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Asking some awkward questions about FGM

Female genital mutilation is always an abhorrent obscenity. In its more invasive forms it carries significant implications for health and, most obviously sexual health. I have no quibble with the Home Affairs Select Committee that the failure to protect girls in the UK from the practice is a national scandal. We have victim testimony and medical case studies to confirm that girls born and raised in the UK, who should have been under the protection of our welfare and justice systems, have been subjected to this gruesome form of violence.

That said, I have longstanding and lingering doubts about some of the evidence that is always produced when we discuss the nature and extent of FGM in the UK. I stress at this point that from hereon in, this blogpost will be asking questions, not providing answers. However the questions I ask are, I believe, much bigger and more important than anyone is currently crediting. I raise them here not to be a contrarian bellend with an eye on a column in Spiked, but because it concerns me that the FGM prevention agenda could have serious unintended consequences that I will return to at the end.

Media coverage of the new MPs report typically repeat the claim that up to 170,000 women in the UK may have been subjected to FGM and 65,000 girls are currently at risk. The former statistic comes from a piece of research by Julie Bindel earlier this year, the latter is a longstanding estimate originating in research done for the charity FORWARD by Efua Dorkenoo in 2006.

And yet despite anecdote and assumption, actual documented incidents of girls from this country being ritually mutilated, either in this country or being taken abroad for the procedure, is scant. The Association of Chief Police Officers told the Select Committee that in the last five years the police had dealt with over 200 FGM-related cases nationally of which 11 had been referred on to the Crown Prosecution Service for consideration. Of the 69 referrals made to the Metropolitan Police Service in 2013, only 10 were recorded as an FGM offence, the others included unfounded concerns and cases where the cutting had happened before the victim had moved to the UK. Health professionals also report seeing many mutilated women but, again, in almost all cases the mutilation appears to have predated UK residence.

Is it credible that a problem on the scale reported could throw up so few confirmed cases? Earlier this year a Channel 4 News Factcheck blog explained very clearly how the prevalence statistics were calculated.

“Estimates of prevalence like this are more like educated guesswork than hard science. There are ranges of uncertainty built into every stage of the process.”

To be fair, the Dorkenoo report is very frank about some of the research’s own limitations. This is reflected, to an extent, in the MPs’ report, but the way they acknowledge this is typical:

“Yet, apart from a small number of high-level statistical analyses and anecdotal evidence, we have very little information on the children who are most at risk, and even the extent to which the cutting is occurring in this country or by taking girls abroad. Meanwhile, as many as 170,000 women in the UK may already be living with the life-long consequences of FGM. We welcome efforts by the Government and others to draw a more accurate picture. However, even in the absence of precise data, it is clear that the extent of the problem is very significant”

In the absence of precise data, is it really clear? I’m not so sure. (Of course, in one sense any extent of FGM, even one case, is significant, but I don’t think that’s really what they mean.)

To understand the doubts about the prevalence data we are given, consider first the phrase “65,000 girls are at risk of FGM.” What does that mean? Simplistically , it means they were born into communities where FGM is practiced, but what risk does that carry? Is their risk of being mutilated 1% or 99%? When we are talking about prevalence and incidence, ‘at risk’ is an almost useless phrase. A quick read of the research reveals that the phrase ‘at risk’ is applied to any girl born to a woman born in any country were FGM is practised, including those where the practice is close to universal and those where it is a comparative rarity. Averaging out such risks would be meaningless, so it is impossible to say what magnitude of risk we are talking about here.

Look at the Dorkenoo paper closely, and other issues arise. The research uses census data for women who were born in countries where FGM is practised and is quite explicit that the research did not control for ethnic or cultural variations within that country. The single largest group within their data are Kenyans, who provide almost a third of their estimated total for women who have been mutilated. However, the British-Kenyan community is by no means typical of the population in Kenya. A large proportion are Kenyan-Asians, mostly of Hindu-Indian culture, who were expelled after the Kenyan Immigration Act of 1967. Rates of FGM among that community are (I would presume) pretty much zero. Other people who will have told the census they were born in Kenya include many white stragglers from the colonial era (Richard Dawkins, Cristina Odone and Peter Hain MP were all born in Kenya). Even among ethnic Kenyans in the UK, large numbers are educated middle-class professionals, especially doctors and nurses, and it is reasonable to presume that (while of course not exempt from risk) they are significantly less likely to be practising FGM than representative samples of the generally poor and uneducated Kenyan population, from which the risks to British-Kenyan girls are extrapolated.

