August is cutting season. In the UK and across the world, those who perform the act formerly known as female circumcision are getting ready. The school holidays are the most popular period for what the World Health Organisation (WHO) defines as: ‘all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons’.
Charity campaigners have worked for years to bring greater attention to what is now known as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). And today marks a major stepping stone in this country as the first people to be charged with performing and procuring FGM appear in the Old Bailey. Finally, a prosecution looks possible, despite the practice being illegal in Britain since 1985.
FGM is performed on women of all ages, with risk especially high in a girl’s early teens as she moves into adulthood. An estimated 65,000 girls under 13 in Britain are at risk of FGM, and approximately 170,000 women and girls in the UK are living with it.
I have watched the development of this campaign with interest as it has moved from a little-understood issue—too easily dismissed as something which happened ‘somewhere else’ and ‘to other people’. Today it is a topic in the mainstream media and Plan UK’s most recent Youtube video on FGM has already attracted more than 90,000 views.
How has this been achieved?
For me, a major advance was the move away from the more palatable term ‘female circumcision’ to the more in-your-face terms of ‘female genital cutting’ and ‘mutilation’. This is not about semantics. The terms ‘circumcision’ is inaccurate and belies the severity of the practice, which in the short-term can lead to major medical complications and even death, and in the long-term can have profound and ongoing physical and psychological consequences. The more graphic language of ‘mutilation’ or ‘cutting’ exposes FGM as a violent act that amounted to a grave abuse of human rights. It also reframes the issue in a way that engages the public.
In turn, the fact that the public cares about this issue has helped organisations like Plan UK to persuade the Department for International Development to take steps to tackle it. And other government departments, not least education, health and the Home Office are involved in this too. Over the last year, Theresa May has come under increasing pressure over the hypocrisy of fighting FGM at home while trying to return asylum seekers to the same fate overseas.
This is not the only campaign where it matters how the debate is framed. The fight-back against the Government’s ‘under-occupancy penalty’ by calling it the bedroom tax springs to mind. But it is surely an important example, and one that I hope will change many lives.
What’s in a name? A great deal.