut before they migrated here with their families or as adults.

But wait, there is some new information in the recent figures. Of those 14 cases they did find, 85 percent (I calculate that as all but two) were categorised as FGM survivors because they had genital piercings.

Now, this issue gets a little complicated because there are some cultures in parts of the world which do inflict genital piercings upon girls or women as a form of FGM. (This is categorised as Type IV FGM by the WHO). However, you may recall that when this statistical evaluation was first announced, there was widespread concern that the type of routine decorative (or recreational) genital piercings voluntarily undertaken by many women could be mistakenly categorised as FGM.

It is also worth noting that, with very few exceptions, genital piercings can be easily removed with little or no lasting damage, leading one to question just how relevant they are to the very real horrors of Type 1 or Type 2 FGM.

We don’t know how many of the 12 FGM piercing cases are ‘true’ FGM and how many are harmless piercings (or whether they overlap with the 11 cases where the procedure was performed in the UK.) We also don’t know how old those 12 patients were when they were pierced, which would be very useful data.

The bottom line, however, is that across the entire NHS, the numbers of women being found who were born in the UK to immigrant families and who were then subjected to FGM are tiny. Yes, such cases exist and they are appalling and must be stopped, but they can probably be counted on the fingers of a hand or two, across the entire country.

In turn, what this implies is that far from being a huge socio-medical problem within African or Arabic migrant communities in Britain, FGM (in this country) is a spectacularly rare offence. It is highly likely that if UKIP were to somehow get their policy implemented, the authorities could go for months or even years before identifying a single case of a schoolgirl who has been mutilated while under the protection of British law.

To put this in grim perspective, it is highly likely that if we introduced routine genital screening of all schoolchildren there would be vastly higher proportions of cases of bruised and damaged genitals from forced sexual child abuse uncovered than cases of FGM, even within communities which are nominally high risk. Now ask whether we would accept all our children being given genital examinations once a year and what UKIP would say if we suggested examining their daughters (and sons) just in case.

There’s a depressing political point to this. It has long been inevitable that a party like UKIP would put forward this policy sooner or later. (I’m just grateful it’s not their near-cousins in the Conservative party.) For years, if not decades, there has been a highly irresponsible narrative pushed by my own friends on the liberal left, including the charity sector and the broad feminist movement, insisting that hundreds of thousands of girls in Britain are “at risk” of FGM. It has always been almost entirely evidence-free, calculated using estimates of the size of ethnic / cultural communities in the UK combined with the estimated prevalence of FGM in those countries. There was never any allowance made for the fact that migrant peoples might change their behaviour at the first opportunity, that they might be tempted to observe the law, to learn from public health education efforts, or that FGM might be exactly the type of problem that they wanted to move to this country to avoid in the first place.

These ‘At risk…’ statistics have been a glittering gift to outright racists and petty bigots from UKIP or worse.  They basically portrayed African and Arabic (or more commonly and more inaccurately, Muslim) communities as brutally patriarchal savages who love nothing more than to butcher the genitals of little girls.

To be clear, FGM is and remains a huge public health problem in some parts of the world and is a horrible, traumatising experience for many or most of those who are subjected to it. There are undoubtedly many thousands of women living in Britain today who have been mutilated and who may need extensive physical and/or psychological interventions to heal. There is also still a desperate need for better research, better data, better understanding of the nature and scale of the problem here. However reducing and eliminating FGM is, overwhelmingly, a matter of public health and education in those countries where it is commonly practised. They do not include the United Kingdom.

UKIP’s policy proposal is ignorant, dangerous and ill-informed and we would expect little else from them. More importantly, it is high time the political mainstream stopped the nonsense and adopted language and approaches that are based upon evidence, not scaremongering.

How do the Scouts get past their paedophile problem?

At the latest count 51,000 British youngsters are sitting on a waiting list for a place in a Scout, Cub or Beaver group. The cause of this lengthy queue is a shortage of adult volunteers, to the tune of around 17,000. Now the Chief Scout, TV Adventurer Bear Grylls, has launched a campaign to fill the shortfall.

