Mothers, fathers and young Somali adults have expressed a pervasive sense of disempowerment, traumatisation and victimisation at the hands of statutory services, feeding into a new report that urges authorities to change their approach.
During a series of focus groups conducted in the summer of 2018, researchers from the universities of Bristol and Cardiff found that the attitude with which FGM-safeguarding practices were being carried out were harming rather than helping Somali families. In the words of one participant: “I thought safeguarding was when a child is in danger. But for us, it was just because we were Somali.”
Participants in the study described being questioned in an insensitive and unjustified manner because of the blanket approach adopted by statutory agencies, which encouraged professionals to see suspicion in mundane experiences. These experiences undermined relationships within families and the wider Somali community and between participants and services.
Lead researcher and report author Dr Saffron Karlsen, from the University of Bristol’s Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship , said: “There are a number of serious problems with FGM-safeguarding policy and the way it is being implemented.
“The government’s NHS Enhanced Dataset demands that midwives, GPs and other health practitioners ask women about their experience of FGM repeatedly and this risks retraumatising women who have been cut by forcing them to relive these distressing experiences over and over again. Concern for the often unborn child is at times overriding concerns about FGM victims in adulthood. People also worried that this apparent ‘fixation’ with FGM prevented health practitioners from providing appropriate care.”
Participants were concerned that policies were based on outdated evidence regarding the prevalence of FGM among the Somali community and the extent to which this was still an accepted practice. Media and political misinformation regarding the levels of FGM in Somali communities further compounded participants’ sense of identity and inclusion in British society being undermined.
The report was launched in Bristol yesterday (Wednesday 6 March) at a meeting with policy-makers and local agencies involved in safeguarding, along with third sector representatives, academics and members of the Bristol Somali community in Bristol.
Among the recommendations discussed was a pressing need for the UK government to review its FGM-safeguarding policy and the statistical evidence on which it is based. The report also highlights an urgent need for people from FGM-affected communities to be involved in the local implementation of these policies.
Dr Karlsen added: “We are very pleased that Bristol City Council and their partners have been so proactive in responding to these issues. They have introduced policies to clarify the guidance for schools, to support staff involved in FGM-safeguarding and reduce unnecessary referrals. These initiatives also aim to provide more information for those conducting home visits, in the hope that they will become more collaborative and less coercive.
Researchers have issued a policy briefing to statutory services which details the study findings and emphasises the importance of a collaborative approach that by involving people from FGM-affected communities, will reduce the insensitive and stigmatising impact observed in this study.
Recommendations included in the briefing include advising policymakers and healthcare professionals to reassess how FGM victims are treated in medical settings, while schools and educational authorities are advised to ensure that all approaches to FGM-safeguarding concur with existing guidance.
The recent work undertaken by Bristol City Council to clarify this guidance will provide schools with valuable support towards achieving this.
Social services and the police are urged to ensure that home visits are only conducted once reasonable risk has been identified and advised to address the distressing, criminalising and coercive nature of such visits.
“Important changes have been at the local level in Bristol when it comes to implementing national policy in a way that will facilitate more sensitive engagement and clarify official guidance,” added Dr Karlsen. “We now call on those in health, the police and the UK government to follow this lead and respond equally positively to these findings.”