As the government resolves to protect young girls from being mutilated, the methods employed may only make things worse

In Ethiopia, punishing those carrying out FGM fuels anger and misunderstanding, and also hinders change. Could we be risking the same in Britain?

As schools closed for summer holidays in mid-July, Bedfordshire Police stopped two girls from pursuing their travel plans by seizing their passports. The students had been, somehow, identified as potential victims about to travel abroad for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM): the partial or complete removal of external female genitalia for non-medical reasons, documented most prevalently in regions of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. They were amongst the three million girls estimated to be at risk of undergoing the procedure every year throughout the world.

Bedfordshire Police were the first service allowed to take these steps, facilitated by the Serious Crime Act 2015. The act permits judges to remand people in custody and to order suspected FGM victims to submit to local authority checks and a mandatory medical examination. This clenching of the legal system’s iron fist is energised by David Cameron’s call for a ‘crackdown’ on FGM this summer.

Whilst the police are armed with legal artillery to take down FGM practitioners, teachers are merely told to be on their guard, reporting signs of the crime. Yet, activists warn that this reduced emphasis on education risks alienating practising communities, leaving their support for FGM intact.

This reminds me of a phone conversation I had this March with an intern from one such activist organisation. Megan Gedes, on the other side of the phone, had just completed an internship at Forward, an African Women’s Rights charity campaigning against FGM and forced marriage.

‘Art is a peaceful way to give people the message about FGM’ and ‘it was an empowering process for us’. Megan was telling me about an exhibition that Forward had organised: ‘Something About Bodies’ which showcased artwork, poetry, sculpture, and paintings from both professionals and volunteers that sought to inform viewers on FGM and advocate against the practice. With their bare hands, these artists were scrubbing away at the dust that had built up on those forgotten intentions to educate society about these sensitive issues and to engage the practising communities.

But can educational artwork rise to the challenge of combating a practice that is upheld, in the societies where it occurs, by both men and women as well as deep-seated gender inequalities? Forward’s exhibition suggested it can, because of the way in which men and boys were engaged.

‘Guys came as spectators and facilitators’. This marked a breakthrough. As Megan observed, males in the affected communities tend to be kept from entering discussions on FGM. However, for the FGM ‘supply to run dry’, we need men to acknowledge the truth of its brutality and ‘stop demanding’ it from wives and daughters. They shouldn’t be left harbouring misconceptions, including views comparing FGM to male circumcision, especially as the latter is reported to entail fewer health risks.

So should we just inform people about FGM? ‘No’, Megan responded. We should also encourage ‘viewing FGM within a broader context of women’s rights and, indeed, human rights’.

Though the current deluge of FGM policies may make it easy to forget, FGM is unfortunately only one element in the widespread objectification of women’s bodies to meet perceived social norms. This is a condition from which neither East nor West is exempt. For some commentators, the distance between FGM and designer vaginas, if it wasn’t for the consent given in the latter case, becomes dangerously narrow.

Women’s choices to have their vaginas stretched tight and pubic area waxed permanently seem dictated by social pressures which demand female virginity. It may be uncomfortable, but drawing these links keeps us from forgetting that FGM is part of a bigger problem and needs a bigger solution. A solution that is unafraid to launch into discussions with all relevant parties, identifying the main causes for the continuation of FGM; a solution that can, in short, be provided by education.

So Megan was obviously surprised when she was not asked to lobby the Secretary of State for Education – neither Nicky Morgan nor Michael Gove before her, concerning FGM. Four months later and many campaigners are still echoing Megan’s concerns about the very vague presence of the Education Department on the scene. It even refused to fund a recent app and website, Petals, that offers access to helplines and resources for understanding FGM’s damaging effects.

In Ethiopia, the Guardian reports, Sadiya Aliye recalls feeling ‘angry’ as she was arrested, beaten, and ordered to pay $50 fines every time she practiced FGM on each of her four daughters. We may not be beating offenders in Britain, but neglecting education and resorting to iron-fisted policies runs the risk of making many more parents like Sadiya simply angry and unwilling to change.