Last week, the UK Government and UNICEF hosted a global GIRL Summit on child and early forced marriage (CEFM) and female genital mutilation (FGM). I attended as a representative of Southall Black Sisters which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year in its fight to end violence against black and minority ethnic (BME) women and girls. I was also a member of the summit reference group. The summit had some inspiring speakers, particularly survivors, and some impressive commitments were made with millions being promised worldwide, particularly for work on FGM in the global south. It also helped to create a momentum for change, especially in relation to state responsibility in several countries in Africa and the Indian Sub-continent. Some countries from the global north also made commitments, such as Sweden, Canada and the USA, but it is unclear how much of this will be used to address the problems within minorities in their own countries.
Many people, including black feminists, survivors and professionals, saw this event as a public relations exercise for governments and corporate bodies, and a showcase event for the UK Government facing an imminent general election. The focus on minority women and girl’s issues, rather than violence against women and girls (VAWG) more generally, had also raised fears among some BME women groups and anti-racists of exoticisation and essentialism of minority or global south cultures and religions. These fears were partially justified as the summit did not sufficiently debate state responsibility to address these problems within the global north, which requires acknowledging and tackling barriers created by gender inequality, racism and poverty.
As a member of the Summit reference group, SBS argued for the need to tackle intersectional discrimination based on race, gender and class, and for the debates to be located within the VAWG and human rights framework. However, despite our presence at the summit, we too felt marginalised. There were few British BME women’s groups in spite of my efforts for better representation. SBS was not given a slot to speak, even in the ‘spotlight’ workshops, or invited to the roundtable with a Home Office Minister. When the Prime Minister made a surprise appearance, his ‘question time’ seemed orchestrated. He ignored my raised hand, even though I was right in front of him and stood up several times to attract attention. What was he so afraid that I would ask?
Many of the controversial or hard issues were not discussed at the summit - such as the impact of austerity measures, immigration controls and religious fundamentalisms. I had hoped that my questions would bring these to the fore, so that we can see genuine change within a generation, which was the summit’s stated vision. While SBS work has focused more on forced marriage than FGM, there is much common ground. Most of the UK Government’s announcements were on FGM. Although illegal for 3 decades, there have been no convictions on FGM. Instead of improving services to enable victims/survivors to come forward, the government said they were introducing new controversial laws to ‘make parent’s liable.’ However, it was not clear how this is different to current liabilities under civil and criminal law, and why this should be limited to FGM without making an argument for this to be extended to all child abuse cases. Why not criminalise or penalise all parents who fail to protect their children? What would happen if they were unaware of the abuse occurring or unable to challenge it due to fear of violence? There are also plans to place a statutory duty on professionals to report FGM to add to the existing practice guidelines. Again, while there is already a duty under the Children Act, guidelines are difficult to implement unless there are robust inspection and enforcement mechanisms - a problem we are currently facing with the statutory forced marriage guidelines.
While commitments were made for more funding, it was not clear how much of this would filter down to grassroots civic society organisations, and how much would be available for BME women’s groups in the UK or for work on CEFM. Many frontline BME women’s groups have closed down or reduced their services because of cuts in local authority funding. Austerity measures have also diminished services and the availability of legal aid more generally.
Criminalisation of forced marriage in the UK, which came into force in June 2014, while giving the right message, ignores the fact that many victims/survivors say that they want protection from, but not the prosecution of their parents or families. In this context, it is crucial that support structures, such as those provided by BME women’s services including specialist refuges, advice and advocacy and counselling, are enhanced to prevent the problem being driven underground.
The summit also failed to deal with the thorny questions of immigration and asylum. For example, many women seeking asylum fearing forced marriage and other forms of gender related persecution in their country of origin are denied refugee status. Immigration controls introduced in the name of tackling forced marriage have been used to deny the right to family reunion to migrant communities. For example, an age related immigration policy which required both parties to be over 21 before an overseas spouse could come to the UK was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2011. In the cases of Quila and Bibi, in which SBS intervened, the Court ruled that the blanket policy used a ‘sledge hammer to crack a nut’ and violated the right to family life.
With the forthcoming general election, the pressure to increase immigration controls is likely to intensify with each party vying to compete with the right wing agenda of UKIP which did well in the local and European elections in 2014. This has already begun. For example, recently, a BBC Radio Women's Hour programme conflated ‘sham’ and ‘forced’ marriages - forgetting that the former often involves a fraudulent act by both parties, who have no intention of remaining together after the wedding, while the latter involves duress for one or both parties where, under cultural pressure, there is often an intention to remain together for life.
The historic role of religion in oppressing women, and the impact of growing religious fundamentalisms (in all religions) was minimised. The summit sought to obtain the support of faith leaders, who were being encouraged to sign a declaration opposing FGM and CEFM. Yet, as SBS know from experience, religious leaders can be like chameleons. They pay lip service in public, but do little in private to protect victims. Instead, many divert them into religious arbitration or informal mediation within communities which usually aim to reconcile women and girls to abusive situations at home. The state’s multi-faith approach undermines the battle against forced marriage and FGM in the name of religious sensitivity - a problem prevalent under multiculturalism where respect for cultural difference has led to ‘moral blindness’ on the matter of BME women’s rights. Indeed, influenced by SBS, ‘mature multiculturalism’ was advocated in the late 1990s by the then Home Office Minister, Mike O’Brien, as a solution to resolving the tensions between culture and gender. Secularism and perhaps a ‘mature multi-faithism’ will help to resolve the same tensions with religion.
Some of the best parts of the summit were presentations by young people as part of the Youth for Change initiatives. Two young BME women, who act as the SBS school ambassadors in a team of 10 pupils tackling violence against BME women, attended the summit and discussed their campaign in an ‘action session’. The SBS youth worker also discussed the success of the SBS project in schools which helped to change attitudes and behaviour among pupils and teachers within a ‘whole school’ approach. Both pupils and teachers in the project called for the subject to be embedded in the national curriculum, and for Personal, Health and Social Education, where it can be specifically incorporated, to be made statutory.
In an inspiring speech, Malala Yousafzai said education for girls was part of the solution and called on those who thought CEFM and FGM was justified to "read the Koran again, there are people who need to do a bit more study". She said that such traditions were man-made and not God-given. I attempted to speak to Malala after the speech before she had a lunchtime meeting with the Prime Minister. Having been excluded from a Ministerial round table during the lunch break, I had time to wait for Malala outside of the PM’s meeting room, where I was told by officials that I should leave as she did not want to speak to anyone else. However, at the end the meeting, when Malala was being bundled away, I managed to shout ‘they are trying to silence us! They are denying us a voice!’ – Malala turned around and momentarily stared at me with a look of recognition. It seems that both of us understood what it is like to be calling for our voices to be heard from the margins.