Martin Daubney at the Telegraph is clear why. The risk of being labelled a paedophile is the ‘one reason’ stopping men from putting their names forward. He suggests that it is not only the fear of malicious rumours, but the accompanying concerns around the intimidating bureaucracy involved in the vetting and debarring scheme and other child protection policies.

The statistics suggest it is a bit more complicated than that. Surprisingly, perhaps, more adults than ever before now are volunteering with the Scout Association, a total of 154,000. The problems are that those volunteers have less time to give than before and secondly that more children than ever are wanting to get involved. (It would be interesting to know the gender ratio of the volunteers – it is possible male numbers are falling while female volunteers rise, but we don’t know)

That said, I have no problem agreeing with his fundamental point. I’m sure there are many, many men who would be happy to give up an evening a week to help run a Scout or Cub group but fear that others will question their motivations.

At this point let me express my unequivocal admiration for the adult volunteers who run the Scouts. I will admit that as an adult, the ethos of the movement is really not for me. I’m not in a hurry to march my own boys off to an organisation that teaches submission to God, the Queen and the military (thankfully, neither son has ever asked.) Having said that, I recognise that the volunteers are, as the cliché would have it, the salt of the earth. Countless generations of young people have had childhoods enriched by their energy and generosity. My own earliest memories include my mum going out in her Akela uniform every Monday night to run a cub pack. To this day she is occasionally stopped in the street by burly men who recognise her and thank her for her efforts 50 or 60 years earlier. It should go without saying that the vast majority of Scout Association volunteers are wonderful people.

The issue is with the minority.

I remember that even back in the more innocent days of the 1970s, there was no shortage of rumours and jokes about Scout leaders. The book by Lord Baden-Powell which set the ball rolling was called “Scouting for Boys.” Aharrharrharr. ‘Join the Cubs,’ ran the famous graffito, “one child molester free in every pack.” Stitch my sides and then hand me my sewing badge. And when I had my own couple of years in a Scout troop it turned out that the jokes weren’t so funny. We had three volunteer scout leaders. One of them, regular readers may recall, was this guy.

And so here’s the first problem with the Scout movement, as I see it. If some evil genius wanted to design a mass movement for the specific purpose of providing children to be sexually abused by predatory adults, they would probably design something that looked very much like the Scouts. All of the elements are there: the strictly enforced oaths of obedience to authority, under the stern command of God; the removal of children from their parents or carers into the hands of much-admired, trusted pillars of the community; overnight trips to remote locations; the list goes on.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying for a moment that this was ever the intended purpose of the movement. But I am saying that once such a movement exists, it would have to be a powerful magnet for those twisted individuals driven to target, exploit and abuse children. I am saying that, knowing what we now know about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, knowing what we now know about the dynamics of institutionally-based abuse, knowing what we know about the typical modus operandi of predatory child abusers it would be flat-out astonishing if the Scout Movement had not been regularly and extensively infiltrated by paedophile child abusers.

I realise this is a hard truth to accept for those who admire the Scouts, especially those who have had their own, entirely positive experiences whether as children or as adult volunteers. It is tantamount to a mass defamation of hundreds of thousands of people, the vast majority of whom are entirely innocent. The same was true when concerns were first raised about the priesthood, the clergy, social care home staff, music teachers and sports coaches where, in most cases, identical dynamics were in play.

And this leads me to my second huge concern. As far as I can tell, the Scout Association itself remains almost entirely in denial about the risks it has been sheltering for over a hundred years. A couple of years ago the BBC ran one short news item about allegations of abuse in the Scouts. Within weeks, 150 individuals contacted the solicitors mentioned in the report to add their own victimisation. At the same time, the Scout Association claimed that in its entire history, they had received 48 allegations of sexual abuse.