One other serious question mark hanging over this research relates to how migrant communities behave. As acknowledged in the select committee’s report, there is evidence that the behaviour of (at least some) immigrant communities to the UK begins to change soon after they arrive in this country. It is by no means self-evident that a family of North African origin are going to stubbornly retain all the cultural habits of their former home when they begin a new life elsewhere.

And this is where the first of my wider concerns comes in. Anyone who regularly reads comments on social media or blogs knows the extent that FGM can be instrumentalised in entirely different debates. Despite a minimal theological connection to Islam, and widespread practice among Christian and other religious communities in parts of Africa, it is regularly used as evidence of the barbarity of Muslims. Those who would impose a fascistic monoculture upon this country use widespread FGM as evidence of the failure of supposed multiculturalism and the evils of cultural relativism and political correctness. A narrative holding that large numbers of savage dark-skinned foreigners are whisking their daughters out of the country to have their vaginas sewn up or their clitoris excised grips with troubling persistence in the public imagination.

There is a lot about the FGM debate which reminds me of the inflated concerns about sex trafficking about a decade ago. Who can forget Denis Macshane standing up in the House of Commons, waving a copy of the Daily Mirror and insisting that there were 25,000 sex slaves on the streets of Britain? The campaigning and false statistics drove two massive nationwide police operations which ultimately resulted in the rescue of a very small number of genuine victims of trafficking, rape and false imprisonment. Yes, such victims did and do exist. However the main victims of Pentameter I and II were entirely consenting, freely operating foreign-national sex workers who were rounded up by the hundred, torn away from their lives and summarily deported

Just as there really are victims of appalling sex trafficking, there are also victims of female genital mutilation. I do not doubt that there will be girls in this country who are either subjected to the cruel practice here in the UK or perhaps over the summer holidays they will be taken out of the country, with or without knowledge of their impending fate. Just one case is one too many, but whether such cases number in the dozens, the hundreds or the thousands must make a huge difference as to the policies we instigate to address the problem. If the problem were much more rare than we are led to believe, then it could cause considerable harm to place communities from Somalia, Sudan, Egypt and other FGM-practising countries under intrusive practices of surveillance and suspicion, while having little or no effect on the problem. If there are indeed thousands of cases each year, then it might be entirely justified to initiate more wide-ranging policies.

What concerns me most about the lack of strong research into the prevalence of FGM is not just that we do not know the extent of the problem. It is that it seems everyone involved knows we are clueless about the extent of the problem and they seem to have little genuine desire to find out the truth.

Comments

  1. Paul says

    Those who would impose a fascistic monoculture upon this country use widespread FGM as evidence of the failure of supposed multiculturalism and the evils of cultural relativism and political correctness. A narrative holding that large numbers of savage dark-skinned foreigners are whisking their daughters out of the country to have their vaginas sewn up or their clitoris excised grips with troubling persistence in the public imagination.

    Fair enough Ally.Although i think you’ve ducked the possibility that cultural relativism has played its part in the failure of the state to take a more robust view with regard to addressing certain cultural practices which have absolutely no place in this country. FGM being just one of them

    I agree with you that there are those who use these practices as cannon fodder for their racist and islamophobic agendas.However it’s also a fact that for some time now grassroots groups in those communities where these practices take place have been frustrated by what has been at best a half-hearted approach by the state in addressing them.And some feel this is down to a combination of cultural relativism and a general reluctance to rock the boat in some ethnic minority communities.

    Or put another way the rights of some-mainly women- are seen as being expendable in order to maintain the illusion that contemporary multiculturalism within a British context doesn’t have some serious problems which need to be addressed. And i think it’s telling that it’s being increasingly left to people from British ethnic and religious minority communities to address them.For without meaning to sound like a closet Daily Mail reader the White-dominated liberal establishment in this country has bottled out of taking the initiative in addressing them-no doubt for fear of being accused of racism.

  2. Thil says

    “then it could cause considerable harm to place communities from Somalia, Sudan, Egypt and other FGM-practising countries under intrusive practices of surveillance and suspicion, while having little or no effect on the problem”

    But if the evidence was kosher that would make it ok to target people based on race?

