FGM: How can you protect your pupils?

Written by: HTU | Published:

Teachers are crucial in the fight to protect girls aged as young as five from the horrors of female genital mutilation. The NSPCC’s Kamaljit Thandi offers her advice on what schools can do.

In June last year, the NSPCC set up a national helpline offering advice and support for anyone worried that a young girl was at risk of female genital mutilation (FGM), one of the most complex and secretive forms of child abuse.

We particularly wanted to raise awareness of this service and the support it could offer to teachers. As FGM is a hidden form of abuse, teachers are often the only professionals that can identify children at risk of this and they play a vital role in protecting them from harm. 

Victims and consequences

FGM is an illegal and life-threatening form of abuse. It involves the removal of part or all of the external female genitalia, or any injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. 

It is often performed without anesthetic and leaves its young victims in agony and with physical and psychological problems that can continue into adulthood. In some cases victims go on to suffer chronic vaginal and pelvic infections, menstrual problems, kidney damage, cysts and abscesses, pain during sex and fertility problems. In some cases they will die.

FGM, sometimes referred to as female genital cutting (FGC), female circumcision, or “initiation”, is carried out in certain African, Asian and Middle Eastern communities. 

It typically happens to girls between five and eight-years-old, although it has also been performed on babies, and can take place at any time before a young woman is married. 

Due to the secretive nature of the abuse it is difficult to know exactly how many girls are affected. Before launching our helpline we discovered that more than 70 women and girls were seeking specialist treatment for the consequences of FGM every month. One of these girls was just seven.

These figures are likely to be just the tip of the iceberg as many victims do not seek medical help, and often those who do are adults with maternity problems. It is estimated that in the UK around 24,000 children are at risk of FGM and nearly 66,000 girls and women are living with its consequences. 

Why is FGM carried out?

Reasons cited for FGM include social acceptance; family honour; ensuring a girl is “marriageable”; preservation of a girl’s virginity or chastity; custom and tradition; and the mistaken belief it enhances fertility and makes childbirth safer. 

There is a common misconception that there is a religious element to FGM. This is not the case – FGM is not a requirement of any religion.

Within FGM-practising communities there is a belief among many that it is the right thing to do. 

Parents may think if they do not carry it out their daughter will be an outcast. The pressure for girls to be cut is immense, as is the pressure to stay silent about the practice, with some even being threatened with violence if they speak out.

That parents may genuinely believe FGM to be in their daughter’s best interests does not make it acceptable. No attempt to justify it can hide what it really is – violence against women and girls. 

FGM is illegal, it is child abuse, and it can never be condoned.

Awareness in education

Despite how crucial teachers are in the fight against FGM, our research indicates that awareness of this harmful practice is low in the education profession. 

An NSPCC/You Gov survey of 1,002 teachers across England and Wales in January 2013 showed that four out of five had not received child protection training on this form of abuse and 68 per cent were unaware of government guidance about safeguarding policies regarding FGM.

One in six teachers said they did not know FGM was illegal. In fact it became a criminal offence to perform FGM in the UK in 1985. Since 2003 it has also been illegal to carry out, arrange, or assist in FGM being carried out abroad on a girl who is a UK national or permanent resident.

Worryingly, 17 per cent of teachers answering our survey told us they did not consider FGM child abuse. Given the unimaginably painful and in some cases fatal consequences of the practice there is simply no room for debate – FGM unequivocally constitutes child abuse.

Since our survey took place there has been an increase in media attention and political engagement around FGM. We hope this means that all professionals, including teachers, are now more aware of the practice, the fact that it can’t be written off as a cultural issue, and what to do if they have concerns. 

Callers to our helpline have included concerned teachers, with 41 per cent of all referrals so far having stemmed from some form of professional contact.

Despite these positive signs we know that FGM remains a secretive and sensitive issue. This is why the NSPCC is working to raise awareness of FGM and our helpline in the education sector. By doing this we hope to help to give teachers, who are at the frontline of the fight against FGM, the confidence and support they need to protect their young pupils.

The signs of girls at risk

As teachers are trusted adults to many children it is possible they may make a direct disclosure – or that a worried school friend will do so on their behalf. However, given the veil of secrecy that surrounds FGM this is generally not the case and instead teachers need to be aware of signs that a girl may be at risk. 

Signs that show a pupil may be at risk of FGM include where the girl:

  • Is from a community known to practice FGM.
  • Has an older sibling, or someone else in the family, who has undergone FGM.
  • Talks about having a “special ceremony” or a “special procedure” to become a woman.

School holidays are a particular time of risk for a girl to be taken abroad for the purpose of FGM. Teachers may have cause for concern where:

  • A girl is going abroad but seems vague about where they are going and how long for, is reluctant to talk about the holiday, or seems upset or scared when discussing it but won’t say why.
  • Parents ask to take their daughter out of school before the holidays begin and/or are uncommunicative or become aggressive when asked about their plans.

Signs a girl may have had FGM

Signs that indicate a child may have been a victim of FGM include where she:

  • Is absent for a long time from school.
  • Goes to the toilet more than usual or stays in there for an unusually long time.
  • Isn’t able to cross her legs when she is sitting down on the floor.
  • Tries to get out of doing PE.
  • Suffers urinary tract infections.
  • Is in pain and clutches her body.
  • Is off from school for a week when on her period (if she has started).

What action can schools take?

Where teachers have a concern that a girl is at risk of FGM – or has been a victim of this – they should follow their school’s normal child protection procedures and refer the case to the school’s designated safeguarding person. 

Concerns should then be reported to children’s services or the police so they can be investigated and child protection action taken where necessary.

In addition to the support provided by local children’s services and police, if a school’s designated safeguarding person – or anyone at the school – would like to talk through concerns our FGM helpline is available 24/7. 

Our experienced practitioners, who come from a variety of professional backgrounds including teaching, social work, health and police, can provide information, talk through the situation and advise on the child protection action to take.

In addition to taking action to protect girls when specific concerns arise, it is important that schools have an open culture where children feel able to come forward and tell a teacher if they or someone they know is at risk of FGM.

It is also important that schools ensure teachers know where to go for help and seek advice and are aware that this is not just a cultural issue but one of child abuse which they have a legal duty to report. 

Schools can also help by letting parents and people in FGM practising communities they are in contact with know about our FGM helpline. They can speak to us, anonymously if they wish, if they would like information about FGM or are worried about a child at risk. If the latter, we can make a referral to the police and children’s services to protect that girl, without them having to identify themselves.

FGM cannot and must not be justified in the name of culture or in some way the best interests of girls. It is child abuse. It is illegal. And it must be stopped. I believe that it can be – and that teachers can play a key role in helping this to happen. 

  • Kamaljit Thandi is head of the NSPCC’s helpline.

Further information

If you’re worried that a child is at risk of FGM or would like advice, information or support contact the NSPCC’s free 24/7 FGM helpline on 0800 028 3550 or fgmhelp@nspcc.org.uk


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