`FGM is wrong, it's illegal and it must be reported'

30th January 2015 at 00:00
Staff who fail to sound alarm could be barred from teaching

A few years ago, the issue of female genital mutilation was rarely discussed in public, and relatively few people had detailed knowledge of what the practice entailed. Soon, however, teachers' jobs could depend on being able to identify which of their pupils are most at risk.

In the past year, awareness of the dangers of female genital mutilation (FGM) has increased significantly. Last February, an online petition launched by schoolgirl Fahma Mohamed, calling for schools to teach about the risks of FGM, attracted more than 230,000 signatures. And, in July, the government announced plans to prosecute parents who allow their daughters to undergo FGM procedures.

Although FGM has been illegal in Britain for 30 years, the first criminal prosecution linked to alleged FGM only came to court this month.

Now the government has proposed placing a legal obligation on school staff, as well as social workers and healthcare professionals, to report concerns that a pupil may be at risk of FGM to the police. A consultation on the proposal closed this month.

"Why does FGM need to be addressed?" said Janine Killough, a healthy schools adviser for Islington Council in North London, where a relatively high proportion of schoolgirls are at risk. "Because it's an issue that affects young women, and because the impact on young women can be so devastating."

FGM is prevalent in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia. It is practised on young girls between infancy and the age of 15, usually before puberty starts. The type of mutilation involved varies, but can extend to removing part or all of the clitoris and the inner and outer lips surrounding the vagina.

Alternatively, the vaginal opening can be narrowed by sewing tissue together. Other forms include pricking, cutting, scraping and burning girls' genitals.

An estimated 137,000 women and girls born in countries where FGM is practised are now living in England and Wales. And approximately 60,000 girls under the age of 14 have been born to mothers who have undergone FGM, according to figures published by City University London.

At Walworth Academy in South London, a significant proportion of pupils come from communities where FGM is practised (see panel, opposite). Yvonne Powell, the school's principal, said the decision to report suspected cases of FGM was always "a really, really hard one for teachers". But, she added: "FGM is wrong, it's illegal and it must not happen. Therefore it must be reported."

The government consultation document says that failure to report suspicions of FGM to the police could result in teachers being barred from working with children or vulnerable people. They would also be referred to the National College of Teaching and Leadership for professional sanctions.

In their responses to the consultation, sexual health charities Brook and FPA argue forcefully that the need to report suspicions of FGM could be counterproductive. "The fear of police intervention and its consequences to parents and members of the community might affect young girls and incite them not to seek.assistance in the first place," they say.

Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL teaching union, welcomed the government's pledge to "end this atrocity in a generation". But she added that mandatory training should be given to all teachers on the topic before any attempt was made to introduce compulsory reporting.

Ms Killough has drawn up a lesson plan for classroom discussion of FGM, intended for use during sex and relationships education. She argued that lessons like this could be delivered by teachers after just one training session. "FGM should be included within safeguarding and child protection training so that teachers know what the signs are," she said. "But the reality is that they won't all have training."

During the lesson, pupils are asked to consider how they would respond if a friend disclosed to them that she was at risk of FGM. "The lesson helps young people come to view FGM like any other child protection issue," Ms Killough said. "They know that they would need to tell an adult. They know that there are places for them to go for support."

Ms Killough would like to see lessons like this delivered in all schools, regardless of whether pupils are considered to be at risk. "People tend to have very stereotyped ideas about who's at risk and who isn't," she said. "You don't know whether there might be a child at risk in your class.

"But also, learning about it can be applied to many other things: telling an adult in school, how to support a friend who might be at risk of something. All that can apply across the board."

`We're not going to tolerate it'

Yvonne Powell, principal of Walworth Academy in South London, is unsure how many of her pupils are at risk of female genital mutilation. She knows, however, that a large number of them come from communities where FGM is practised.

"It's always been an issue where I've been challenged," she says. "What signs are we looking for? That's the hardest thing about this. Before we start looking for signs, we need to get the discussion out in the open."

Ms Powell has used school assemblies to highlight myths surrounding the procedure, such as the idea that it renders a girl pure or worthy. "It's about starting with the premise that, first and foremost, it's illegal in this country," she says. "It's not a religious act - it's a subcultural act. That's a good place to start talking about it."

The school runs regular PSHE sessions on FGM. In one, pupils were asked to write statements about the procedure on Post-it notes. This resulted in a range of anonymous comments, from "It's barbaric" and "There's no difference between FGM and rape" to "My sister had it done - I hope it's not going to happen to me". The sessions provided pupils with relevant information and telephone numbers so they were aware of how to seek help.

In addition, Year 10 girls are being trained to lead circle-time discussions on the subject for younger children. "Primary schools are where they really need support," Ms Powell says. "Word gets out that we're not going to tolerate FGM in this country. If any cultural group is adamant that they're going to do it, then they're going to do it even earlier, before the child has a chance to say any different.

"Children can be each other's best friends and best protectors. It's a sensitive subject, so you've got to create a very safe, open environment. FGM isn't a dirty phrase. It's a horrible thing, but it's safe to talk about it.

"FGM exists. It's here around us. Let's recognise that and talk about what it means, and then talk about spotting the signs."


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