  3. Ally Fogg says

    Thil [2]

    No, that’s absolutely not what I meant. I was thinking of a sort of semi-official suspicion being encouraged among doctors, teachers etc where they are (even unconsciously) always looking that harder at girls from those places, interrogating them about their family plans, that kind of thing. So proposal that head teachers, midwives etc should be compelled to report suspicions could be quite harmful to community relations,

    I think in situations like this there is always difficult decisions as to where to draw the line between targeting communities in a discriminatory way and targeting resources where you are most likely to help those in need. I honestly wasn’t attempting to draw that line.

    I was just observing that not only are such policies a bad idea (I think they are) it is not even clear they would succeed on their own terms.

  4. says

    It is that it seems everyone involved knows we are clueless about the extent of the problem and they seem to have little genuine desire to find out the truth.

    Why exactly are you attributing this to apathy rather than incapacity? It seems pretty obvious to me that the people who are spending their lives dedicated to this cause have a sufficient intensity of desire to identify girls at risk. What they are lacking is a reliable means of identification. This is a practice done away from the eyes of those who would disapprove and once done is unspoken of and often invisible for a decade or more.

  5. mildlymagnificent says

    A narrative holding that large numbers of savage dark-skinned foreigners are whisking their daughters out of the country to have their vaginas sewn up or their clitoris excised grips with troubling persistence in the public imagination.

    And that presumption drives the tone and even the content of some reporting of the problem.

    She said the girls in the group briefed in April had been surprised that their health problems could be treated.

    “They thought that their problems – how they can’t pee, how they’re in pain – were shared by all the girls in the whole world. But when I said that in Sweden you can get help for this, many girls came to the school doctor, saying ‘please can you help me’, and one after another they asked for help themselves, and that was fantastic.”

    But the manner in which the original story was portrayed has caused tension in Sweden. …

    … In fact the girls, aged 13-18, were part of a group of newly arrived immigrants from FGM high-risk countries brought together for an educational session as part of a new pilot project being launched in Norrköping. They had all been circumcised in their home countries.

    *

    So the story that emerged was that immigrant families had taken their daughters back to their countries of origin for FGM, but that was not true. More importantly, telling that distorted, dishonest version of the story overwhelmed the much more important story – that women and girls who are suffering the consequences of mutilation can receive good medical treatment to help their problems with urination, menstruation and other matters that may upset most of us but can change their lives very much for the better.

    *http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/jun/27/female-genital-mutilation-fgm-specialist-sweden-gynaecological-checks-children
    Don’t know how keen I am on mandated gynaecological checks. My own view is that fixing problems for women and girls who have them will spread the word very quickly that good health care makes a big difference.

  6. Soarer says

    I agree Ally that statistics are made up and thrown around in with more heat than light in these problem policy areas. I think the best you can say is that the numbers are unlikely to be an underestimate.

    I also agree that 1 case of FGM is 1 case too many. I do think cultural relativism is a problem – though I don’t think this is a problem for any one religion. But we are too ambivalent to many cultural practices which in any sane world we would regard as barbaric, and are often already illegal. Yet we ban Khat, which seems to cause almost no problems at all.

    What I think is missing in your piece is enforcement and punishment. It seems to me that until there are pretty severe consequences for arranging the mutilation of your daughter, the practice will continue. Detection may be hard, but where it succeeds it should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

    This will give those within the cultures who are fighting the practice, and there are many, additional ammunition to strengthen their arguments. They may say that the practice is abhorrent, but this is a hard sell in communities where it has been ‘business as usual’ for centuries. But if they can also say that it could also lead to the child being taken into care, and prison and deportation for the perpetrators, with high-profile examples to show this happening, they may get taken more seriously at least by some.

    You might argue that this would lead to few girls coming forward to ‘shop’ their parents. Well, few do at the moment so it is hard to see that it can make that any worse.

    Wider society at the moment sends a mixed message – most of what you do we may not like, but we will tolerate. Some other stuff we say we will not allow, but we will not enforce those strictures. It is probably not clear to the people involved which practices fall into which category, and why they do.

    But the boundaries must be clear about what will not, under any circumstance, be tolerated, and crossing those boundaries must carry severe punishments. FGM is one such boundary.

  7. Ally Fogg says

    Ibis3 [4]

    Oh it’s not apathy. Particularly not on the part of the charities. However all charities, however well-intentioned, have a vested interest in the scale of the problem they deal with being described with the most extreme and dramatic statistics they can find.

    But I don’t think it should be left to the charities to establish the prevalence, it is too big a job for them. I would want the Department of Health to be funding the research. And while it would be difficult, it would not be impossible. It would probably involve testing a representative sample of young women from communities affected who were known to have been born in the UK, and scaling up, but there might be other approaches too.

