The UK’s National FGM Centre — an organisation that works to eradicate female genital mutilation and support survivors — is under threat of closure following a steep reduction in government support, new figures have revealed.
The centre, which is run by the children’s charity Barnardo's and the Local Government Association, published a statement on July 24 saying “extra funding must be found” if it is going to be able to continue its work.
FGM is the non-medical practice that intentionally removes female genital organs. It can have serious consequences for health, including issues with sex, urination, menstruation, pregnancy, and more. It’s estimated that at least 137,000 women live with its effects in England and Wales.
Since opening five years ago to help hit the government’s target to end FGM by 2030, the centre has safeguarded 742 girls who were at risk of FGM and has supported 341 survivors, the organisation says.
“The government announced in 2018 it was strengthening its commitment to ending FGM within a generation and set a deadline of 2030,” Leethen Bartholomew, the head of the centre, said in the statement. “But government funding to stop FGM has reduced by 76% since 2015.”
The news comes at a time when there are still hundreds of girls at risk every month in the UK. According to NHS statistics, 860 new cases of FGM were identified by the health service between January and March 2020.
Meanwhile, from April 2019 to March 2020, 6,590 women and girls either had a procedure to treat their FGM or were identified by the NHS as having previously undergone FGM.
The COVID-19 lockdown has increased the risk of gender-based violence for girls too — both in the UK and around the world. Karma Nirvana, a Leeds-based charity that works with victims of honour-based abuse, reported a 200% increase in calls to its helpline between March 16 and April 24.
The reduction of funding from central government to fighting FGM in the UK was revealed by the Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran on July 14 in a question to the Home Office, and reported in the Independent and the Guardian. The figure fell sharply this year, as the government’s official response shows.
The Home Office’s reply stated that: funding was at £2.7 million in 2015-2016 when the strategy launched, falling to £1.7m in 2016-2017, rising to £1.9m in 2017-2018, dipping to £1.8m in 2018-2019, and then dropping to just £432,000 in the year to April 2020.
While progress has been made in the UK in terms of what support is available for FGM survivors — for example, eight walk-in clinics at health centres opened in September 2019 — campaigners involved in taking proactive steps to prevent the procedure from happening in the first place are concerned.
In addition to supporting survivors, the National FGM Centre also issues protection orders for at-risk girls to give police the powers to intervene, and trains staff from other sectors, like teachers and doctors, to spot the signs that a young girl might be under threat.
According to its website, it has trained thousands of staff in education, health, and the police. In 2017, the centre expanded its remit to include working to eradicate the practice of breast ironing and “child abuse linked to faith or belief” as well.
But there is still set to be a £700,000 cut in the National FGM Centre’s annual budget this year, the Independent reports, potentially putting many more young girls at risk.
Councillor Anita Lower, an FGM spokesperson and chair of the centre’s advisory board, said the National FGM’s Centre’s work has “never been more essential.”
“We call on the government to support the centre for the remainder of this financial year and look to secure its long term future through the forthcoming spending review [in autumn],” Lower said.
Other activists in the sector will be impacted by the drop in funding too.
Aneeta Prem, founder of the Freedom Charity, which combats both FGM and forced marriage in the UK, told the Guardian that the funding decline was “really significant” and threatened progress on stopping the practice.
“We are really concerned. We currently have 220 schools on a waiting list wanting me to teach them about this, but there’s zero funding for us to go in,” Prem said.
A government spokesperson told the Independent that funding for the National FGM Centre specifically was “time-limited while we worked on more permanent solution to tackle this terrible practice.”
“We have also introduced tough safeguarding laws to compel certain professionals to report if they have encountered cases of FGM in under 18s,” the spokesperson said.
They added: “And we’ve provided funding for charities to support victims of FGM and, through our new relationships, health, and sex education curriculum, we are teaching pupils about the emotional and physical damage of FGM in an age-appropriate way, as well as teaching that it is a crime.”