“Female genital mutilation (FGM) is classed as a form of child abuse in Australia. As with other types of abuse, it therefore needs to be treated as a serious child protection issue by schools.
Many teachers are uncertain about the practice of FGM. A recent survey carried out by the child protection charity, NSPCC, in the UK, showed that many teachers have very little knowledge about the practice of FGM and have not received training in dealing with it as a safeguarding issue in school.
In the UK, unlike Australia, FGM has been specifically recognised by government authorities and the UK government expects school inspectors to consider risks around FGM as part of inspecting safeguarding in schools.
An important role in the prosecution process
In addition, one of the key obstacles in terms of legal enforcement against FGM has been lack of information. This stems from the fact that victims of FGM are commonly very unwilling to come forward and/or give evidence against their families or communities.
Given the regular contact that schools have with their pupils, there is potentially an important role for the education sector to play, in supporting the prosecution process.
FGM is much more common than most people think, with possibly thousands of girls in Australia being at risk. It is important to consider your school’s demographic in terms of sex, age and ethnicity.
FGM is mainly practised in 28 African countries. The government has identified that the Australian communities most at risk include Kenyans, Somalis, Sudanese, Egyptians, Eritreans, and Ethiopians.
However, FGM is also practised in some Middle Eastern and Asian countries, so Yemeni, Kurdish, Indonesian and Pakistani girls are also identified as being vulnerable. The recent prosecution in NSW of 4 people for the FGM of two girls is an example of the practice in Australia.
Schools are advised to look out for a number of signs that may signify that a child is being prepared for FGM.
Anxiety leading up to holidays or changes in school attendance can be flags, if a girl belongs to a community in which FGM is practised.
There is concern that, historically, schools have not been proactive enough in managing concerns that have arisen about FGM. This hesitation appears to be rooted in a fear of offending communities and in political correctness.
However, FGM has been illegal in the Australia for nearly 20 years, and schools must treat a concern about it like any other serious child protection concern. This means complying with their legal duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of their pupils and to implement the school’s safeguarding practices and policies as usual.
Contact children’s services without delay
If a school reasonably considers that a young person is at risk of – or has suffered – FGM, it should contact the relevant department within children’s services (for example, the emergency duty team) and start working with other agencies without delay.
If there is substance to any concerns raised, the police will also become involved.
As well as a clear duty to respond to individual concerns, there are other steps that can be taken to deal with this safeguarding issue on a broader scale.
Staff awareness and training are key, if risks of FGM are to be identified successfully. If FGM is a problem locally, we also advise that your designated child protection officer liaises regularly with the relevant local authority child protection/welfare officer, to share experiences.
Schools should also seek to promote an open environment in school, which encourages discussion of FGM by – and among – pupils. This could include:
- the availability of specialist counselling or support services
- access to education and awareness materials, such as those from the UK Education Dept
- covering FGM as a topic as part of Health and Physical Education.
Adapted from for an Australian context.
Original author details:
Katie is a solicitor in the Education team at Browne Jacobson. She specialises in education law, advising and training schools and academies on a range of matters including…
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