Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a tough subject to write about, let alone discuss with students and their families. But that is exactly what teachers, who are now seen as front-line troops in the battle to end the practice, are increasingly being asked to do.
FGM is a violation of the human rights of girls and women, and is illegal in many places, including the UK. According to children's charity Unicef, more than 125 million girls and women alive today have suffered some form of FGM in the 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East where the practice is concentrated. In the UK, the issue has become prominent enough for the government to set up a Home Affairs Committee inquiry.
FGM is usually carried out on girls between birth and the age of 15. Procedures vary, but can involve anything from removing the clitoris to sewing the outer labia together to leave only a small opening. Often carried out without anaesthetic, FGM is extremely painful and can lead to problems such as recurrent infections, difficulty urinating and even infertility. In some cases, the immediate blood loss can be fatal.
Because of its private and culturally sensitive nature, this illegal practice is very difficult to prevent. Children may believe it is simply a rite of passage and may therefore be reluctant to complain, while other family members may not wish to break with tradition or could feel afraid to speak out. As such, schools are seen as vital to tackling the problem. The unique insight that teachers have into the daily routines of their students can enable them to play an essential role in raising awareness and helping to protect those at risk.
In June 2013, children's charity the NSPCC launched a helpline aimed specifically at dealing with issues of FGM and assisting teachers. Children, parents and teachers can call the helpline 24 hours a day, whether they wish to report an incident, raise awareness about someone at risk or just discuss how to broach the subject with families.
"The main group at risk is nine- to 11-year-old girls," says John Cameron, head of child protection operations at the NSPCC. "And the time this tends to happen is towards the start of the summer holidays."
He says that if female students are taken on trips to countries that practise FGM, teachers should be aware of the possibility that genital mutilation is a reason for the visit. In this situation, a chat with parents is crucial.
"For teachers, it's about subtly informing parents: reminding them gently but clearly that these types of practices are against the law and carry considerable penalties, and that if you're being pressurised to have this done to your child who attends our school, then we will take action," Cameron says.
He adds that if sex education is taught in the school, classes can be used to broach the subject of FGM in a more general way.
This is all very well in theory, but some teachers believe that they are powerless to act if evidence of FGM is not forthcoming (a disclosure that it is occurring, for example). You need more than mere suspicion to justify the risk of damaging a parent-school relationship, they say.
"We had a child from Somalia who was travelling back to that country for an extended period over the holidays. And so, obviously, we noted that.FGM [might be] an issue," says one school leader, who wishes to remain anonymous. "The trouble is, there was nothing other than those two facts to base our suspicion on. They were a nice family, they had always been open with us, they had good reasons for going back to see family. How grounded, really, were our suspicions?"
This is a dilemma that will become more common as schools are thrust further on to the front line and as advice from governments remains, in the words of the school leader, "vague, if not non-existent". In this case, the school did nothing and the child showed none of the signs of FGM on her return. The situation might not have had such a happy ending, though.
Fortunately, charities are increasingly stepping up efforts to help. In addition to its helpline, the NSPCC runs seminars in schools to answer teachers' questions about FGM and provide training for those difficult conversations with parents. African women's rights charity Forward, meanwhile, has released detailed lesson plans and advice for teachers.
The anonymous school leader welcomes the increase in support, but says that more is needed if teachers are to play a successful role in the battle to end FGM. "At least now we know about it and we are on the lookout for potential issues. And, if we do have evidence, we can act," she says. "It's not an ideal situation, and we desperately need more guidance, but we are doing the best we can."
The NSPCC will support any teacher who wants to arrange a safeguarding Inset day on FGM. Visits from NSPCC representatives are free and can be organised by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
The NSPCC FGM helpline number is 0800 028 3550.
Read Unicef's overview of FGM, including a full list of countries that practise FGM.
To hear an NSPCC expert answer teachers' questions, and for resources, go to tesconnect.comFGM.
- Find out whether your female students belong to communities in which FGM is practised.
- Note if these students are due to travel to countries where FGM is practised.
- Look out for girls in these groups who seem unusually anxious or who are away from school for a prolonged period.
- Take note if students returning from a holiday complain of stomach aches or ask to go to the toilet more frequently than usual.
- Girls may talk of "becoming a woman" or refer to FGM directly in conversations with other students.