ENDING the "barbaric practices" of female genital mutiliation
(FGM) and child- and forced marriage will require faith leaders to
challenge ancient traditions and extremist voices, a gathering in
London heard on Tuesday.
The Girl Summit was hosted by the Government and UNICEF, and was
attended by delegates from more than 50 countries, including
government ministers from countries where the practices are
New UNICEF data was released that suggested that more than 130
million girls and women have undergone FGM in the 29 countries
where it is most prevalent. Overall, the risk has decreased by
about a third in the past 30 years. One in four young women today
are married in childhood, compared with one in three in the
Also released was new data from City University, London, and
Equality Now which suggests that more than 135,000 women and girls
in the UK are survivors of FGM - more than twice the existing NHS
estimate. The study estimates that 60,000 girls are currently at
The Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced several reforms,
including a £1.4 million FGM prevention programme, and new
legislation that will mean that parents can be prosecuted if they
fail to prevent their daughters from being cut.
The Prime Minister announced that he would make it mandatory for
teachers, doctors, and social workers to report FGM. He suggested
that, in the past, people had been "worried about upsetting
people's sensitivies and sensibilities" - turning a blind eye, for
example, to girls who did not return to school after the summer
holidays. The founder of the charity Karma Nirvana, Jasvinder
Sanghera, said that she knew of teachers who had torn down posters
that were educating pupils about forced marriage.
A session on the part played by faith leaders highlighted the
extent of their influence. The national network co-ordinator at the
UK Muslim Women's Network and chaplain at the University of
Birmingham, Shahin Adhraf, warned: "Faith leaders can act as a
major roadblock. They do not understand gender equality." While
willing to condemn one form of FGM, they deemed other forms to be
sunnah ("usual practice").
She had "harrowing" stories to tell. One 47-year-old woman had
been cut repeatedly at the age of seven, over the course of three
weeks. After intercourse with her husband, she had to sit in a bowl
of cold water. Another woman had undergone cutting at the age of
17, at a private clinic in London.
The director of the International Islamic Centre for Population
Studies and Research at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Professor
Gamal Serour, echoed several speakers who insisted that there was
"no religious basis whatsoever in Islam for any form of female
The problem, he said, was unqualified preachers and extremists
who turned to unauthorised hadiths (the teachings of
Muhammad). A professor of obstetrics and gynaecology, he has worked
with the Al-Azhar mosque and the Coptic Christian community of
Egypt to provide faith leaders with "credible" teaching on the
subject. Egypt has one of the highest rates of FGM in the world: 91
per cent of all girls.
Dr Anne-Marie Wilson, the executive director of 28 Too Many, a
charity that is campaigning to end FGM, said that faith leaders had
affirmed that FGM was not required by any holy scripture.
Speaking after the session, the director of policy and public
affairs at Christian Aid, Christine Allen, said: "FGM and child-,
early-, and forced marriage are the tip of the iceberg. . . We have
to recognise that there are some extreme voices, and it is in that
context that the voices of religious leaders, ideally coming
together, speaking out on gender inequality and these barbaric
practices, is so powerful." Christian Aid has launched a new
strategy, Gender Justice for All.
The Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, said that
religious leaders should "recognise that there are social norms
prevalent in their religious communities that must be challenged by
our fundamental religious and theological principles about the
dignity of all, especially young girls."
Addressing the delegates alongside the Prime Minister of
Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina; and the First Lady of Burkina Faso,
Chantal Compaoré. Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl shot
by the Taliban, concluded: "We should not be followers of those
traditions that go against human rights; we . . . make the
traditions; so we should have the right to change them. Traditions
are not sent from heaven, they are not from God."