The FGM Detectives: Channel 4’s documentary was horrifying for all the wrong reasons

One would fully expect that a Channel 4 documentary entitled ‘The FGM Detectives’ would be horrifying and shocking, and so it transpired.  The horror and shock, however, were mostly not found in the details of genital mutilation or the stories of young women’s tortured bodies and ruined lives, but in the scandalous incompetence and professional malpractice of the officers attempting to force through the country’s first successful prosecution for FGM-related child abuse. [Read more…]

Men, women and prison: A study in gender

A couple of weeks ago, an episode of Ed Miliband’s podcast, Reasons to be Cheerful, was devoted to penal policy and prison reform. It features a fascinating interview with Nils Öberg, director general of the Swedish prison and probation service who makes a string of important observations about the Nordic approach to imprisonment. In a nutshell, in Sweden prison is only ever used as a last resort, is focused upon rehabilitation, particularly addressing social, educational, psychological and addiction problems of prisoners. The Swedish reoffending rate is around 30% after three years post-release.  In the UK it is 46% after just one year, and that is despite Swedish prisons being disproportionately filled with the most damaged, violent and recidivist offenders in their system. [Read more…]

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.

The mists begin to clear on FGM statistics

Readers may recall that I have long been interested in trying to unpick the data on female genital mutilation in the UK. The general standard of debate on this topic is woefully uninformed by actual facts. News pieces and campaign materials have traditionally waved around (almost) meaningless statistics about the numbers of girls being at risk of FGM, without explaining what they mean by “at risk” or how severe that risk might be.

The numbers tend to be horrifying and this has at least two extremely serious consequences. The first is that the practice of FGM among migrant communities in the UK is used as a damning indictment of their failure to integrate, to accede to British law and custom, or more broadly as evidence the uncivilised, backwards ways of immigrants and especially Muslims.

Secondly, for many years there has been a clamorous call to demand explanations why nobody in the UK has been successfully prosecuted for conducting FGM. It has long been assumed (and not just among the spittle-flecked rabble of the Daily Mail comments section) that some sort of political correctness must be the reason why police, prosecutors, social services and child services have all been deliberately averting their gaze from the brutes who continue to cut up the genitals of little girls. But as I have written before, there is another possible explanation as to why these offences are never prosecuted – could it be because in fact these crimes very rarely happen in the UK?

This week the Health & Social Care Information Centre published their latest quarterly bulletin on FGM. This exercise (still described as ‘experimental’) collates reports from Health Trusts around the country which count the numbers of new cases that have come to light within the NHS. The vast majority of cases are adult women (mostly aged 18-39) and typically come to light during obstetrics & gynaecology care in pregnancy and childbirth.

As the headlines explained, this latest quarter found around 1200 new cases of FGM. For the first time, however, the data included some numbers for where the women and girls were born and where the FGM procedure had occurred.

Before I go any further let me stress that the statistics here are patchy and incomplete. We are only considering newly discovered cases, not the total, and there are huge holes in the data sets where the relevant information could not be or was not recorded. Nonetheless the numbers are revealing.

Of the 1242 cases, there were 532 where the country of birth was recorded. Of those, precisely 11 cases were of girls or women born in the UK. That means that 98% of cases of FGM in the UK (from this data set and where the info was logged) were on women born outside of the UK.

Even more usefully, there were 319 cases in which the data recorded where in the world the FGM was undertaken. Of those, seven were reportedly undertaken in the UK. Again, 98% of FGM procedures happened outside the UK.

These numbers 11 cases and 7 cases respectively) are so tiny we should be aware of the risks of data errors and statistical noise. For instance, genital piercings can be classified as Type 4 FGM (in some cases this is legitimate and accurate – piercings are sometimes inflicted upon girls as a form of FGM) but it does create obvious scope for confusion and miscategorisation.

There is one incredibly important question which the HSIC still fails to address or answer: How many of the 1242 new cases of FGM are women who were already resident in the UK before they were mutilated? If we had an answer to that question, everything would suddenly become a lot more meaningful. In the meantime, what is this data telling us? It looks to me like what we are seeing is that relatively large numbers of women who move to the UK from FGM-practising countries such as Nigeria, Kenya and Somalia have already been cut when they move here. This should be a clear and uncontroversial point. There is an obvious and serious need for health professionals to be aware of this and to have the expertise necessary to provide these women with the care and medical treatments they might require to heal the damage.

The other key takeaway from the data is that amongst girls who have been born in Britain, even to communities where it has been traditionally practised, FGM is exceptionally rare. For years we have been told that anything up to 120,000 girls in the UK are “at risk” of FGM, an estimate based on numbers of girls born in the UK to families from the relevant parts of the world. If the true numbers were anything even vaguely on this scale we would expect to see far, far more new cases coming to the attention of the authorities.

