A new report yesterday called Future Identities, produced by the Government, predicts that a quarter of families by 2022 will be in the situation of caring both for elderly relatives and young children – a situation caused by having children late in life. I went to see a couple the other day who had one year old twins and a parent with dementia who lived two hundred miles away – the result, the father spent an inordinate amount of time on the M4 in a state of suppressed panic. Does this sound familiar to you? Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me your stories. Best Eleanor
Yesterday in the Sunday Times I wrote a shorter version of this article, which is a response to two new books in America: The End of Men, by Hanna Rosin and The Richer Sex by Liza Mundy. The Observer yesterday serialised the Rosin book… I read it a while ago while I was in America and find it deeply flawed… I’d love to know what you all think…this piece is much longer and more nuanced than what ran in the Sunday Times… love to know what you all think…
Clad in a striking red stripey jacket, the woman tapped away busily on her lap-top. But as the train clattered towards East Croydon, she suddenly stopped typing. “Sorry,” she blurted out:, “I know it’s terribly unEnglish to talk to strangers on a train but you can’t say women have a stronger pull to their children than men; my husband used to be a blacksmith but now looks after our children full-time and they have a massively connected bond. That yearning is not just felt by women.” Her passion was contagious. Soon several others joined the fray, determined to tell me – and each other – their contrasting points of view.
London Mayor Boris Johnson marvelled at the “Olympic Effect” and how it had finally made Brits talk to each other on public transport; well, in this case, it wasn’t Mo Farah’s heart-stopping race to the line that got my fellow passengers going but the knotty issue of the new roles men and women play in a world where traditional notions of gender are being challenged every day. The woman in the red jacket was an academic and her family’s main breadwinner, while her husband stayed at home. A young woman with long red hair said she’d just gone back to work after her first maternity leave and was worried she was seen as less of a player. While another said his wife had just given up work to stay at home full time: “And I’ve never seen her happier.”
This complex mesh of perspectives were offered up because I had been talking on the train back from the Liberal Democrat conference – obviously louder than I’d intended – about two new books which claim that Britain and America are in the grip of a power flip, where men are losing ground and women rule supreme. The tomes, one called The End of Men and the Rise of Women, by an editor on The Atlantic magazine, called Hanna Rosin and the other The Richer Sex, by author Liza Mundy – claim the future is female and it is men, not women, who are losing out and being left behind. The guts of their argument is that with girls out-achieving boys at every level of education, women studying in ever greater numbers than men at university (58.2% of UK students are female) and women increasingly entering the professions in greater numbers than men (60% of newly qualified solicitors are women, 56% of new doctors are female, half of trainee barristers etc) the Age of Aquarius is finally upon us and women, rather than men, will rule the world. We are now entering an era, they say, “where women, not men, will be the top earners in their households”.That economic shift, says Mundy, will lead to a fundamental change in the way men and women “date, mate, marry, plan, cook, clean, entertain, talk, retire, have sex, raise children and feel happy (or fail to do so).”
Rosin argues that while women are “plastic” – and can adapt easily to change, whether that’s taking on traditionally ‘male’ roles by going out to work, or adapting to new sexual mores (women used to have to be chaste and submissive, now on US campuses they are embracing the ‘hookup cuture’ of casual sex as a steady relationship would rob too much of their study time). Men, Rosin says, are “cardboard” – stiff, resistant to new ways of doing things, particularly if that means them taking on more of the roles traditionally played by women (domestic chores, looking after kids etc). The ‘Mancession’ in America (so-called because it is traditionally male sectors such as heavy industry – car making, steel production – and manufacturing that have been worst hit) has led millions of American men to the employment scrap heap. By contrast, women have forged ahead, their superior qualifications landing them jobs in expanding and more traditionally female sectors such as education, health care, nursing and customer services. Of the 30 job categories in the US which are expected to grow 20 of them are predominantly female professions; Rosin’s book ends with an unemployed man embracing the pink future by enrolling to study to become a nurse.