  8. Ally Fogg says

    Soarer [6]

    I’m not an enormous fan of using criminal justice to solve these things.

    Yes there is a place for it, especially with ‘cutters’ but in a crime like this which is so unlikely to be detected,
    It tends not be a very effective deterrent and just makes the victims very unlikely to cooperate with authorities and can deter them from seeking necessary medical help.

    I’m quite happy that FGM is a criminal offence and quite right too, but I don’t think it is the ultimate solution.

  9. Soarer says

    “I’m not an enormous fan of using criminal justice to solve these things.”

    Any yet you would, I am sure, support it in cases of murder, ape, burglary, armed robbery etc. etc.

    Are you sure your cultural relativity isn’t clouding your judgement?

  10. Pen says

    The problem in getting reliable statistics is that what you need to do is in itself intrusive by the standards of British culture(and costly). You basically need to have a doctor strip every girl and look at her genitals on a regular basis. There is no other way. In Britain women’s genitals usually only come under this kind of scrutiny when they are adult, getting pregnant or requiring smear tests (which are optional).

    I have heard that in France they are adopting the ‘inspect every girl’ approach. It sounds draconian but I can imagine it fitting easily into the French medical system. All children are scheduled for regular medical visits in which they’re weighed, measured, and generally inspected all over. Even adults tend to get them as part of their employment packages. When you look at it like that, it isn’t so intrusive or discriminatory and it’s generally a good idea. But we’re not going to be getting it in Britain because we’re not getting money for anything these days.

    I don’t see another easy way to monitor, stop or assess the extent of the practice. At the moment, the advice sent to schools consists of what? ‘If you discover a girl from one of these cultures is visiting her home country this summer, report it to the social services’??!! Is there more to it than that? And then what happens? All I hear is a whole lot of outrage and uproar about nobody doing anything, and not the hint of a practical suggestion as to what to do.

  11. Ally Fogg says

    Soarer

    No, you’re wrong. I don’t really look to the criminal justice system to solve or reduce any of those crimes. I look to socialisation, education, values, how people are brutalised in childhood etc etc.

    That is not to say I advocate decriminalisation of murder, judicial punishment is a necessary evil. However it is not the mechanism by which we change behaviour.

  12. marduk says

    “What concerns me most about the lack of strong research into the prevalence of FGM is not just that we do not know the extent of the problem. It is that it seems everyone involved knows we are clueless about the extent of the problem and they seem to have little genuine desire to find out the truth.”

    This is what I was saying to Lucy on the prior thread about zombie stats. Policy makers genuinely don’t know where the gap are and this situation isn’t helped by campaigning groups rocking up and claiming they know everything and have all the answers on their ‘fact sheet’. Phew, no need to spend money finding anything out yet again.

    I’ve said it before and I’ve said it again, good data is a feminist issue. This certainly isn’t controversial, women’s issue are remarkably ill-treated in this area, its just nobody knows because we have bad data (this is a sort of circular meta thing really). And right now it is THE feminist issue but it seems impossible to convince any of them of this.

  13. daveallen says

    No, you’re wrong. I don’t really look to the criminal justice system to solve or reduce any of those crimes. I look to socialisation, education, values, how people are brutalised in childhood etc etc.

    Ally, I’d have thought setting precedents for the punishment of crimes was a form of socialisation, and maybe even an aspect of values.

    I wonder what sort of information could be gathered in light of an amnesty for those who provided it? I also wonder if the Swedish experience pointed to a beneficial short term effect of a health drive aimed at complaints commonly caused by the practice of FGM might lead to honing in on where its happening.

    I feel a certain sense of helplessness in regard to how to go about stopping it because – without wanting to fall into the trap of discriminating the other – I do feel that the forces driving the practice have their strongholds (in terms of argument as well as authority) elsewhere in the world.

    So I do feel an effort to export the value of not carrying out the practice (or minimizing it – or ensuring informed consent – or whatever) might be the only way to have a substantial long term effect – but it also carries a lot of paternalistic baggage.

  14. mildlymagnificent says

    I wonder what sort of information could be gathered in light of an amnesty for those who provided it? I also wonder if the Swedish experience pointed to a beneficial short term effect of a health drive aimed at complaints commonly caused by the practice of FGM might lead to honing in on where its happening.

