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Teaching FGM – things to keep in mind

Of the many changes to Keeping Children Safe in Education 2022, there were a few that led to a gasp of dismay from schools. One of those was the instruction for schools to teach about FGM. 

KCSiE links to the government document Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) and Health Education which outlines that schools:

‘…should address the physical and emotional damage caused by female genital mutilation (FGM). They should also be taught where to find support and that it is a criminal offence to perform or assist in the performance of FGM or fail to protect a person for whom you are responsible from FGM. 

As well as addressing this in the context of the law, pupils may also need support to recognise when relationships (including family relationships) are unhealthy or abusive (including the unacceptability of neglect, emotional, sexual and physical abuse and violence, including honour-based violence and forced marriage) and strategies to manage this or access support for oneself or others at risk.’

For many schools, academies and colleges in areas that are known to be high-risk for FGM; this is likely to have already been in place – perhaps through additional assemblies in the run up to the summer break (sometimes referred to by perpetrators of FGM as ‘the cutting season’). For others however, including special needs settings or some primary schools, this may feel like a daunting task and one which they understand is crucial to getting right.

This blogpost therefore makes some suggestions of things to consider when planning for education around FGM.

Firstly, Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a deeply sensitive and complex issue, which should be addressed as part of comprehensive relationships and health education. FGM should be seen as a form of child abuse and domestic abuse and therefore should be taught alongside other forms of domestic abuse such as Forced Marriage and so-called honour-based abuse.

Educating children about FGM can play a vital role in raising awareness, promoting gender equality, and fostering a culture of respect for girls’ rights. This is not a topic that should be taught simply to female students but to all students in order that it is clearly understood to be a human rights issue, that all should fight against. We need to ensure our male students are equipped to recognise FGM when it is happening and so they can help safeguard their sisters, friends, mothers but also girls around the world.

However, teaching this topic requires careful consideration to ensure age-appropriate, culturally sensitive, and trauma-informed approaches. It is crucial to consider the impact of a lesson on this subject on pupils who may have been subjected to FGM or even for pupils from minority ethnic and cultural backgrounds who may fear being ‘othered’ by their class, as this subject is taught.

In a recent training session, the delegates were discussing the media’s narrow representation of a ‘victim of FGM’ – we all agreed that the accompanying picture to any news article on this subject almost always seems to be a female Muslim teenager from Somalia or Kenya. In fact, FGM is not condoned or supported by any of the major world religions and is an abuse that takes place in African countries such as Somalia, Kenya and Eritrea as well as in communities in India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Furthermore, FGM occurs in Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen, as well as in Iraq, Iran and the State of Palestine.

Therefore, before teaching on this subject, it is vital that our staff understand that their idea of a person subjected to FGM may be too narrow. Good staff training is of course key here.

Teaching about FGM, schools must approach the topic with cultural sensitivity, acknowledging that it is deeply rooted in certain communities. It is important to avoid stigmatising or demonising any particular culture or community. 

Instead, educators should focus on fostering cultural respect, promoting open dialogue, and challenging harmful traditions. A very simple change that can help with this is to invite in guest speakers from affected communities or partnering with local organisations to provide valuable insights and diverse perspectives. I am sure that many of us have found it helpful to hear people such as Leyla Hussein speak openly and widely on her own experiences.  If you have not heard Leyla Hussein speak either in person or on TV, I would highly recommend it. 

The following video is one that would be suitable for older students: (182) FGM Survivor: Leyla Hussein’s Story – YouTube

By incorporating and prioritising cultural sensitivity, schools can ensure that students understand the practice within its broader context, encouraging empathy and critical thinking while promoting the rights and well-being of girls and women.

Moving on, when discussing FGM with children, it is essential to adapt the content to their age and developmental stage. Teaching about FGM for younger children can tie in seamlessly with lessons around personal boundaries, consent and bodily autonomy. Some schools have used the NSPCC’s wonderful ‘PANTOSAURUS’ resources to introduce the idea, then share sensitively about FGM.

On the other hand, older children can learn about the harmful consequences of FGM, its cultural context, and the human rights implications. 

It is crucial to strike a balance between providing accurate information and avoiding graphic or distressing details that may traumatise or overwhelm young learners. Utilising age-appropriate language, visuals, and interactive activities can help facilitate understanding while respecting the children’s emotional well-being.

Furthermore, FGM is a traumatic experience for many survivors. Schools must approach the topic with sensitivity and compassion, taking into account the potential triggers and emotional impact it may have on students who have experienced trauma or have personal connections to the issue. 

Recognising that students who have experienced sexual violence of any form may find this emotionally triggering is pertinent. 

Students need to be given the space and freedom to experience a wide range of emotions in response to hearing about FGM for the first time including anger, frustration, shock and grief.

Establishing a safe and supportive learning environment is crucial, where students feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and emotions. Providing access to counselling services or additional support resources can be beneficial for those who may need it. Schools should consider training in trauma-informed practices to handle discussions sensitively, offer appropriate guidance, and provide referrals to professional help if necessary.

Of course, there is no point in teaching our pupils about FGM if their parents/carers do not understand what their child may be wishing to discuss further at school. Schools should actively engage parents by providing information, resources, and opportunities for open dialogue. Holding parent workshops or information sessions can help dispel misconceptions, address concerns, and foster a collaborative approach to tackling the issue. By involving families, schools can reinforce consistent messaging and create a support network that reinforces the importance of safeguarding girls’ rights and well-being.

If we can take the above considerations into account, we can confidently teach about sensitive topics such as this one. By equipping students with knowledge, empathy, and the tools to challenge harmful practices, we can work towards eradicating FGM and creating a safer, more equitable world for all.