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.