So is any of this applicable to the UK? Well, maybe. The Resolution Foundation think tank reports a similar hollowing out of male blue collar jobs in the UK, and says that here, too, more households are being kept afloat by a working woman. But is this progress? Hardly. In one of the most striking passages of Rosin’s book, she describes a mother of three kids, who works on a checkout to feed her family and studies at a community college at night to try and improve her prospects. Unsurprisingly, the woman is so exhausted by her many roles – mum, worker, student – that she falls asleep in the lift riding between the ground and fourth floor at her college. Do such matriarchal households exist in the UK? Julia Margo author of two reports into how social and economic change has favoured female skills sets over traditional male ones, Access All areas (published by the think tank Demos) and Freedom’s Orphans (for the IPPR think tank) says they not only exist but are on the rise. “Many traditional mens’ jobs in the UK are also being eviscerated by technology. Knowsley, near Liverpool, has the highest number of matriarchal households of any borough in the UK. There, heavy labour is disappearing, and a more female skill set suits the managerial or customer service jobs which are replacing them. In order to do well in the modern economy, Emotional intelligence and communication skills are more important than brawn. And from the very beginning of school it is clear that girls concentrate, apply themselves and work harder than boys do. By the time they leave education they are far more employable.”
That is a mixed blessing. At British universities now there are 400,000 more women than men. In a hair-raising chapter in Rosin’s book in which she describes the“hook-up” culture at Yale University (in which young women sleep around with multiple sexual partners – or hook-ups – rather than settling down with one boyfriend). She writes:“for an upwardly mobile, ambitious young woman, hook-ups were a way to dip into relationships without disrupting her self-devlopment or school work. Hookups functioned as a “delay tactic” because the immediate priority, for the privileged women at least, was setting themselves up for a career… many of the young women did not want a relationship to steal time away from their friendships or studying.” Hookup culture, Rosin argues, expands these women’s horizons: “she could study and work and date and live on temporary intimacy. She could find her way to professional success and then get married.”
This desire for a successful career above everything else is certainly mirrored in the UK. A brand new survey for Marie Claire Magazine (conducted in partnership with Everywoman, a female business network) just surveyed 1000 working women in their twenties and thirties. The findings reveal a new breed of determined driven young women, 75% of whom rank work as the “most important thing in their lives” – ahead of friends, family and relationships. Their heroines are such TV workaholics as Carrie Mathison in Homeland or Sarah Lund in The Killing.
Kathryn Parsons, 31, Co-Founder and Director of tech firm Decoded is part of this toiling sisterhood. “For the next three years I am married to my career. I am putting my life on hold to build the business. I am madly passionate about what I do, I need to be focussed but I love it, my work is my life.” This hardwork is paying off. Young women in their twenties in the UK and America now out-earn their male peers. Research from the Centre for Talent Innovation in New York on young British women, find their levels of ambition are ‘off the scale’.
Yet this extreme work ethic has a surprising cause. The young women entering the work force are in a hurry, because they are aware that time is short. One of the main findings of the Marie Claire survey, according to Trish Halpin, Editor in Chief who commissioned it, is that, “Their ambition is being driven by the pressure they feel to pay off student debts, save enough to buy a home and climb the career ladder before they have a baby.” Gemma Godfrey, a twentysomething former quantum physist and now Head of Investment Strategy at Brooks Macdonald (who also hosts her own TV business show) agrees with that diagnosis. “I believe that the very fact of being a woman, as opposed to acting like or trying to replace a man, has driven some women to overtake their male peers in their twenties. Women have to plan their career goals over a shorter time horizon than men; time pressure is driving them forward. They want to reach a senior position by the time they wish to start a family so they are able to return to a ‘dream job’rather than a slug to the top.”
