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On July 22, the UK government will host Girl Summit 2014 – a high-profile initiative aimed at tackling FGM and forced and early marriage around the globe. Politicians will fall over each other to show how scandalised they are by FGM and what they intend to do about it, but not many will speak up against sending women and girls back to countries where it is widely practiced.
One of those women is Alice*, an asylum seeker from a small African country where the U.N. estimates that more than three-quarters of girls are subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM), usually before reaching adolescence. Alice was not mutilated when she was young. She grew up, got married and became a teacher, but she faced the stigma of not having been cut.
“I was not circumcised as a child. This is shameful in my country. Everyone points at you and says you are not a proper woman. My husband tolerated it at first, but then he started to insist that I was fully circumcised,” she said.
“He used to beat me. I was not an activist against FGM, but in my work as a teacher I sometimes talked to the children about the dangers of circumcision if they had questions. I saw children who were suffering from septic wounds from being circumcised. I did not want to be circumcised. My husband threatened to kill me... He said I disgraced him.”
Alice fled her violent husband, relying on family members to hide her until she could escape.
“My family would be sympathetic to me on my own, but in front of others they supported him. This is how it is in my country. The woman’s view is not respected.”
Sure that her husband would find her with her relatives if she stayed in the country, she managed to escape here to the UK, applied for asylum and told her story. She was overwhelmed by the asylum process, and felt unable to speak up during her case hearing.
Alice’s application was rejected. She was told that a scheme run by an international organisation against FGM in her country would be able to offer her sufficient protection.
“The judge did not believe I am at risk. He accepted that my husband had been violent and complained that I was not circumcised, but he thought that it was not a big issue,” she said.
“I was so confused and depressed when I read this refusal. When you say the truth they don’t believe you.”
A well-founded fear of being made to undergo FGM is recognised by the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) as a form of gender-based persecution or torture, due to the seriousness of the physical and psychological harm it causes, and can be considered grounds for asylum.
Here in the UK, campaigners and high-level members of government including Theresa May have begun to raise the profile of the issue, its continued prevalence here, and the measures we should be taking to end it. However, women like Alice will not benefit from this.
The Home Affairs Select Committee published a report this month calling for a comprehensive raft of measures to be immediately implemented in order to adequately protect girls from FGM in this country, where the practice is already illegal. In Alice’s country, FGM is condoned by all levels of society, yet the efforts of one international organisation were considered by the judge to represent sufficient protection for her. This double standard for women seeking asylum has to end.
We cannot say how many women have found themselves in Alice’s situation because the government does not keep a record of the number of women who seek asylum for this reason, but we know from our work that she is not alone. Her story shows how little grand statements on protecting girls from FGM truly count.
We are failing this vulnerable group of women, who are in fact some of the very easiest women to protect. They are relatively few, and their voices are rarely raised loud enough for us to hear them before they’re gone, but they include some of the most inspiring fighters in the struggle against FGM.
These are the women who have already shown their bravery, bucked tradition and escaped the communities that would harm them and their children. By the time they get here, they have already rescued themselves. It is simply up to us not to put them back into danger, and to recognise that they are no less human and need the same protection as the women and girls in our own communities.
*Name and identifying details have been changed to protect identities. Alice’s testimony formed part of the evidence for Asylum Aid’s latest report, “Even if…” The use of the Internal Protection Alternative in asylum decisions in the UK.
Asylum Aid is a charity working to secure protection for people seeking refuge in the UK from persecution and human rights abuses abroad.