Thursday 27 February 2014

The teenagers who took on Michael Gove

Imagine never enjoying sex. Imagine having problems going to the loo and suffering constant pain. These are all symptoms of female genital mutilation (FGM), which in the past was known as female circumcision. The procedure involves cutting away the clitoris and/or labia of a young girl, often with rudimentary tools, to make her 'fit' for womanhood and marriage. It is a brutal and traumatic practice that bears no relation to male circumcision. 

Fahma Mohamed, campaigner for Integrate Bristol on FGM
Fahma asked Gove to write to headteachers about FGM
Credit: Oliver Zimmermann

This month a group of teenage girls took a stand on FGM and forced all of us - including Michael Gove, the UK education secretary - to sit up and listen. The 17-year old Fahma Mohamed and her classmates from a school in Bristol have successfully campaigned, with the backing of The Guardian, for schools to play a greater role in protecting pupils from FGM. 

"You wouldn't think it's something people in Britain would have to worry about today - but that's the problem," said Fahma recently. "People don't talk about it, doctors don't check for it, teachers don't teach it. But we know it happens to thousands of British girls each year."

FGM is practised as a cultural ritual among various ethnic groups across Africa, the Middle East and South-East Asia. It also affects girls in Europe living within immigrant communities. According The Guardian, 24,000 girls are estimated to be at risk in the UK, with hundreds being taken abroad to be cut.

My first job after university back in the mid-1990s was with a television production company which acquired some footage of a girl being 'circumcised' in Burkina Faso. None of the European broadcasters that we usually sold our films to wanted to show it. The subject was taboo and for many years cultural sensitivity meant it was off-bounds. Now we see it for what it is: child abuse.

Waris Dirie, the supermodel who went public in 1997 about the FGM she suffered as a child in Somalia, writes powerfully about her experiences in her autobiography, Desert Flower. "Because of a ritual of ignorance, most of the women on the continent of Africa live their lives in pain. Who is going to help the woman in the desert - like my mother - with no money and no power? Somebody must speak out for the little girl with no voice."

Fahma has spoken out for those girls and so has Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot in the head by the Taliban. Malala, an activist for education rights, has thrown her considerable sway behind the anti-FGM movement, saying, "I've watched every step of Fahma's campaign and I think she is on the edge of something huge... I am her sister and I am at her side."

If we are going to eradicate this barbaric practice, we need grassroots heroes like Fahma and Malala to inspire us to action. We also need government support to enforce the law on FGM (it is already illegal) and educate teachers and doctors who come into contact with these vulnerable girls. So it's over to you Michael Gove: give it your best shot.

Click here to read Michael Gove's statement on Facebook about how he proposes to educate teachers about FGM, following his meeting with Fahma earlier this week. He agreed to meet her after more than 200,000 people signed her petition asking schools to teach about the risks of FGM before the summer (the traditional time for taking girls aboard). Fahma is also a junior trustee of the charity, Integrate Bristol, which works towards equality and integration.

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