Yet all this tough-minded ambition –and the dearth of male graduates (there are 400,000 fewer men at university in the UK than women) – makes finding a partner – or certainly one with the same academic qualifications – difficult. Rosin describes a terrifying American dating scene, where super-tough, sexually experienced career women trade pornographic insults with their male peers. At one point, one of her inteviewees says: the only thing a twenty-something girls isn’t allowed to be these days is be vulnerable. The emotional armour required to climb the greasy pole and deal with casual sex is hard to shed when the amazon warriors finally decide the time has come to get hitched. And with a smaller pool of suitably qualified male specimens, competition is intense and the men reluctant to commit. Recent studies have shown increasing numbers of professional women are “marrying down” – choosing men who will support them in their careers; 36% of the Marie Claire survey women “see it as a benefit to have a stay at home husband who would look after the kids”. Rosin describes how high-flying women graduates will soon be in a similar situation to women of colour, who have long been more educated than black males, and who often find the hunt for a suitable mate fruitless. Recent research into Generation X by the Centre for Talent Innovation in New York found that 40% of educated women born between 1965 and 1975 were childless and expected to remain that way, many cited creer ambition as their reasons for not having children saying they wanted “to do one thing well” – rather than being pulled int several directions at once.
Yet the urge to get on, up the ladder, marry and breed certainly chimes with the view of one of my fellow passengers on the train; 30, with long red hair, she had just returned to work from maternity leave. “It took us a while to get pregnant – during the time we were trying, I didn’t mention it to anyone at work, I knew if they were aware I was trying to get pregnant there was no way I would get my promotion. For my husband it just wasn’t an issue, he’s been telling everyone for ages.” She described a culture in which her female peers were scrabbling to get as far as they could up the ladder before they became mothers. This may be a generation of women born and educated to work, but they also know that when the children arrive, most of the care and organisation will fall to them; that they will take the hit. “It’s unfair but with mums getting the bulk of the legal maternity leave and being expected to take the time off when they baby comes, it is still women’s careers that suffer,” the new mum on the train fumed. “No one ever asked my hubby if he’d go back to work after the baby was born. I get asked that all the time.”
Inge Wusrata, who runs Mum and Career, an organisation representing 1000 women who attend her seminars and sign up for advice about how to make their lives work, says, “The women I talk to, even the younger ones, take it as a given that they will bear the burden for the home. I am Dutch, in Holland things are more equal, so I am surprised by how little they challenge that here.” She reports that there are gender flip couples where the man plays the dominant domestic role – perhaps he runs a business from home, works freelance, or runs the household – and the woman works full time, but in her experience that is still very rare – about 5% of the women she sees.
The figures on how many women really are The Richer Sex in a female breadwinner partnership are disputed. Liza Mundy cites research done by Aviva Insurance and Oxford University which found in 25% of couples women are the main breadwinner. Yet the ONS states that only 30% of families have two working parents – so something doesn’t add up. In the Marie Claire survey, 40% of those in a relationship say they earn more than their partner and 90% claim to be more ambitious than their man (though 16% say they lie about how successful they are so as to not put men off, a trend also found in the American books). Certainly the numbers of breadwinner wives are on the rise; though Mundy and Rosin see these families as the norm of the future – that seems like a bit claim for a trend that is still in its infancy.
Increasingly, though, real female high-fliers (like their male counterparts) tend to have a stay-at-home partner– famously Helena Morrissey, CEO of Newton Asset Management and chair of the Thirty Per Cent Club (which campaigns to get more women onto FTSE boards) has nine children and a bhuddist house husband (he’d need to be). Such uber alpha females are becoming more common at the very top. At a series of women leaders conferences I have spoken at I have made a point of asking the female audiences how many of those present are the main breadwinner – at least half raise their hands. But this is largely because for real high flyers these days, the hours are so long and the work so intense – work/life balance guru Sylvia Hewlett terms them Extreme Jobs – that it is only possible to fulfil such a role with a domestic CEO to keep the home fires burning. In the past, such a role was always played by a wife, these day it can be husband. “We’re still the transition generation,” says Julia Margo, who works full time while her husband stays at home with their two children. “We’re doing it, but we are pioneers, we didn’t grow up with this kind of model. Lots of couples I know have been forced into this arrangement because the men were bankers or estate agents and have lost their jobs while their wives are still working.” There are some men who have broken the‘cardboard’ stereotype and are plastically morphing into being caring hands-on fathers. Indeed, the stripey jacketed woman on the train felt compelled to speak up in defence of such dads: “My husband has such a strong bond with the children, he had a very complicated childhood himself and was determined to be there for them, all the time.”
