Managing the safeguarding aspect of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) has become a real safegaurding issue of concern here in the UK for professionals and local authorities. Data is becoming more prevalent in highlighting major gaps and deficits that exist. This is despite the implementation of the FGM Act 2003, which was designed to make FGM illegal in the UK, including taking a child abroad to have FGM performed.
It is well recorded that professionals are still failing to report FGM to the police, and local authorities need to ensure that all staff are aware of the reporting duty. It is child abuse and local authorities have a legal obligation to safeguard girls from the abuse of FGM.
We need to step up support to help local authority professionals to understand FGM laws, and their roles and responsibilities in exercising them. A key concern is the lack of knowledge and awareness that professionals have about FGM, and the mandatory duty to report FGM to the police under the Serious Crime Act (SCA) 2015. This duty is breached daily because it is not well understood. Local authorities must ensure that staff fully understand their obligation to report FGM to the police because failure to do so will result in the individual being reported to their professional body.
Active measures should also be taken to ensure that staff fully understand the safeguarding aspect of FGM. This must include adequate risk assessment, knowing how to ask the relevant questions and be competent in managing disclosure. In addition, good effective communication as part of partnership working is important.
Despite the UK having considerable statutory guidance and information about managing FGM, professionals still do not understand the culturally sensitive issues associated with it, fear being labelled racist and do not feel confident to talk about FGM.
Over the past four years I have delivered training to over 1,500 professionals. Evalautions substantiate that all of the above significant areas of concern continue. Assessing competency of strategic leaders is crucial as is set out in government guidance, and gaps in knowledge suggest this is not being done.
Education and empowerment
So what needs to be done to address the issues of concern? Education, training and empowerment must be given to staff who manage the risks and safeguarding aspect of FGM.
It’s important that training of this type is conducted face to face and not online; a view that was supported in a report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate Constabulary (HMIC), the police watchdog that conducted the first ever inspection of policing Honour Based Violence, Forced Marriage and FGM throughout 43 police forces.
Specialist training is invaluable and greatly increases awareness as it allows participants to probe and scrutinise sensitive issues. Practising FGM communities will not engage with statutory agencies because of mistrust and fear of speaking out, and staff must therefore be supported when dealing with FGM cases that are unique and enshrined in secrecy. A further issue is that African women have reported that health professionals in the UK have a lack of knowledge on the management of FGM, and therefore do not have confidence in the service.
There is also a lack of understanding and awareness about FGM Protection Orders, a concern which must be addressed as a matter of urgency, as this can be vital in protecting a girl at risk of FGM.
Local authorities are reluctant to see Child Protection Orders to have examinations carried out, and yet if we are to be serious about safeguarding girls from the risk of FGM then we must follow procedures and policies and not allow fear of racism or cultural difference to act as a barrier.
FGM education in local authorities must include addressing and overcoming cultural barriers, how to spot the of potential signs of FGM school absences, and identify issues such as a child behaving differently on return from a trip abroad, frequency of urination, or abdominal pain.
Partnership working is vital. No one agency will solve FGM. UK Border Force for instance play a crucial role in safeguarding girls crossing borders. Operation Limelight is a prime example of this (the police, statutory agencies and UK Border Force work in partnership to raise awareness during the start of the cutting season), and has seen detection rates and stops at borders increase. Such examples of good practice that have yielded excellent results should be mirrored by local authorities.
Policies should be revisited and questioned whether they are fit for purpose; if we are serious about protecting girls at risk of FGM, local authorities must be encouraged to educate and empower their workforce to tackle this growing issue.
Angie Marriott is a FGM expert and consultant at The Training Hub.