    My own feeling is that approaching it as a health issue could have a lot of benefits. Just looking back at those girls who had already suffered FGM before arrival, treating them can do some good as health advice generally. Follow up with the family to see if mum might also need similar health care. If there are younger sisters, health workers can emphasise that the best and easiest way to avoid the almost inevitable bladder and kidney infections and problems with menstruation is not to have the procedure in the first place. (“That’s one of the reasons why it’s against the law here” – if a doctor or health worker feels the need to get all splainy with people who are coming to grips with the strange and amazing idea that women’s health problems are taken seriously and can be effectively treated.)

  15. Ally Fogg says

    Ally, I’d have thought setting precedents for the punishment of crimes was a form of socialisation, and maybe even an aspect of values.

    Yeah, perhaps. Just not a very powerful or effective one. You only need to look at how effective criminalisation has been at deterring people from taking drugs to see that.

    I agree with you (and MM) about the health-based approach. I suspect that is more likely to be effective than anything else. And I also think we need a little bit of humility in recognising that we can’t necessarily instantly solve all the evils in the world.

  16. Ally Fogg says

    Pen (11)

    There is an interesting proposal in the MPs’ report, which announces a pilot study in London where they will put an obligation on midwives to report to social services any adult women who have themselves been cut. The social workers will then visit the woman and talk her through some sort of information pack which includes information about the health risks and physical harms of FGM, offers a wide range of support (including medical repair) for the woman herself, and explains in no uncertain terms the legal situation in the UK and the penalties that could be incurred by the parents if the authorities later find a daughter has been mutilated.

    It is being run as a two-year pilot programme at first. It will be interesting to see what effects it has.

  17. 123454321 says

    “No, you’re wrong. I don’t really look to the criminal justice system to solve or reduce any of those crimes. I look to socialisation, education, values, how people are brutalised in childhood etc etc.

    That is not to say I advocate decriminalisation of murder, judicial punishment is a necessary evil. However it is not the mechanism by which we change behaviour.”

    Behavioural change supporting positive evolution requires a balanced foundation set of rewards and consequences.

  18. Pen says

    Ally (17) – It is being run as a two-year pilot programme at first. It will be interesting to see what effects it has.

    Yes, it will, although how soon will we know the result? When their daughters are adult and seeing midwives? Or will the social services arrange medical examinations for them before that?

    For what it’s worth, I think it is likely to be effective … although given that we don’t know how ineffective doing nothing would be…

    At any rate, the adult women will be given medical help and advice.

  19. daveallen says

    Yeah, perhaps. Just not a very powerful or effective one. You only need to look at how effective criminalisation has been at deterring people from taking drugs to see that.

    Well the prohibition of drugs strikes me as a particularly thorny issue due to the fact that there’s a large enough population of people who feel aggrieved by the ban to support its thriving black market and ignore the less acceptable consequences of the drug trade.

    Crimes that elicit less sympathy elicit less demand.

    If your opinion is that alternatives to punishment are worth looking at I wholeheartedly agree – all else being equal it’s the least effective method of encouraging new behaviour. However I’m also thinking of the removal of punishment as consequence – such as spikes in crime and disorder during police strikes and so on.

    I’d certainly support any sort of program that might allow the people who subject their daughters to the practice to talk about why and learn what they think of the arguments against it without fear of prosecution. Maybe something like an FGM amnesty in which those who may have performed it in the past could avoid charges provided they agree not to do so again and listen to arguments against.

  20. Gerard O says

    “contrarian bellend” + “Spiked” = Brendan O’Neill; the easiest word association test ever made.

  21. says

    I was listening to them interview the French lawyer who prosecuted some 40 cases of FGM in France, and she mentioned that children had died as a result of the procedure. And it’s known that girls die during FGM, because it’s a crude operation often carried out using crude tools that are not disinfected (let alone replaced) in between one girl and another. If any large number of girls were being subject to severe forms of FGM here, the communities involved would not be able to conceal it as girls would die — you would have, I expect, three or four deaths a year. That is why we are not seeing prosecutions for FGM in this country. I also find it difficult to believe that no girl who has been taken abroad for FGM will talk, given that it’s hugely painful, it often results in complications, and they all know it’s illegal. I believe these activists are exaggerating the problem.

  22. Jacob Schmidt says

    I’d certainly support any sort of program that might allow the people who subject their daughters to the practice to talk about why and learn what they think of the arguments against it without fear of prosecution. Maybe something like an FGM amnesty in which those who may have performed it in the past could avoid charges provided they agree not to do so again and listen to arguments against.