Yet success does seem to look different for women. Many female high fliers now trade traditional status – the corner office, legions quivering at their command, salary etc – for time autonomy, being able to be in charge of their own schedules so that they can fit their work around their children. The new buzz word for this is work/life merge. Towards the end of her book, Rosin visits Silicon Valley and hails it as the model for the “ultimate flexible work place” – read female workplace – of the future. It is not for the faint-hearted.
Rosin quotes Katie Stanton, head of international strategy for Twitter. “I consider myself incredibly lucky” says Stanton, “because I can do this job really well and have a family. It’s great.” The rest of us might not think so. “Great” in Silicon Valley means leaving at 5pm to get the kids and tuck them into bed, but then logging back on, every night (this woman can’t remember the last time she went to the gym or out for dinner) often till past midnight. “These women work flexibly but they work all the time,”writes Rosin. “the merge means that work and play and kids and sleep are all jumbled up in the same 24 hour period…Silicon Valley is figuring out the single most vexing problem for ambitious working women,: how to let them spend time with their children without compromising their careers, it gives us a glimpse of the work culture of the future.”
Yet in some ways it is ironic that Rosin cites this Frat boy world (think Mark Zuckerberg and The Social Network) as some female paradise. For this is NOT a world where sexism is dead, no siree. “Women in Silicon Valley think of sexism in the same way people in London must think about bad weather: It’s an omnipresent and unpleasant fact of life, but it shouldn’t keep you from going about your business… dwelling on it is a ‘complete waste of time’.”Instead women there advocate “workshopping these situations one by one, like so many coding glitches, one de-gendered brain to another.” But at a women’s leadership summit organised by a new tech behemoth where I was invited to speak last week, one of their very senior women buttonholed me after my talk. She wanted to ask about work/life balance. Then, with tears in her eyes, she told me it was her son’s fifth birthday – but he was in California; her guilt and grief were etched all over her face. Later I saw her crying as she talked into her mobile.
Kathryn Parsons, a young, female tech entrepreneur is also dubious about hailing the End of Men. “The vast majority of the young entrepreneurs I meet are male. Indeed, too much of the technological future at the moment is being written by men. We need more women to learn to write computer code and be a part of it as everything in the future is about technology. I wouldn’t say this is a female space, though I would like it to be and women when they learn to code are really good.”
Across the engineering industries of the future this is a common refrain: Google runs a special mentoring programme to encourage young female engineers as there is such a dearth. At present the digital future is geeky and male; currently in the UK 92% of teenage girls rule themselves out of a future in the boom technology/engineering sector by not taking all three sciences at GCSE. If women are really going to rule the future, that has to change.
