Module 5

Cultural literacy and FGM

By the end of the module, you will learn how to be a more culturally literate practitioner supporting survivors and victims of FGM.

5.1 Why is Cultural Literacy Important to Harmful Practices?

What is cultural literacy?

In the broadest terms it is the ability of an organisation to develop a set of congruent behaviours, attitudes and policies that come together in a system that enables staff to work effectively in cross cultural situations (Cross et. al 1989).

A culturally literate system provides a supportive working environment for staff and service users. It is key to remember that as a practitioner you occupy a position of power given that you have access to resources.

Since harmful practices largely affect the lives of women and girls it is important to remember the wider socio-cultural, socio-religious and political and economic forms of discrimination and oppression they experience.

What is cultural literacy?

Rooted in the ability to stand in other peoples shoes

Viewing the world through their lens

Acquiring a repertoire of knowledge and skills

The ability to understanding one's own culture is the stepping stone to being able to understand other cultures

Understanding the balance between ethnocentrism, (which is the belief that your culture is correct or superior whilst other people’s cultures are incorrect or inferior) and cultural relativism (which seeks to counter ethnocentrism by promoting the understanding of practices embedded in culture which may be unfamiliar to other cultures).

These help us to assess what is ‘cultural’, what is ‘abusive’ or ‘neglectful’ or a combination in cases we are faced with.

You can use the following points to inform your assessment of girls, women and families:

  • When, who did it, how, where, who else was it performed on
  • Reasons why it was performed
  • Explore ideas of honour - what does this mean within the family or community context? How is honour upheld, and how is it violated? How important is it to the family?
  • Harmful practices can be a crime of the community so use an ecogram to identify the child’s networks including international links
  • Explore and identify who is in the gerontocratic family system (grandparents or elders may have the final say and may do the harmful practice against the wishes of the parents. The parent may also be unable to protect their child as they are unable to go against their parent or elders)
  • It could be an intergenerational practice so use a genogram to help identify who has been subject to FGM or other harmful practices across the generations. This will assist with understanding how deep rooted the practice is within a family.
  • Explore the parental/family belief system
  • FGM can be accompanied with other forms of abuse or safeguarding issues, so when working with a child or young person, explore if they are at risk of other harmful practices or domestic abuse, sexual abuse, mental ill health etc.
  • Explore the relationship between parents e.g. are they related and if yes, what are the implications of this?
  • Explore the reasons for silence from a girl or woman e.g. possible link to witchcraft which is used to control the child or young person
  • Consider whether the child or young person has experienced trauma
  • Is there an international dimension: is there a possibility of the child being taken overseas where FGM or other harmful practices could be performed?
Other Considerations
  • What has been the multi-agency response? What do your colleagues know about the child?
  • Have you spoken to the child on their own?
  • Have you spoken to parents or other family/community members pertinent to the child on their own?
  • Use your knowledge of child development to assess whether or not the child has suffered harm
  • Evaluate the influence of culture as harmful practices are rooted in cultural and social norms
  • Consider positive aspects of the family’s culture and use this to build rapport, foster positive working relationships and as a safety factor
  • Consider who is keeping the child safe, what are the strengths that professionals and the family can build on?

5.2 How to Assess the Attitudes of Families Towards FGM

Parents/carers, wider family, and community

The attitude towards FGM of a girl’s parents/carers, wider family, and community has an impact on decisions regarding whether she should undergo the practice. As we saw in module 2. ‘What is FGM?’, significant risk factors for FGM include that one or both parents consider it integral to their culture or religion, and/or there are strong levels of influence by pro-FGM elders and parents feel powerless to say no. Therefore, when we are assessing the risk of FGM we need to ask questions about the attitudes towards FGM of the girl’s parents/carers, wider family, and community.

When speaking to parents/carers about this, you can use our Good Question Guide – applying your professional judgment regarding which questions are relevant and appropriate.

  • ‘What do you know about FGM?’ and ‘What do you think about this?’
  • ‘Do you feel that FGM is part of your culture or required by religion?’
  • ‘What are your families views on FGM?’
  • ‘What are the views of you community in the UK on FGM?’

You could also draw a genogram with the family using our Good Practice Guidance to support with asking questions about who the immediate/extended family members are and what they think about FGM.

Gathering this information should give you a good picture of who within the girl’s family or community:

  • Is against the practice and may present a protective factor
  • Is supportive of the practice and may pose a risk

5.3 Direct Work

What is direct work and why is it important to ending FGM and other harmful practices?