    Are the parent’s doing it themselves, or is it like male circumcision, where an “expert” (usually done in a hospital setting, but sometimes done in a non-medical setting by unlicensed practitioners; the illegality of FGM means most FGM procedures done will be done by unlicensed practitioners, I think) is brought in to do it? I could support an amnesty program where parents are given amnesty in exchange for information about the individuals doing the actual procedure. On the medical front, we could have programs in place where FGM victims are identified and help is given to them, and on the criminal front information for prosecution could be gathered while the parents of the victim are left alone.

  23. pikeamus says

    Y’know, I really expected you to get more backlash for this post. I suspect you did too, given all the qualifying statements in it. I’m refreshingly pleased to see that responses have been pretty mild.

  24. SteveG says

    Thanks for that piece Ally.
    Not sure if you’re familiar with a certain Brian Earp. , but he’s giving a talk at Conway Hall on July 20th that might interest you. “‘Female Genital Mutilation’: Moral Progress or Moral Hypocrisy?”

    http://www.meetup.com/ConwayHall/events/192772222/

    I hope Guardian writers on FGM will be present!

  25. Richard A. Shweder says

    This is a very welcome critical analysis of the “at risk” projections. Journalists in Europe and North America have assumed there is no other side to their stories. The media coverage has been almost entirely reliant on sources from within an opposition movement. For readers of a free thought blog who still care about critical reason and the quality of evidence or harbor some concern or skepticism about the current horror inducing “dark continent” discourse and related campaigns perhaps the following on-line Open Access essay might be of interest or spark some debate. It is titled “The Goose and the Gander: The Genital Wars.” I wrote it inspired in part by the 2012 regional court decision in Cologne declaring male circumcision as practiced by Jews and Muslims unconstitutional in Germany. Here is the link:

    http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/23269995.2013.811923#.U9DY07Efs84

    Below is the abstract:

    “Should there be gender equity in genital cutting? In Germany (and much of Europe), the native inhabitants tend to argue there is moral equivalence between customary male circumcision and customary female circumcision and both should be proscribed. In Sierra Leone (and several other countries in Africa), the native inhabitants tend to argue there is moral equivalence between customary male circumcision and customary female circumcision and both should be permitted. In the United States, the native inhabitants tend to argue against moral equivalence, permitting customary circumcisions for boys while proscribing them for girls. Who has the better of the argument? And what are the implications of the argument for Jews and other circumcising ethnic groups living in Europe, Africa, and North America?”

  26. Sianushk a says

    Hi Ally

    I read this blog with interest, as someone who has campaigned on this issue a lot. I think one thing your blog really misses is the experiences of women who are campaigning on this issue (not me I hasten to add!!) and who work directly with survivors of fgm, and with girls in practising communities, the women who know how prevalent it is and who have direct experience and understanding of how fgm is impacting on girls’ lives.

    One example that sprung to my mind when reading your article was a story told to me by a uk campaigner – it was the incident that led her to start talking openly about fgm. She was working with a classroom of girls from the fgm practising community. They asked her about fgm. She asked them why they wanted to talk about it and all but one of them had been cut. That was in a major uk city.

    I agree that research needs to be thorough & stats need to be correct. But I also think women working in this area have a very good understanding of prevalence and impact. They are in the communities working with girls and parents – often putting their safety at risk. They know what is happening on the ground as it were – and it is these women we need to be listening to.

  27. Ally Fogg says

    Hi Sianushka

    You raise an important point, and I regret it if I appear to be marginalising organisations like FORWARD and Daughters of Eve in this.. Obviously their experiences are incredibly important and there’s a lot of knowledge they can offer, particularly about how we engage communities and support victims.

    However, and I say this as a lifelong political activist for various causes myself, activists are often the worst people to rely on to assess the scale of a problem. When you’re engaged in a topic all day every day, you are constantly talking to other people who are similarly affected. Even with the best will and most honest intentions, activists are subject to all kinds of cognitive biases that can lead them to overestimate the scale of problems.

    Having said all that, I don’t doubt that those activists could play a huge role in finding some of the answers to the questions above. Just as one example, I would be really, really interested to know about that classroom full of affected girls – how many of them were born and raised in the UK, and how many were recent arrivals who had been cut before they got here? Just knowing the answer to that question could tell us a lot about what is actually happening.

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