The trouble with the thesis about women taking over the world because they are doing better in education and in the first ten years of their careers, is it ignores much evidence to the contrary. Last year Lord Davies published a government commissioned report into why there aren’t more women at the top of Britain’s companies. In it is a memorable diagram, a pyramid which shows equal numbers of male and female graduate entrants to the work place at the bottom, but where the female half of the pyramid empties towards the top. While women may be entering the work place as a mighty, enthusiastic, hardworking wave, as they hit middle management – and their mid thirties – they drop out in droves. Christina Ioannidis and Nicola Walther’s book Your Loss, How to Win Back Your Female Talent, describes how at entry level in many organisations there is a 50:50 gender split, but in middle management there are 75% men and only 25% women and by the time it gets to executive leadership level there are 5% or less women and 95% men. The pram in the hall, is usually cited as the culprit, but interestingly childless women don’t make it to the top either. Experts blame women’s lack of powerful sponsor/advocates and an overwhelmingly male, macho culture. Often the women who do make it that far have become men in skirts – think Margaret Thatcher, or Hilary Devey. In the last two years, of 87 FTSE 100 executive appointments, a paltry 2 were female. To put that back into the real world, the Marie Claire survey found that 70% of their respondents said there were “none” or “very few” women in senior roles at their firms. If it’s The End of Men, why , at the summit where real power lies, is the default leader still pale and male, forty years after the first female graduates started entering the work place in serious numbers? Rosin argues that it is just a matter of time before women take over and that the very few women there are at the top are “highly prized” and “better rewarded than men”. I’m not so sure that we will see meaningful change here any time soon.
Last week, I spoke to one of these rare female mountaineers who have made it to the summit: a woman CFO of a major global corporation. What did she make of the End of Men thesis? She laughed. “Not much sign of that up here – it would be more accurate to talk about the End of Women – there were three of us women at this level two years ago, when I go there will be one– she’s the last woman standing. “ Sarah, who asked to remain anonymous “in case I ever want another job” is 40. The last five years since she was appointed “have been tough, I’ve often been in the office till 10pm, it’s a brutal, competitive, dog-eat-dog world.”
So why is she leaving? “I came from a modest background, I’ve earned enough to pay off my mortgage, money alone isn’t a motivator for me and I feel burnt out.” Part of that exhaustion is fuelled by guilt. “I’ve worked really hard, I’ve got a six year old daughter whom I rarely see. I know she is happy and I have a wonderful supportive husband and a live-in nannie but I have been getting increasingly stressed and I just have got to the point where I think life is more important than work.” Knowing she was a role-model and a trailblazer made her stick at the job but she says: “I know Sheryl Sandberg [CFO of Facebook] said that women should just suck it up and keep going like the men do, but it is incredibly difficult to manage a high powered job and balance that with any kind of family life. I came back to work when my daughter was 5 months old, I’ve never taken her to ballet, or seen her recitals, I never pick her up from school, I don’t know any of the other mothers.
“That’s been ok – I made the choices I made, and there is no reason why women shouldn’t make them, too. But I have reached a point where the status and the money are just not worth it. The men run on huge egos, they are competitive, they want to win, they are much more driven by that, but also much better at taking time for themselves to recuperate. They are just wired differently. If I have an hour off I want to spend it with my daughter, if the men do, they go to the gym. I haven’t had a moment for myself for the last four years – I don’t even go shopping, I do everything online. It is so stressful it’s just not worth it, I just don’t want to miss out on my daughter growing up. I’m choosing not to have it all.”
Last week one of the world’s most successful women, Christine LaGarde, head of the IMF, and mother of two sons, Thomas, 24, and Pierre-henri, 26 expressed similar sentiments. “I think you cannot have it at the same time. I think you can in a way have it all as long as you can afford to be patient. But you cannot have it all at the same time. You must accept there will be failures.”
Back on the train, the female breadwinner in the red stripey jacket was just getting into her stride. “It will take a long time to change the cultural values surrounding all of this. Women are expected to feel guilty, just as they are expected to take on the child-rearing role. Our culture gives women space to feel guilty – but there is no expectation of male guilt, so they don’t feel it.”
The man behind her disagreed. “Some women just want to raise their own children,” he said, citing his wife who had just given up work. He has a point, despite bossy career-women policy makers trying to convince the majority of women to think otherwise, survey after survey shows that the maternal urge remains strong, with three out of four new working mothers saying they would stay at home if “money was no object” – and only 12% saying they would go on working. Certainly, prosperous parts of Britain are awash with highly educated mothers who’ve chosen the home front over their once brilliant career. Many of my own peers have made just such choices. Rosin argues that highly educated couples now have “see-saw” marriages, where they take it in turn to earn the majority of the money, or take on the prime domestic role – in my experience one, usually the woman, gets stuck in the supportive role, even if she was the higher achiever earlier on.