To be clear, we cannot be sure from this data that there aren’t lots of girls who are born elsewhere, brought intact to the UK as children, taken out of the country to be cut elsewhere and then brought back again, but this really seems something of a stretch to me. A more credible interpretation of the data would be that FGM remains a huge medical and human rights catastrophe in many parts of the world, but that when people move to the UK, with very few exceptions, they abandon the custom.

We still don’t have the statistics to speak about any of this with authority. As the academic cliché would have it, more research is necessary. If I had one wish on this front, however, it would be that when journalists, campaigners and politicians talk about the thousands of women in Britain who have suffered FGM they explain to people that the vast majority were living elsewhere when it happened. That little nugget of nugget of knowledge entirely transforms the debate and would do so in a much more constructive direction.

The Children’s Commissioner & the BBC take on child sexual abuse

I am never slow to blog when mainstream political bodies and media let us down with sloppy reports or journalism. It seems only fair to pay credit when things are done well.

Late last night, BBC2 broadcast The Truth About Child Sex Abuse, hosted by Professor Tanya Byron. The programme incorporated a lot of the findings of the new report from the office of the Children’s Commissioner, Protecting Children From Harm [pdf].

[Read more…]

Making a Dent in the narrative

At the risk of labouring the point, I read the first sentence in Grace Dent’s Independent column today and almost gave myself a black eye, so hard was I facepalming. Here it is, in all its glory;

It seems doubtless to me that the staggering rise in reported sex assaults in primary and secondary schools – more than 5,500alleged sex assaults, on boys as well as girls, in three years – goes hand-in-hand with the unfettered availability of extremely hardcore pornography to minors.

I spelled out a lot of this last time, but let me bring it together with a bit more info, because it is really quite remarkable that one single sentence can be so wrong in so many ways.  [Read more…]

Sexual offending in schools: Looking beyond the Dramatic Big Number

Last month, Anthony Reuben came to the end of an experimental 18 month contract at the BBC. His job had been Head of Statistics, and included training and advising BBC reporters on how to understand and present numerical issues. The end of his tenure was commemorated with a nice little profile at the Online Journalism blog.

Many stories that reporters get, he notes, are ‘big number’ stories which appeared to be striking but require the journalist to scrutinise further to establish whether the numbers really were striking when placed in context.

It is rather a pity Reuben didn’t stay in post for just a few weeks longer, then we might have been spared the dog’s dinner of a story which featured prominently on most BBC news broadcasts yesterday.

The headline, duly replicated in most newspapers, is captured here. “School sex crime reports in UK top 5,500 in three years.” As the broadcasts filled out the details, it was described as “a national emergency.” [Read more…]

CPS and male victims, the UK Statistics Authority gets involved

[If you are new to this saga, you may wish to catch up here, here, here and here.]


At the time we sent our letter to the Guardian, I also sent on a copy and a few additional remarks to the UK Statistics Authority, as a formal report.

The UKSA is an independent body set up by legal statute to oversee official statistics and ensure that all public bodies adhere to a Code of Practice that demands accuracy, transparency, accessibility etc in all official reports. I suggested the UKSA might wish to have a look at the CPS report into Violence Against Women and Girls. [Read more…]

CPS erasure of male victims…. VICTORY!

Well this was, in all honesty, unexpected. 

I fully accept the concerns raised by some, however, that we need to be clearer in our annual VaWG report about the inclusion of men and boys, which is why I have arranged for amendments to be made to the current, and all future, reports. We will clarify our introductory remarks and we will also, where possible, include a breakdown of gender volumes.

When we first set about getting together our open letter, my most optimistic hope was that the CPS would notice it had happened, grudgingly admit we might have a point, and make some token effort to be less blatant in showing contempt for male victims next time .  But it was really just a plaintive cry.

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine the CPS might admit they got it wrong, go back amend the current report and so publicly commit to not doing the same again in future.

As I’m sure you’ll notice, the piece by Saunders is brimful of self-justification and waffle, as well as a lot of words that address complaints which were never actually made in the first place, but right in the middle is everything we asked for and considerably more. Honestly I don’t care.

This is something I don’t often get to write as a campaigner, activist or journalist, so I am going to revel in the moment….



The letters continue: Erasure, misrepresentation and Orwellian doublespeak

To the signatories of the letter Gender is all too relevant in violence statistics.

