The UK’s first web app designed to allow teenagers to learn about female genital mutilation (FGM) anonymously, and get help if they are at risk, has been launched.
The free app, designed by a team at Coventry University and developed with the help of local schoolchildren, has privacy features to allow teenagers to get the facts about the practice and access helplines without being traced, with features such as a “close and remove” button for anyone whose internet use is monitored. The app will also disappear if the smartphone is shaken. Named “Petals” to avoid highlighting the subject matter, the app can also be used as an educational tool, with quiz, FAQ and glossary sections.
More than 20,000 girls in Britain are estimated to be at risk of FGM, with some estimates suggesting 170,000 women are living with the effects of the practice in the UK. The app was launched on Tuesday ahead of the “cutting season”, when thousands of girls face being taken abroad to undergo FGM. It has been illegal in the UK for 30 years and taking a child out of the country for the procedure has been banned since 2003, though there has yet to be a successful prosecution.
Prof Hazel Barrett, of Coventry University’s Centre for Communities and Social Justice, who developed the app with Steven Ball, said the Midlands had the second-highest incidence of FGM after London, and that with Coventry being a dispersal centre for asylum seekers, 2% of all births in the city were to women who had suffered FGM.
Petals has been designed to get information to those most at risk because so many 11-18 year-olds had nowhere to turn to for information. Barrett saw a need for the app after her research revealed how little discussion there was about the taboo subject between different generations and between men and women. “Men condone FGM, directly or indirectly,” she said, and parents found it hard to challenge their own parents.
Pupils at Sidney Stringer Academy in Coventry helped trial the app. Samira Murenzi, 17, said: “We wanted them to add boys’ point of view, to make them feel they have a say. What I loved about the app is that it shows people’s stories, like some girls [with FGM] have difficulty giving birth. We want to raise awareness for others.”
Rimshah Khan, 15, said: “I like the fact that people can directly get help. I didn’t know much about it but just knowing a bit can save someone.
“People keep it a secret. It’s not really a comfortable topic to talk about. They feel pressure – by telling people, you might feel like you’re disowning your family. I knew about it but didn’t have that much knowledge about it. My friends were like me.”
Speaking at the launch in London, Nicky Morgan, the secretary of state for education and minister for women, said: “Until recently this harrowing practice too often remained in the shadows and kept a secret despite the unimaginable and lifelong suffering it can cause.
“We have a duty to stop this happening,” she added. “Cultural sensitivities can never be an excuse for FGM.
“This an issue that can only be tackled by lots of people working together and taking responsibility for it, and talking about it is a big first step.
“It’s hugely encouraging to see technology and innovation being harnessed so rationally. This app takes us another step forward, giving women and girls a lifeline, something they can access easily and confidentially without stigma or fears for their safety. This tool couldn’t have come at a better time with the summer holidays, when girls are most at risk, about to begin.
“I look forward to the day when it’s no longer needed.”
John Cameron, head of helplines at the NSPCC, said the app was vital, pointing out that his charity received more contacts from children online than by phone. As well as helping change boys’ attitudes, he said, Petals would “empower children to speak out”.