Ultimately, feminism was about giving women choices: the trouble with these books is they are once again trying to push both sexes into a one size fits all model. But men and women come in different forms – maternal men, killer women. Germaine Greer once said “I didn’t fight to get women out from behind vacuum cleaners to get them onto the board of Hoover.” The sexual revolution was about creating a more equal and non-patriarchal society for all. Surely the happiest future for everyone is to let all of us pursue our talents and passions whatever our sex – and to share the domestic challenges equally. But that wouldn’t make such a catchy title for a polemical book.
.. so said veteran MEP and gay campaigner Michael Cashman, when, with tears in his eyes, he accepted his prize for Lifetime Achievement at the European Diversity Awards, at the Savoy Hotel, last night. His emotional speech, about how we must all accept that people who are different, are still people with huge amounts to offer, was particularly resonant in a room full of those who have often been bullied, despised or discrimated against because of their race, sexual orientation, or disability.
Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe, Google Diversity supremo (his company sponsored the awards) said in his speech that the people in the room were like the first wave of a standing ovation in a theatre, and that their enthusiasm would spread the word far and wide until everyone would also be standing up and cheering for acceptance of difference. It was an optimistic thought, but after this summer in which the Olympics has had such a powerful effect in changing attitudes: whether about race (who seeing Mo Farrah draped in the flag could in anyway doubt his Britishness) or the incredible achievements of the Paralympians (which has redefined the disabled in terms of what they are able to achieve rather than what they can’t) such utopian optimism that acceptance of diversity might be a mainstream possiblity really felt achievable.
It was an evening of incongruous scenes; I doubt the Savoy has ever hosted so many guide dogs, wheelchairs, people of colour and of all shapes and sizes or sporting so many tatoos. It was corporate, sure, but it also had the feeling of a festival in its acceptance of different ways of being. One vignette which summed it all up was when Anthony Watson, Chief Information Officer at Barclays and head of its LGBT network stood up in a blue Elvis velvet jacket and a quiff and talked about the struggles of thsoe who are are gay for acceptance and how suicide rates for LGBT teens are five times higher than for other kids (while a table full of the stiffest looking pale male suits all in black tie applauded). There was not a dry eye in the place when Doreen Lawrence, mother of Stephen, who has fought so hard over two decades for justice, won an award for Campaigner of the year; clutching her statuette, she wept: as the room applauded her immense courage and resilience it was clear that no amount of approbabtion can ever make up for the loss of her son.
Mumsnet founder, Justine Roberts, was nominated as a role model; she didn’t win, but anyone who made it onto the roster in such company should feel incredibly proud. I sat next to Sandra Kerr, who is National Director for Race for Opportunity, a busienss led network trying to get young kids from ethnic minorities into jobs: “It’s all about giving them hope” she said. it could have been the slogan for the evening. As the BBC’s incredible Frank Gardner regaled the audience with tales of how he’d been visisting the gorillas in Rwanda (for a long weekend no less) and on a ship which was attacked by pirates in Somalia, I felt ashamed that with all my limbs I was nowhere near as adventurous or energetic as he. Such spirit is wake up call to all of us to do what we can.
At the launch of the awards in Brussels earlier this year, Trevor Philips (former head of the Equalities quango) confided to me that Britain is way ahead of any other country in the world when it comes to acceptance of diversity… we don’t talk about it much and we mutter about political correctness - but actually we are one of the very most tolerant society’s on earth, which is something to be proud of. The Olympics this summer held a mirror up to the UK and – rather suprisingly for many of us – in Danny Boyle’s clever looking glass, we all rather liked what we saw: tolerant, fair, concerned for the weak and vulberable, at the forefront of technology and innovation. Well, last night’s awards ceremony made me feel proud to be part of it, too. I also was nominated as Diversity Journalist of the Year (won last year by Frank Gardner) – I didn’t win, the BBC Ouch team who are all disabled and write and broadcast about the reality of that existence were much worthier winners instead. But we all left happy: it was one of those very rare evenings, when everyone felt like a winner. And how brilliant to be at the Savoy, the centre of the establishment, on a table with three gay men, four women of colour, three lesbians, Frank Gardner, the inspirational Doreen Lawrence and a room full of fellow travellers. Maybe Britain really is changing for the good and pointing the way for the rest of the world. I felt honoured to have been part of it.
