The NSPCC encourages racist curtain-twitching

By launching a new helpline for those worried about FGM victims, the NSPCC is okaying suspicion of dark-skinned families.

To much fanfare, Britain’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) has launched a helpline to protect girls in Britain from female genital mutilation (FGM), or cutting. FGM, as the World Health Organisation defines it, entails ‘procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons’. 

But is this really a big problem in the UK? Yes, says the NSPCC; more than 70 women and girls seek treatment every month, it reports, and those recorded incidents are only ‘the tip of the iceberg’. Citing a report from 2007, the NSPCC says an estimated 23,000 British girls under the age of 15 could be at risk of FGM every year. It goes on to warn that FGM could be even more prevalent than these figures suggest, due largely to recent immigration from countries in the Middle East, Africa and parts of South Asia, which practice FGM. 

For children from these communities in the UK, the time of greatest peril is nearly upon them - the summer holidays. Speaking on Channel 4 News last week, Hawa Sesay, a victim of FGM from Sierra Leone, said: ‘In the six weeks in the summer, parents smuggle their daughters to Africa to have the procedure done on them.’

On closer inspection, however, the statistical grounds for this anti-FGM campaign are found to be flimsy indeed. The NSPCC is basing it claims on a 2007 report produced by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, City University and the NGO Forward. Yet this report is hardly a model of accuracy. For a start, it was published six years ago, using data that, in some cases, was last updated in the early 1980s.

And how did the report’s authors conclude that 23,000 British girls were at risk of FGM? They looked at the countries in which FGM traditionally occurs, estimated its prevalence in these countries, and then projected these estimates on to the relevant immigrant communities in England and Wales. For example, in Kenya, they used data from 2003 to work out that 20 per cent of girls aged 15 to 19 have had some form of FGM. They then turned their attention to England and Wales, and asserted, based on the Kenyan percentages, that 20 per cent of daughters born to Kenyan female migrants are ‘at risk’ of FGM. In short, the report rests on sheer assumption. The NSPCC’s figures, taken from the report, are therefore driven not by statistical rigour but by racial prejudices about the attitudes and behaviour of Kenyan migrants. After all, the NSPCC is simply assuming that this is what certain migrants are like.

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There is no doubt that FGM happens in some parts of the world. But it is on the wane – a trend that is obvious from the data used in the 2007 report itself. Take Kenya again: while a fifth of the 15- to 19-year-old female age group had suffered FGM in 2003, the figure rose to nearly 50 per cent among the 45- to 49-year-old age group for that same year. Indeed, according to a UNICEF report from 2005, in most of the surveyed countries FGM-prevalence levels in the younger age groups (15-19 and 20-24) was consistently lower than in older age groups.

So is the NSPCC really helping to protect British children from the evils of a backward, foreign practice? No, it’s not. Instead, on the basis of make-believe data, the NSPCC is encouraging people to assume that immigrant mothers from certain countries are ready and willing child abusers.

The reality of FGM in the UK is considerably different to the NSPCC hype. Female circumcision has been a serious criminal offence in the UK since 1985. Anyone carrying out the procedure on a UK citizen faces a prison sentence of up to 14 years. And while 70 women in Britain seeking treatment each month for circumcision-related issues may be significant on a human level, it is quite small statistically.

It is possible that the reason for the disparity between the actual figures for FGM prevalence and the NSPCC’s significantly higher projections is that this really is a hidden crime. But it is far more likely that the overwhelming majority of British migrants from Africa, Asia and the Middle East are not maniacally intent on mutilating their daughters.

By suggesting, as the NSPCC does, that FGM ‘is a form of child abuse common to some African, Asian and Middle Eastern communities in the UK’, campaigners and charities are encouraging people to be suspicious of these communities. The NSPCC’s FGM helpline is actively stoking mistrust between and among communities in the UK.

Furthermore, the launch of a dedicated helpline on the basis of unfounded assumptions has authoritarian implications, not just for the families involved, but also for anyone connected to them. The logic of campaigners becomes, ‘why stop at a helpline?’. As one columnist puts it: ‘Why are not all girls medically examined to see if they have been cut, as happens in France? Why are midwives not obliged to report new mothers who have been cut, with a follow-up investigation by the authorities?’ The outcome of this suspicion-mongering is a form of racist curtain-twitching and official monitoring, which is unlikely to stop anyone determined to circumcise their daughters but is likely to divide communities.

It seems that the objectionable and irrational actions of a small minority of individuals has served as a pretext for official fantasies about the savagery and barbarism of dark-skinnned communities in Britain.

Saleha Ali is a writer and researcher based in London. She currently works at WORLDbytes, an online Citizen TV channel.

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