Some might look at that figure, 48 cases, and conclude that the Scouts have never had a problem with child abuse. I look at that figure and conclude that throughout their history the Scouts have failed dismally to identify, record and act upon suspicions of abuse. To underline the point, many of those who called the solicitors after the news item described institutional failings that are painfully familiar from the other scandals.

One caller spoke of his difficulty in finding resolution after the Scout Association failed to apologise even after his abuser was convicted. Another told of how his parents’ reports were dealt with by the Scout Association internally and the abuse was never reported to the police. Unfortunately, there appear to have been numerous cases where the Scout Association failed to act appropriately after allegations of abuse were made.

Of course, it remains possible that my worst suspicions are ill-founded, that the reason there has never been a major institutional sex abuse scandal with the Scouts because there has never been a major institutional sex abuse problem within the Scouts. It’s possible. It just strikes me as vastly more credible that the reason the scandal has never broken is because, as yet, that particular stone have yet to be turned over to see what crawls out.  And yet for some reason, day by day, reports drip out. Another one today. Every one an isolated incident. Sure.

It seems to me that the Scout Association will never get past its problems with paedophile stigma and suspicion until it makes every full and transparent effort to establish what problems it has had in the past, what problems it might still have in the future, and then develops policies that get as close as they can to making it impossible that a predatory child abuser could ever operate within the movement. That means firstly opening themselves up to examination. No one could have imagined the scale of child sexual abuse within professional football until the FA were forced to open a helpline to which victims could call and report. In the first two months of the helpline being set up, they received 1,700 calls. For perspective, the number of boys training with professional football clubs is a minuscule fraction of the numbers involved in Scouting over the decades.

Secondly, Scouts (like all organisations serving children and young people) need to be far more proactive in equipping their charges with the tools to protect themselves from abuse. I’ve just been reading the leaflets that the movement hands out to different age groups on how to ‘Stay Safe.’ They are full of advice about online grooming, giving your phone number to strangers and much else. They all suggest that if you are worried you could talk to your scoutleader. Nowhere in the leaflets does it tell children what they should do if the person they are worried about IS their scoutleader.  Nowhere does it spell out anything like the Underwear rule.  Nowhere does it say that a cub or scout should never, ever be asked to keep a secret by an adult. These (and many others) are easy, zero-cost, effective steps that could be taken instantly. Going further the Scouts could set up their own helpline, akin to the FA/ NSPCC abuse helpline, to which victims of past, recent or current abuse could call.

All of this and much more could, in the long term, go towards reassuring parents and potential volunteers that children are safe in the care of scout leaders, and reassure the public that there is no reason to be suspicious of any adult who volunteers. But it also requires them to grasp the nettle, acknowledge the possibility that the movement has been providing haven to widespread child abuse. I would propose that the alternative for the organisation is to wait until the scandals burst out in their own time and on their own terms and then cope with the vastly greater resulting damage to their reputation and function.

All of this would be a painful process for the institution of Scouting. It is also absolutely essential if they are to operate as a trustworthy, responsible 21st century youth movement, and consign the sick jokes, the smears and the suspicions to history, once and for all.

It is time to end this wilful, harmful gender blindness on prison suicides

Prisons need a profound culture change if they are to address the appalling escalation in suicides, two charities have claimed this week.

The arguments put forward by the Howard League and the Centre for Mental Health are compelling and correct. Prison suicides have soared in recent years and last year a record 119 prisoners took their own lives. In an era of chronic overcrowding and staff shortages, prisoners’ mental health needs are going unacknowledged and unaddressed; acts of self-harm and even suicide attempts are commonly considered to be manipulative rather than symptoms of distress and emotional crisis; a ‘toxic’ and violent prison culture sees staff struggling to maintain their own psychological health, never mind that of the prisoners.   [Read more…]

Gender equality? Meh

Those with the patience to read through the comments on this blog might have come upon an interesting exchange towards the bottom of my last blog thread.

Some of our regulars were taking issue with me over the issue of equality and my habit of saying “Meh” to demands for equal treatment of men and women. I thought it would be worth a thread of its own to set out what I mean.

