Information for Teachers

Why do teachers need to be aware of FGM?

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 have very little knowledge about the practice of FGM and have not received training in dealing with it as a child abuse issue in schools. 

FGM is much more common than most people think, with possibly thousands of girls in Australia being at risk. The recent prosecution in NSW of 4 people for the FGM of two girls and a mother for taking her two daughters overseas to be subjected to FGM is an example of the practice in Australia.

How can a school identify whether a pupil is at risk of FGM?

The age at which a girl is likely to undergo FGM depends largely on her ethnic group – the mutilation can be performed at birth, during childhood, during adolescence or sometimes during pregnancy. The mean age globally is 10 years old. 

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
  • Schools should be alert around summer holidays, as this is a time when families may take their child abroad for the procedure
  • 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
  • Talk of a ‘special ceremony’
  • Government guidance also suggests that sometimes a child may even talk about a ‘special ceremony’ that is going to take place, although some girls are not aware before being taken abroad that they will be undergoing FGM
  • Extended absence from school could point towards the procedure having already taken place
  • As with other forms of abuse, that absence may well be coupled with a change in behaviour on the child’s return
  • Psychological effects depression, anxiety and low self-esteem
  • Physical signsbladder problems – leading to long periods in the bathroom, complaints of pain or discomfort when sitting still.

What should a school do, if it believes that a child is at risk of FGM?

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. 

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 protect and promote the welfare of their students and to implement the school’s child protection practices and policies as usual. 

Contact child protection services without delay if a school reasonably considers that a young person is at risk of – or has suffered – FGM.

What can schools do to address FGM as a wider issue?

As well as a clear duty to respond to individual concerns, there are other steps that can be taken to deal with this child protection issue on a broader scale.  

Staff awareness and training are key, if risks of FGM are to be identified successfully. Contact us for your training needs.

Schools should also seek to promote an open environment in school, which encourages discussion of FGM by – and among – pupils. This could include: 

  • theavailability of counselling and referral to support services
  • accessto education and awareness materials – contact us
  • coveringFGM as a topic as part of Health, Women’s Studies and Physical Education. We provide school support.
Adapted fromOptimus Education an Australian context. 

Original author details: Katie Michelon – 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.

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