Figurehead of FGM fight: Leethen Bartholomew, head of the National FGM Centre


Derren Hayes speaks to Leethen Bartholomew, head of the National FGM Centre.

In the past five years, female genital mutilation (FGM) is an issue that has come out of the shadows. The National FGM Centre has played a key role in raising awareness of the issue since its launch in March 2015. The centre, which is funded by the Department for Education and run by Barnardo's with support from the Local Government Association, has been headed up since December 2017 by Leethen Bartholomew, a social worker specialising in faith-based harmful practices and safeguarding children.

You joined the organisation during a period of uncertainty over funding. Has that been resolved?

During our first two years, we piloted our work in six local authorities, of which three decided to continue partnering with the centre.

In 2017 the centre received part funding from the DfE, which meant that sustainability is key to the our existence. The DfE funding allowed us to offer our services to seven more local authorities. We now work in: Essex, Hertfordshire, Thurrock, Harrow, Brent and Redbridge. From April, Croydon and Wandsworth have also come on board.

We also have another project based in Staffordshire and Burton.

Local authorities now contribute towards the cost of the worker, but this is at a significantly reduced cost due to the DfE funding. Our aim is to be self-sustaining, but it is a challenge.

What kind of support does the centre provide?

We have our own social workers and project workers based within children's social care teams. They are responsible for effecting a system change in how local authorities respond to cases. They work alongside the council social worker supporting them to do direct work and the assessment, or will be allocated a case themselves.

They will do awareness raising across multi-agency teams, help influence change and develop referral pathways for FGM cases. In addition, they work with the centre's community engagement lead and grassroots organisations to deliver awareness raising sessions.

In what other settings does the centre work?

We are commissioned by local authorities across the country to do independent assessments, court reports and we also undertake direct work with families to change attitudes and beliefs. We are often commissioned by lawyers to undertake country reports in court cases.

We provide training for primary and secondary school staff, from cleaners to teachers. We also deliver sessions to students and this is done in an age-appropriate way.

We have started supporting the specialist midwife based at St George's Hospital in London. This will ensure a person gets the support they need in hospital and the community.

The government has pledged to end FGM by 2030. Is that on track?

The centre can play an important part in making that happen. The UK is leaps and bounds ahead of other countries in tackling FGM. We are contacted by organisations from all over the world to share our expertise. That's not just because of the centre, it reflects the leadership taken by the government as well.

A key priority for us is safeguarding children and increasing the voice of the survivor. You also have to include the voice of men and boys in that if you want to end FGM.

Are we seeing changes in the way the legal system tackles the problem?

The recent conviction of a mother for performing FGM has really helped highlight the issue. It doesn't mean that we have got to where we need to be but it's headed in the right direction.

The police have been committed for a long time to take the right steps to prosecute people - I don't see this case changing that.

We work closely with police officers from the West Midlands and have received some funding from Staffordshire police and crime commissioner.

Do we now have a clearer idea on the scale of the problem?

We have prevalence data but it is based on 2011 Census data, so it is out of date. We have DfE child in need census data which records the number of assessments undertaken by social workers where there are concerns that a girl has been cut or is at risk. But that doesn't tell us where they have been cut. It's not sufficient to give us a true picture. We also know there are around 300 FGM protection orders granted.

And is there a clearer understanding of what FGM is?

FGM is a cross-cutting issue but we tend to look at it in a silo way. We need to be considering FGM alongside other issues like domestic violence, forced marriage, breast flattening and child abuse linked to faith and belief. It's more complex than just a single issue.

The issue is really one of violence against women and girls and that comes in many forms. It is about equality - that's what we need to focus on.


LEETHEN BARTHOLOMEW CV

  • Dec 2017 - present - Head, National FGM Centre, Barnardo's
  • Aug 2016 - present - Practice development manager, SCIE
  • Oct 2007 - Aug 2016 - Community partnership adviser, London borough of Hackney
  • Sept 2012 - July 2014 - MSc. Social Research Methods
  • Sept 2002 - Oct 2007 - Social worker and then senior social worker, Haringey Council
  • Sept 2005 - August 2007 - MA Child studies, King's College, University of London
  • May 2002 - Sept 2002 - Probation officer, London Probation Trust
  • 1995 - 1998 - Studying a BSc (social work), University of the West Indies

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