By Angie Marriot
Finally, the UK has secured its first ever female genital mutilation (FGM) conviction in over 30 years, a much-needed precedent which will show perpetrators that the government is serious about tackling the abuse of FGM.
There is a mandatory duty for health and social care professionals to report FGM to the police occurring to individuals aged under 18. However, doing so under the Serious Crime Act (SCA) is still not well understood and many social workers remain unaware about invoking and policing FGM protection orders. Following an FGM protection order, local authorities must work with the victim and other support services to ensure the highest level of protection. Parents found to have breached an FGM protection order risk serving a custodial sentence of up to five years.
Social workers play a strategic role in helping to tackle the issue and must be knowledgeable about FGM law. Education for and the empowerment of social work professionals is therefore essential in helping towards preventing this abuse.
An evaluation of an FGM project I ran with Diversity Employment Solutions for Support Acton Women’s Network and Manchester Community Impact Forum in Greater Manchester, that provided training to the police, health and social care professionals, found that 90% had not received previous training. The same proportion of participants did not feel confident in managing the safeguarding aspect of FGM. Training in Cheshire with a high presence of social workers echoed similar conclusions. These examples demonstrate large deficits in knowledge about FGM – and how to address cultural sensitivity and barriers – which urgently needs to be addressed.
FGM practising communities that I work with do not grasp that the law is the law in the UK. Although the practice of FGM is illegal in African communities, culture can often prevail over the law and the law can turn a blind eye in these communities’ native territory. Perpetrators are well known to do their upmost to ensure that incidences remain secret and hidden underground. Speaking out about FGM is a taboo within practising communities which may pose problems when interviewing women or girls affected. Children will not report parents, and a major obstacle to prosecution is proving whether FGM took place in the UK or abroad.
A fundamental difficulty for health and social care professionals are the cultural and language barriers and fear of being labelled racist by practising communities. Where language barriers exist, social workers must use sensitive language and recognised interpreters, and never use family members or people from the community that may place girls in danger.
Significant issues for social workers exist around the lack of trust and confidence that practising communities may have with statutory agencies. Working in partnership with black and minority ethnic (BME) groups will assist statutory agencies in engaging positively with communities. Meanwhile understanding the views and perceptions of practising communities is essential, for example, remembering that the perpetrator of FGM is usually also an FGM survivor. NHS England recommends that all FGM survivors should undergo psychological support. Social workers need to be aware of the referral process for FGM survivors and can also therefore engage FGM physical and psychological services that are available.
FGM is complex and multifaceted and a joint response is crucial. No one agency will solve FGM. Social workers play a key role in the coordinated response to safeguarding girls following disclosure or concerns of FGM. The Home Office Multi-Agency Statutory Guidance on FGM and Working Together to Safeguard Children 2018 should be embedded within social services policies and procedure. Additionally, social workers need training and education about their roles and responsibilities in accordance with this guidance.
I take part annually in Operation Limelight at Stansted Airport with Essex Police and UK Border Force. Social workers joined last year, and it was a pleasure to provide training as part of the operational briefing. It is a partner approach to tackling FGM by raising awareness during what we know as the “cutting season” where perpetrators take girls aboard to be cut. It is not just about raising awareness to the public it is also about encouraging people to report any concerns to the police. Such examples of good practice that have yielded excellent results should be mirrored across the sector to share learning.
I urge all social workers to ensure that they are aware of their mandatory duty to report FGM to the police in under 18s, and that they are fully compliant to meet the necessary requirements to safeguard and provide a person centred-approach to managing FGM.
But if we are serious in our duty to protect girls from the abuse of FGM then it is essential that those social workers who manage the risk and safeguarding aspect can access education and accredited training, including that which tackles diversity and cultural sensitivity requirements, and can be empowered to help tackle this growing issue.
Angie Marriot is an FGM expert and consultant at The Training Hub, which works with local authorities across the UK to provide face-to-face and online training courses across the education, early years’, fostering, children’s homes and the social care sectors.