On Monday July 23rd, Newsnight are running a shocking film about Female Genital Mutilation. It is is something about which I have been passionate for a while and since the joint investigation I undertook with Mazer Mahmood (the fake sheik) earlier this year for the Sunday Times in which we caught three different doctors and dentists in the UK saying they would carry out the procedure it is an area in which I really believe the government have to act. Shockingly, there has been a law against female genital mutilation in the UK and taking a child abroad to have it done, for over ten years; the sentence is 14 years. Unfortunately, there have been no prosecutions.
Last week I ran a story in the Sunday Times News section saying that the government are finally taking some more action by launching a Health Passport, a laminated official document that will be available from schools, doctors and community centres for concerned professionals or friends to give to a girl who might be about to be taken abroad on what are known as ‘special holidays’ when they are often cut. Shockingly, this happens to girls aged under 10, often in unsterile conditions with a piece of glass or knife. A midwife I interviewed in Birmingham told me that because the girls try and escape and it is not a precise science she had never seen two women whose genitals looked the same. This is not a small problem there are estimated to be 100,000 women in Britain who have been cut and 24,000 girls living in the UK are at risk. this is largely down to the infux of immigrants from the horn of Africa (in Somalia and Eritrea some 90% of women are mutilated). This is done in the name of making a girl marriageable – in the most extreme cases, where the girls’ labia and clitoris are entirely removed and the flaps sewn together, leaving only a small hole through which urine and menstrual blood can escape – this is ultimate proof of virginity. It is often up to the husband to cut open his bride – with a knife – on the wedding night. the pain that the subsequent sex must inflict is unimagineable.
I’m sorry if this has quite put you off your breakfast, but it really matters. Several groups campaign in this area including Forward, Equality Now and the wonderful Daughters of Eve, a group of young women in Bristol, who are campaigning to change community attitudes. You can find links and read my earlier story on my personal blog www.eleanormills.com Jane Ellison MP who chairs the Parliamentary Group on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) has also been brilliant on all of this, this is a link to her most recent speech on the subject
What follows is a piece written by the producer of the Newsnight film. They found a french doctor who can go some way to helping women who have been mutilated by reconstructing their genitalia, particularly the clitoris much of which is hidden internally…
Reconstructive Surgery – extract from the Newsnight script
18.00: I shall reconstruct the clitoris it will take approximately half an hour.
Dr, Fondes operates on about fifty women a month. Women come from all over the world, including from the UK though the majority are French immigrants. For them, he operates for free; the state pays the costs.
27.40: It’s a normal nerve so we’ll be able to restore a normal. Living clitoris
Although the visible clitoris was cut from the woman as a child, part of it remains in the body, the doctor can bring that to the surface.
01.20: And now I shall restore the labia It’s important for normal sex, intercourse and delivery.
02.27: It’s not quite normal but it’s a good restoration.
Fatou had the operation a few months ago.
FATOU: 1722/12/6 @25.30: I feel a complete person, at last, after my operation Now, I need gradually to get to know my sexuality. This is what I am doing now and it is going rather well. 26.03
The man who can help mutilated women…
Nestled in a picturesque Paris suburb is St Germain Poissy Hospital, home of Dr Pierre Foldes. The private hospital specializes in plastic surgery, catering for well-healed Parisians looking for an aesthetic succès d’estime
But it is not the society women of Paris that Dr Foldes is interested in. Instead he has decided to devote his life to helping women who have suffered vaginal mutilation.