I’ve written before that there is a commonly held fallacy that the way you achieve social equality is to treat everyone equally. The problem is that if you start from a position of inequality, to treat everyone equally is to sustain and conserve that inequality and it can even serve to widen inequalities (consider the effect of a flat poll tax on economic inequalities, for example.)  There’s also the analogy that if a 5’ tall person is standing up to their neck in water and a 6’ person is standing alongside up to their waist in water, and you add another six inches of water to the barrel, you are treating them equally  – but not fairly. [Read more…]

On the psychology of domestic violence

Just before Christmas, Dr Ben Hine gave a public lecture in London entitled ‘Challenging the Gendered Discourse on domestic violence.’

The lecture is now online in two parts, totalling about 90 minutes, and if you are interested in the social psychology around domestic violence it is absolutely essential viewing. I’m a big fan of Ben & his work, we’ve collaborated in bringing together the Men and Boys Coalition and generally I think we couldn’t be much closer together on the same page, politically.    [Read more…]

From the Home Office to the Independent: crying out for gender-inclusive policy

This week has offered us a couple of vivid illustrations of why gender-inclusive policies are so desperately and urgently needed across the political and media strata.

Just to put what follows in context, please consider the story that has dominated headline news for the past four weeks. At the latest count, police are investigating allegations of child sexual abuse by 83 suspects with involvement in 98 football clubs, on the basis of reports made by (or about) more than 350 men.  One might think this alone would be enough to remind officials and commentators that boys and men are far from immune to crimes of intimate violence. On top of the raw numbers, evidence is mounting that the sport as a whole was steeped in a culture of (at best) systematic indifference to the welfare and human dignity of boys and young men in their charge. [Read more…]

My coach, the child abuser

At the current count as I write, eleven men have now contacted Cheshire police to report sexual abuse committed against them by Barry Bennell and/or other paedophile abusers from the world of professional football. Everyone who understands the dynamics of these cases fully expects the reports to keep coming. Once the seal has been broken, the lid will rarely go back on the jar.

When I was around 11 to 13, I played in a kids football team which in one respect was very, very different to Whitehill FC or Crewe Alexandra Juniors, where Bennell first met Andy Woodward, David White and other boys he abused. They were a hugely talented group, some of whom who would go on to play for top professional clubs and even the national team. We were abject rubbish. Really. If the circumstances were different I could tell you some hilarious stories about our incompetent blunders. Right now I don’t feel like laughing.

We did, however, share one significant detail. As with them, our coach was a serial and prolific child abuser. [Read more…]

Introducing the Men and Boys Coalition: How the British men’s sector has come of age

Four years ago, almost to the day, I wrote a piece in the Guardian asking whether International Men’s Day could become the seeds of a new kind of movement for male gender politics. I described attending the National Conference on Men and Boys, where I found a diverse range of organisations and individuals with different specialities and interests but all committed to developing constructive and progressive solutions to problems affecting boys and men.

It seems like it has been a long, long four years, but I am proud and delighted to tell you that today the rarefied halls of the Houses of Parliament will be the venue for the launch of a brand new Men and Boys’ Coalition, representing over 50 of the UK’s leading charities, academics and campaigners in the field of men and boys’ welfare. I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to say that this is the day when a new kind of men’s movement comes of age. [Read more…]

Why we brought #1BlueString to the UK

A couple of years ago I came across the US-based organisation 1 in 6 which works with and campaigns for male survivors of sexual abuse and exploitation. I was particularly taken by their campaign #1BlueString, which invites guitarists to show solidarity with the 1 in 6 men and boys who have lived through sexual violence, by replacing one of the six strings of their guitar with a blue one.

As an enthusiastic amateur fret-botherer myself, I emailed the campaign at the time asking if they could ship to the UK and was told no, for the time being it was strictly a US initiative. Shortly after, during one of my regular chinwags with Duncan at Survivors Manchester we found out that we had both, separately and independently, been badgering the team at 1in6 to bring their blue strings to the UK. [Read more…]