This week, Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Foundation reaches across the Atlantic in An Exclusive with an amazing woman in the United Kingdom, who is truly an activist against FGM. Hilary Burrage shares some intimate thoughts about the practice of female genital mutilation.
GWPF: Hilary, you recently wrote two books; Eliminating Female Genital Mutilation – a UK perspective and Female Mutilation – the truth behind the horrifying global practice of female genital mutilation. Tell us why you decided to write these books on this topic.
Hilary: It was my mother who first told me of FGM, way back in the 1980s. My mum (now 95!) is a Quaker and a supporter of Amnesty International, and the topic had come up during a conversation with some other supporters. I was then a lecturer in Health and Social Care, and I said I’d try to find out more. I checked, and the UK even back in the 1980s had legislation against FGM, so I thought the problem might have been resolved…. But it was the early 2000s, with the developments and accessibility of the www, before the whole reality of what FGM is really became clear to me. (I recall the 2006 Zero Tolerance to FGM Day particularly clearly as a turning point.)
Then Ashgate (now Routledge), the UK academic publishers, approached me to write a book, and they agreed that a textbook on FGM would be a good move; and a couple of years later the Australian publishers New Holland contacted me to do a book for them too, about the ‘stories’ of FGM survivors around the world. I said that I wanted to tell the stories of people who have worked to combat FGM as well as those of brave survivors themselves, in order that readers could begin to see how they too might be involved, and that was agreed, so I set to work to find the right people.
GWPF: It took you four years to write Eliminating Female Genital Mutilation – a UK perspective. What was your experience in researching and writing it?
Hilary: It was a very personal experience. The book itself is, I hope, rigorous and suitable for teaching professionals and the general public alike, but writing it was far from ‘academic’ experience. For both books, many a time I found myself in tears, really upset at the terrible experiences some girls and women undergo. But I took the opportunity too, especially in the first book, to research and develop a socio-economic analysis of FGM and its implications for both individuals and their communities. The subject is incredibly painful, but the research revealed some very interesting, sometimes fascinating, aspects of societies and their traditions which I hadn’t until then perceived.
So all in all, writing Eliminating Female Genital Mutilation – which actually also covers a whole lot more than ‘just’ the UK – was very upsetting and difficult for me as a human being, but, equally, an intellectually stimulating and challenging research exercise for me as a sociologist.
GWPF: How did you get so many contributors for your next book, Female Mutilation – the truth behind the horrifying global practice of female genital mutilation? Please elaborate on the writing of this book.
Hilary: I used personal contacts and, even more, social media, to find the 70+ people in five continents who eventually gave me the opportunity to ‘interview’ them via questionnaires, and sometimes also face-to-face. I blogged on my website, set up a number of Twitter accounts (all of which could be traced back to me, for transparency) and emailed literally hundreds of people asking for contacts to attract interest and offers of involvement. My aim was to have respondents from as many different parts of the world as possible, both survivor-activists and others who are campaigning against FGM – everyone from members of the judiciary, doctors and community leaders, to the brothers of girls at risk in traditionally practicing countries who are determined that FGM must stop.
Everyone who said they would try to help was sent a long questionnaire, from which they were invited to answer (only) the questions that interested them and which they felt happy to address. When people returned their questionnaires I used their responses to construct what I called ‘narratives’ in the voice of the person concerned. I then emailed back the draft narratives to the respondents for them to check, and so after any necessary ‘discussion’ by email we arrived at statements which could be used in the book.
My two books, although published by different companies, are in fact largely complementary. The first provides the formal facts, socio-economic analysis and policy deliberations and the second provides a wide range of what we might call case studies. My aim in both cases was to move ‘from horror to hope’ – from the grim cruelty which comprises FGM, to ways in which it might be eradicated.
GWPF: Tell us how both books may be obtained.
Hilary: Both books are on general sale from serious bookshops and online, in the USA, UK, Australia and pretty well most other places. The books can in both cases also be ordered direct from the publishers:
[or https://bookshop.theguardian.com/catalog/product/view/id/296770/ ]
GWPF: Prior to your two books, you have been writing articles to educate the public about female genital mutilation for several years now. What first interested you in female genital mutilation?
