On 22nd July the UK government and UNICEF will hold the Girl Summit, aimed at mobilising efforts to end female genital mutilation / cutting (FGM/C) and child and forced marriage (CFM) within a generation. The Home Secretary Theresa May and Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening will host the event.
Public messaging around the summit has been very positive: “this creative, positive and engaging event will bring together women, girls and community leaders from the UK and overseas, alongside governments, international organisations, faith leaders, civil society organisations and the private sector to commit to action to end FGM and CEFM within a generation. The summit will also share success stories and spread good practice in tackling these issues. It will hear from survivors and from many inspiring individuals from affected communities who are now driving through changes so that other girls and women can enjoy greater opportunities in the future. Girls and women have the right to live free from violence and discrimination and achieve their potential”.
However, alongside positive messaging, hard-hitting work is already being done. Ahead of the summit, the Home Affairs Committee has released its report – “Female genital mutilation: the case for a national action plan”. The report is a much needed study into the UK’s mechanisms for preventing female genital mutilation, and reads as a damning commentary of the failings of our health and social care systems’ inability to tackle the issue. Whilst a critical look at the UK system is vital, the report has also been widely criticised for the intrusiveness of some of its recommendations: it calls for prosecutions of healthcare officials who fail to report signs of the practice having been carried out on a patient, and it also suggests regular medical examinations for ‘high-risk’ individuals.
We in civil society have a call to answer at the Girl Summit. We need to look at what we are doing and question whether or not we can do more. In the Commonwealth, twenty countries have a CFM prevalence of above 20%; we have six of the top twenty countries in the world with the highest prevalence of CFM, with India counting the highest number of child brides in the world; FGM/C is prevalent in at least seven Commonwealth countries in Africa, and some in South Asia. These issues cannot be discussed in isolation. The RCS’s most recent report documents the high levels not only of CFM and FGM/C, but also of domestic violence and modern slavery in the Commonwealth. Gender-based violence is not restricted to certain actions in certain places: whilst FGM/C may be restricted to certain regions, CFM is more widespread, and domestic violence is a universal problem.
The RCS welcomes the upcoming Girl Summit, and will be engaging actively with it. However, to be a success, it needs to address the root causes of gender based violence – negative social norms that restrict the place of a girl in society: lack of access to education; fewer legal rights; more obstacles to progress; no right to sexuality; fewer role models; little economic independence; widespread inability to own or inherit land. Once all the obstacles that face girls have been addressed, then, and only then, will girls be able to “live free from violence and discrimination and achieve their potential”. We must be cautious about a focus on success to the detriment of rigorous engagement with the difficult task in hand. Most importantly, we must acknowledge that the Girl Summit cannot in one day solve every problem that girls face, but neither can it choose two issues and discuss them in isolation. CFM and FGM/C are not the cause of gender inequality; they are a consequence of it. We cannot solve either of these human rights abuses without tackling the root causes of gender inequality. Finally, the reality is that it will take more than a generation to emancipate 51% of the world’s population. That is not a defeatist statement; it is a call to action, to focus on the whole of the task in hand. We have a lot of work to do if we are going to make the change we want to see for all girls everywhere.