As topics go female genital mutilation is about as unglamorous as you can get. Many media outlets and newspapers simply refuse to talk about mutilation. In fact one newspaper stopped me after the words ‘genital mutilation’ when pitching this story. In terms of recognition Dr Foldes would have been better served devoting his life to more savoury areas of medicine, areas of medicine that don’t make people wince by its very mention.
Despite its low profile in this country female genital mutilation is a global problem of innumerable proportions. It is estimated that between 100 and 140 million women have been mutilated in Africa alone. Types of mutilation differ, however all involve the cutting of the vagina and the removal of the clitoris. The most extreme forms of mutilation involved sewing up and even adding acid to the vagina.
The procedure leaves girls in agony and can lead to a lifetime of physical and mental health problems. The sexual impact of mutilation is often overlooked. The purpose of the procedure is to ‘purify’ girls – to remove sexual urges – and turn little girls into obedient and faithful wives. For these victims sex is often dreaded.
One woman we spoke to, who was mutilated in Africa and is now living in Scotland, described the act of sex as ‘more painful than giving birth’. Dr Comfort Momoh, the UK’s leading expert in Female Genital mutilation told us that it can take 6 months for a man to achieve full penetration.
In Egypt, Somalia, Mali, Eritrea, Guinea and Ethiopia the prevalence of female genital mutilation is 90 per cent or more. That’s at least 90 per cent of girls who are victims of devastating sexual violence. A ritual performed in the name of tradition and entrenched in misogyny has robbed them and their partners of any kind of ‘normal’ sex life. It’s child abuse on an industrial scale.
In the UK ‘reversal’ surgery is offered to women, but as Naana Otoo-Oyortey, of Forward says ‘I don’t like calling this procedure reversal surgery, you can never reverse what has happened and been taken away’. It’s a fair point. The clitoris contains 8,000 nerve endings, more than any other part of the human body. It’s not something that even the most gifted surgeon can artificially recreate.
It’s a challenge that has motivated Dr Foldes for decades. Can women who have been mutilated ever be given the chance to enjoy sex?
After ‘unstitching’ women during missionary work in African Dr Foldes went about trying to answer this question. He worked on the premise that the clitoris is like an iceberg, most of it being submerged internally, and therefore untouched by the razor. He knew that if he could find a way of externalizing this clitoral tissue he could reconstruct the clitoris.
He quickly realized that the procedure was much easier than he had thought. Cutting away the scar tissue around the clitoris he developed a method of exposing the clitoral tissue beneath, bringing it to the surface. 3,000 operations later and Dr Foldes has managed to get the procedure down to half an hour.
Dr Foldes’ work has also been hampered by a lack of peer-reviewed evidence to illustrate the procedure’s efficacy. Who wants to learn and perfect a procedure that doesn’t work?
Last month Dr Foldes published a research article in The Lancet confounding his doubters. 51 per cent of women who had undergone the procedure were able to achieve orgasm after a year and 80 per cent of women said that their sex lives had improved.
The implications for women around the world are mind boggling. Sexual gratification and even orgasm don’t have to be illusive feelings that only other women experience. Painful, pneumatic copulation can be transformed into lustful, passionate sex.
Fatou, was born and mutilated in Burkino Fasso and now lives in France. Her story is typical. After years of sexual incompatibility with her husband, contributing to the breakdown of their relationship, she sought help. She found out about Dr Foldes’ work and was operated on last year. “I feel like a complete person, at last” she says. “Now, I need to gradually get to know my sexuality. That’s what I am doing now and it is going rather well.”
Fatou is one of the lucky ones. The operation is only conducted by Dr Foldes and demand outstrips supply. He is currently teaching the procedure to a team of budding reconstructive surgeons in the hope of rolling out the method across the world. It is has the potential to bring about a sexual revolution in Africa, where 30 countries have a prevalence higher than 50 per cent.