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.