Editorial - Leaving FGM prevention to teachers is criminal

28th February 2014 at 00:00

Campaigners in the UK against female genital mutilation (FGM) this week took their fight to England's education secretary Michael Gove. They want to make all schools teach children and young people about FGM in an age-appropriate way and for school leaders to train all staff about the risks.

Teachers, they say, should take the lead in raising public awareness, spotting the signs that girls have undergone or may undergo the procedure and reporting suspected cases to the police. So far, Mr Gove has agreed to write to school leaders about safeguarding guidelines with a promise of guidance by Easter.

But this outrage, and the response, misses the point.

FGM is abhorrent. It is child abuse and a violation of girls' and women's human rights. And it is illegal. It bears no comparison to circumcision in boys, is often performed without anaesthetic and can later cause problems with urination, infection and childbirth.

There can be no doubt that it has no place in our civilised society. But should the onus really be on schools and teachers to deal with this difficult issue? They are told to be aware of girls aged 9-11 talking of "becoming a woman" or returning from a holiday with stomach aches or asking to go to the toilet more than usual. Unfortunately, this is also the age that many girls will be reaching the menarche. And teaching about FGM in sex education classes misses the target, as the girls at risk are the very ones who may be removed from these lessons.

Information on FGM is plentiful but official guidance is scant, so clear guidelines from the Department for Education on dealing with at-risk children and, crucially, their parents will be welcomed. Advice from charities is to "gently" remind parents from communities known to carry out the procedure that these practices are against the law and carry considerable penalties. This puts teachers in a very difficult position and, as our feature points out, you need more than a suspicion if you are to take the risk of damaging a parent-school relationship.

The first Act that made FGM illegal in the UK was passed in 1985. It was restated and amended in 2003 to make it an offence to take a girl abroad for mutilation, with a maximum sentence of 14 years' imprisonment. In all that time there has not been a single prosecution. As every teacher knows, there is no point threatening a sanction if it is not followed through.

With difficult societal problems it is all too easy for everyone to wring their hands and demand that "something must be done" before deftly dumping the problem into the laps of teachers. How do we make everyone aware of drug and alcohol misuse, pregnancy prevention, Solomon Northup's slavery memoir? Let's put them on the curriculum. The school day, however, is not elastic. When teachers in England are constantly being lambasted for children not performing as well as those in other countries in maths and English, why are we asking them to take on the additional duty of being the nation's social worker and police officer?

The focus with FGM should be on eradication, not education; on the courts, not the schools. This is an extremely emotive issue, but Mr Gove should resist all attempts to make our education system do the job that the criminal justice system has failed to do.



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