Hilary: As I mentioned above, I was trying to find out more for quite a long time before I became vocal on the subject – I needed to be sure of my facts before I started to tell other people. But slowly I realized that little girls and young women were being tortured and no-one much was saying anything; the few stalwarts like Efua Dorkenoo weren’t being heard beyond their immediate constituency, so I decided to blog quite publicly and see what response that evoked.
One really good development from this blogging was that The Guardian newspaper asked me to be their FGM Consultant. I’m sure that in fact I must have learned at least as much from them as they have from me, but I am very proud to be associated with their Global Median End FGM Campaign: http://www.theguardian.com/end-fgm (US-specific website: http://www.theguardian.com/end-fgm-us )
The basic truth is that I can’t bear the thought of children being hurt. It chills and angers me in equal measure and I felt I had to add my own small voice to the demands that FGM and other harmful traditional practices be stopped – just as I demand that child cruelty of other sorts more ‘usual’ in e.g. the UK must cease. It was the nightmare knowledge that small children were suffering which really moved me to speak out in whatever way I could. I had to ‘do something’.
GWPF: There are certain laws in place in the U.S. against the practice of female genital mutilation. Would you kindly share some of the British Legislation put forth in the U.K.?
Hilary: Our legislation is by no means perfect, and the application of it still leaves a great deal to be desired, but essentially there was a formal bill in the 1980s (England and Wales, and then Scotland). That was amended to be clearer in 2003 and again in 2015 things were tightened up. Issues which have been addressed include making sure that procuring FGM anywhere even outside Britain is an offence in the UK, and also giving the courts powers to protect children thought to be at risk.
GWPF: How familiar are the health and justice systems in the U.K. with female genital mutilation?
Hilary: Most (probably not all) UK health and legal professionals now know about FGM, although the same can’t always be said of teachers, who seem to be particularly doubtful about what they need to do if a child has had FGM or is believed to be vulnerable.
On the clinical side, there is a new requirement that women and girls attending hospitals and if discovered to have FGM are recorded as a data set to give information about prevalence and general location, and the reporting of individuals is mandatory for all relevant professionals for under 18s with, or judged to be at real risk, of FGM.
All this is obviously movement in the right direction, albeit the system is still far from perfect (the child at risk system is particularly weak). There has yet, however, never been a successful prosecution in the UK of anyone for performing FGM, despite the intention to enforce the law in this way.
GWPF: You are an advocate for medical students being knowledgeable on the practice of FGM. Is this something that is already included in medical schools in the U.K.?
Hilary: No, it couldn’t as yet be said that FGM is an established part of the medical school curriculum, although this may come soon. In the meantime I and others around the country are being invited to talk to medical and other clinical trainees, and I do find that these talks are very well received.
Young doctors are I think very keen to learn more – and I always stress they need to be properly informed well before they are likely in real life to meet a patient with FGM. This is an area where mental preparedness is critical, both to ensure the patient receives the right treatment, and to help the medical practitioner to stay calm and reassuring whilst dealing with this difficult aspect of patient experience.
GWPF: Some people prefer for the practice to be called female genital cutting or female circumcision instead of female genital mutilation. What do you think it should be called?
Hilary: I am in no doubt at all that FGM is just that: mutilation; and that is what, without exception it needs to be called in formal settings.
The Inter-African Committee (IAC) on traditional practices which harm women and girls is unequivocal. In 2005 they issued the Bamako Declaration http://nofgm.org/2014/11/12/the-bamako-declaration-female-genital-mutilation-terminology-mali-2005/ which says definitively that the correct term is ‘mutilation’ – a position also endorsed by the United Nations. In 2013 some of us followed this up respectfully with the Feminist Statement on Female Genital Mutilation http://statementonfgm.com/ in which, as a corollary, we examined the reasoning and background to this choice of vocabulary: http://statementonfgm.com/fgm-statement-background/.
People who use euphemisms (‘cutting’, ‘circumcision’* etc.) are in my opinion actually giving FGM an aura of respectability which is very likely, prolonging the practice of FGM. They need to think about this very carefully and consider fully the implications of their use of ‘relativist’ language. Some of them are ‘Anthr/Apologists’ who are neglecting, or have decided not, to acknowledge the human rights issues at the very heart of the matter.
Having said all this, however, it is also important at least initially to use language which those directly involved are familiar with. Colloquialisms may be essential in such conversations, but they should never be used in formal discourse.
