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Challenge the ancient traditions, say FGM victims

25 July 2014

RUSSELL WATKINS/DFID

Mobilising new support: Alimatu Dimonekene, a survivor of FGM

Mobilising new support: Alimatu Dimonekene, a survivor of FGM

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 commonplace.

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 1980s.

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 risk.

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 genital mutilation".

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."

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