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.