First let me thank you for the opportunity to continue this important conversation. It is clear your letter in the Guardian today is a reaction to the one signed by myself and 30 others last week, however it would be wrong to call it a response, as you do not appear to have addressed or even understood any of the issues our letter raised, preferring to criticise us on a variety of points which our letter simply did not make.

Allow me to be more specific.

Your correspondents call on the director of public prosecutions to “affirm [her] commitment to eliminating intimate violence against human beings of any gender” and criticise the Crown Prosecution Service’s presentation of statistics in its annual violence against women and girls report for being so explicitly gendered (Letters, 2 July).

We did not criticise the CPS report for being so explicitly gendered. We would expect a report entitled “Violence Against Women and Girls, crime report” to be explicitly gendered. Nor did we condemn the CPS for producing a report with that subject and title.

We criticised the CPS report for being dishonest and misleading in including crimes against at least 13,154 (known) boys and men in a report entitled ‘Violence Against Women and Girls’ while going to some lengths to entirely obscure the experiences of male victims.

It is established fact that these crimes are massively disproportionately committed against women and girls (female genital mutilation exclusively so) and that they are related to women’s broader inequality with men. Your correspondents claim without citation that “one in six of all victims” are male. This is disputed, and certainly does not apply equally to all the forms of abuse in the CPS report.

The figure of 1 in 6 did not require citation as it comes from the CPS report itself and the accompanying data tables. Where gender was recorded, 16% of victims of the crimes described in the report were men and boys. This is most certainly not disputed, the statistics are in Table 8 of the performance information here.

Furthermore, it is also critical that we retain gender in our naming and analysis of these crimes because of the gender of the perpetrators, whom your correspondents do not mention at all.

We did not mention it because we had no dispute with how the CPS report covered the gender of the perpetrators. The report explained quite clearly that around 94% of offenders of these crimes within the criminal justice system were male and 6% female. We accept this, and had no reason to raise it in our letter.

In searching for recognition and then for justice and support for male survivors of abuse, it is a grave mistake to suggest taking gender out of the naming and analysis, and neutralising these crimes into Orwellian “intimate abuse”. A failure to name and call out the abuse of power in these crimes is what kept them invisible for so long.

At no point in our letter did we suggest taking gender out of the analysis. On the contrary, we clearly expressed that male victims have their own gender-specific issues, such as those relating to social expectations of a ‘real man.’ Nor are gender issues neutralised by the phrase ‘intimate abuse’ or ‘intimate violence’ – this term has always been used by many public bodies including the Office of National Statistics, to describe crimes such as domestic violence and abuse – for example, see here, the chapter “Intimate Personal Violence and Serious Sexual Assault.”

You describe this phrase as “Orwellian.” I would suggest what is truly Orwellian is for the experiences of many thousands of violated men and boys to be described with the phrase ‘violence against women and girls.’ War is peace; freedom is slavery; boys are girls. What is truly Orwellian is for the CPS to highlight the conviction of Fr Francis Paul Cullen as an example of their success in prosecuting crimes against women and girls, when the large majority of his victims were boys, and for the gender of those victims to be entirely “taken out of the analysis” by descriptions of his victims only in gender-neutral terms as “young people.”

I would add that it is this type of erasure of male victims – even when the statistics and facts are right before our eyes – which has done so much to keep those crimes invisible for so long, a tragedy which your letter appears to strive to continue.

I do not speak today on behalf of the other signatories to our letter, only for myself, but I for one do not believe in taking gender out of the analysis of sexual and intimate offences. I believe gender issues are crucial to understanding why so many such crimes occur, and what kind of support is needed by victims. What I cannot accept is a cruel and misleading approach which focusses entirely on the gender of victims when they are women and girls and entirely ignores and erases gender when the victims are men and boys, or worse, when the experiences of those men and boys are subsumed into descriptions of violence against women and girls.

I finish on a note of genuine sadness. In our own letter we were very careful to honestly declare our full commitment to supporting all efforts to end violence against women and girls. Many of the signatories to our letter work with female survivors alongside men and boys, and are only too aware of the issues. But even though your response begins by noting our call for the CPS and other bodies to affirm their commitment to recognising and supporting male victims of intimate violence and abuse, in your response you could not even bring yourselves to offer a single equivalent word of support or compassion for the countless thousands of men and boys who are raped, abused, beaten and molested every year. I would add that, despite contacting them directly, we have as yet had no contact from the CPS or any other body that so much as acknowledges the existence of male victims, far less affirming support for their needs.

The male victims I know and support, and those engaged professionally by many of my co-signatories, often report feeling worthless and ignored, as if no one cares about what happened to them in the past or what will happen to them now and in the future. How tragic that your letter may well serve to confirm their darkest suspicions.