[*For the avoidance of doubt, I am opposed to non-medically essential male circumcision as well, and I usually refer to it as male genital mutilation. Infant surgical gender assignment is generally also a very dubious practice.]
GWPF: How would you equate early child marriage to female genital mutilation?
Hilary: FGM is an extremely chameleon practice – its presentations and claimed rationales change all the time – but often FGM and child marriage go together. Girls are put through all this to ‘prove’ (it doesn’t) that they are ‘pure’ virgins, who can then be sold in marriage, perhaps as ‘extra’ wives.
However it happens, the status of the child is reduced to that of a chattel; she has no rights and is very unlikely to gain any decent education, so she remains an object owned by a man – her father, then her husband – on whom she may well be totally dependent economically and in every other way.
We in the West need to think about early marriage (below a certain age, legalized rape) very carefully. In some developing countries the age for marriage has now been raised to 18, but in e.g. the UK it is 16, which is low. We seem to believe the age of consent and the age at which marriage may occur have to be the same; but in this day and age, when good contraception should be freely available, is that really necessary?
GWPF: What do you think about the connection with female genital mutilation and such societies as the Sande and the Bondo?
Hilary: The traditional attraction of the Sande and Bondo Societies has been the entitlement – status, land ownership and so on – and the (relative) autonomy they give in societies where otherwise women are very subservient; but these Societies’ initiation ceremonies, with FGM at the core, are downright dangerous as well as cruel.
Obviously, FGM needs to stop anyway, but it will also be critical to think of other ways to accord women independence and respect so that they don’t ‘need’ inhumane initiation.
GWPF: In your first book, you referenced sects and witchcraft versus religion. Do you think the practice of FGM is based mostly on spirits and mythologies?
Hilary: I am sure that FGM is predicated on world views rather than on specific faiths as such. FGM existed before any of the major world religions and yes, there is a great deal of mythology in some of the rationales for its practice.
That said, we must not forget that the fundamental ‘reason’ for FGM is to keep women in their place, subservient to men. It follows that some powerful men will use spirits, myth and the like to enforce their will quite cynically, for personal benefit, on others. I think that is true in respect of the link between witchcraft and harmful practices, but there are also a lot of other ways in which FGM comes about.
GWPF: Why do you think some survivors of FGM were not aware that it had been done to them?
Hilary: Sometimes FGM is inflicted when the girl is very young and cannot remember it, or she may simply block the memory completely because it is so distressing.
Also, in most FGM practicing communities there is very little knowledge or understanding of normal female anatomy or physiology, and it is considered very impolite – often taboo – to discuss such things, so they are not understood.
I frequently hear from medical colleagues that women with FGM have no idea that their clinical problems relate to FGM.
All this of course makes a very strong case for public education and, in schools, personal and sex education for boys and girls alike.
GWPF: Since the U.K. is so far ahead of the U.S. in the knowledge of FGM, what advice do you have for us in the U.S. as far as educating the public?
Hilary: Well, we all, in the UK and everywhere else, still have a lot to learn, but my thinking is that we need to take a two-pronged approach.
Firstly, all relevant professionals must be made fully aware of FGM and other child abuse such as ‘grooming’ and ‘honor killings’. Everyone who has any responsibility for child (and vulnerable adult) safety needs to know exactly what they must do if a child is at risk, or harmed.
Secondly, a more general or popular approach re public education is required. We must all speak out whenever and wherever we can: newspapers, the broadcast media, religious gatherings, community groups, political parties and so on all offer the possibility of spreading the word.
These two approaches are also the fundamental bases for my books on FGM. The first book is intended to inform people with a serious interest (professional or personal) in the issues; and the second book offers the ‘stories’ of those in various ways involved, told in a more informal, ‘popular’ way.
In the end, we can all learn from each other. With more than three million girls and women around the globe likely to undergo FGM in any one year, and with half a million having already experienced it both in the USA and also in Europe (plus probably another 140-170 thousand in the UK), everyone must do whatever they can to spread the word and reduce the suffering and the abuse of human rights.
Speaking out is critical, everyone can do something.
Coming Up in Next Week’s Edition: We will hear from another courageous survivor of female genital mutilation, Mariam Bojang.