The purpose of direct work with children is to obtain their views, wishes and feelings. This can lead to a better understanding of their world and insight into their situation. This is important to identifying and responding to harmful practices, as it can help us to explore whether the child has experienced any form of violence, are suffering any physical and/or psychological harm and what role, if any, the concepts of gender, honour, marriage, witchcraft or spirit possesion play in their lives.

Information gained through direct work can be used by professionals as evidence for the purpose of case recordings, assessments, and courts reports. It can also inform decision-making about what action is needed to safeguard and protect a child from harmful practices.

Direct work can also be used to educate children and their families about harmful practices, so that children have an increased awareness of their rights and who to go to for support, and parents have an increased understanding and confidence around safeguarding. This can help to strengthen a family’s protective factors, so that they are better equipped to safeguard their children from harmful practices.

Ending harmful practices by 2030

Ending harmful practices by 2030, in line with the UNICEF Sustainable Development Goal 5.3 requires education on childrens rights from the earliest point possible, both for children and young people, but also families and communities. Taking a rights based approach enables practitioners to tackle:

  • Attitudes towards women and girls (the right to be free from violence and discrimination, and to live in a fair and equal society)
  • Ideas that the bodies of girls are to be ‘owned’ or ‘controlled’ (the right to bodily autonomy)
  • Education on the harm some practices cause (the right to be free from violence, the right to adequate health)

Encourage boys and men you are working with to constructively challenge negative attitudes towards women and girls by:

  • Using a human rights based framework
  • Using a strengths based approach
  • Rejecting the use of language which re-inforces gender based roles
  • Challenging power dynamics in their families and communities

The National FGM Centre have created a Direct Work Toolkit aimed at children from the age of 7 upwards, with separate activities for parent(s)/carer(s) and young people which can be accessed here:

Boys and men are allies in the elimination of FGM, not just to be seen as perpetrators of violence against girls and women.

FGM is not just a 'woman's issue' - A gender-transformative approach

A gender-transformative approach includes engaging men and boys as allies in ending FGM. This approach requires a re-education of society as a whole, acknowledging the role men and boys play in ending FGM through active roles which take account of their voices, their opposition to the practice, and the advocacy they can provide around eradicating FGM.

Educating boys and men as part of this is integral to shifting attitudes towards women and girls which are harmful and perpetuate practices such as FGM and others. Boys and men are not only defined by gender, but status within commuities. They are brothers, husbands, fathers, community leaders, religious leaders, and often decision makers and thus integral to shifting narratives around girls and women which perpetuate inequality leading to harmful practices such as FGM.

5.4 Achieving Best Evidence

How to interview children (Achieving Best Evidence)

During criminal proceedings, children can give evidence by visually recorded interview (VRI). VRIs are guided by the principles of Achieving Best Evidence (ABE), which are set out in the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 and Achieving Best Evidence in Criminal Proceedings, 2022. Any relevant information gained from a visually recorded interview with a child can be used to inform child protection enquiries under Section 47 (Children Act 1989).

When planning to interview a child consideration should be given to their specific needs and circumstances, including their age, race, culture, ethnicity, first language; linguistic and cognitive abilities; and any physical and/or mental health needs. The interviewer should also have an understanding of the child’s emotional state; overall sexual education, knowledge and experience; and whether they have any perceived fears related to intimidation or discrimination.

Article 12 of the UNCRC: establishes the child’s right to express their views in all matters that affect their lives and for these views to be given weight in accordance to their age and maturity.

VRIs with children should only be conducted by trained police officers or designated social workers. When choosing which professional should lead the interview, consideration should be given to the preference of the child, including any strong gender or ethnic preferences, and who can establish a rapport and communicate effectively with them.

Time should be taken to prepare a child for a VRI, including explaining to them, at a level that is appropriate to their age and understanding, the purpose of the interview, who will be present, and how long it will take.

During the interview, the interviewer should:

  • Establish a rapport with the child
  • Use open ended questions to initiate a free narrative e.g., ‘Tell me everything you can about what happened’ or ‘Describe in as much detail as you can what happened’
  • Ask one question at a time
  • Use questions that are tailored to the child, taking into account their age, culture and understanding
  • Use simple, everyday language that the child can understand
  • Use words or concepts that the child is familiar with e.g. for FGM or other harmful practice, location or people
  • Give the child time to respond
  • Use short sentences
  • Speak clearly
  • Actively listen, particularly for cues from the child
  • Be aware of tone of voice
  • Make use of facial expressions and non-verbal cues
  • Sit at the same the level as the child

For more information about conducting VRI with children see ‘Achieving Best Evidence in Criminal Proceedings’ (2022).

Remember only trained police officers and social workers may conduct ABE interviews.

Welcome to your short assessment for module 5! Complete this case study to test your knowledge:

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