A 37-year-old woman has become the first person in the U.K. to be found guilty of female genital mutilation (FGM), after mutilating her three-year-old daughter during the summer of 2017. The defendant, born in Uganda and living in the UK for a number of years, has denied FGM and an alternative charge of failing to protect the girl from the risk of genital mutilation. The woman has been warned of a ‘lengthy’ jail term and will be sentenced on 8 March, in the landmark verdict given at the Old Bailey in London on Friday.
Police were alerted to the girl’s injuries after she was treated at Whipps Cross Hospital in northeast London, after suffering from severe bleeding. Doctors there confirmed that her injuries were consistent with being cut with a scalpel. Police also found evidence that the mother had practiced witchcraft, including two cow tongues bound in wire with nails and a small blunt knife embedded in them, and 40 limes and other fruit which contained pieces of paper with the names of police officers investigating the case, and the family’s social worker. This had been done in a bid to silence the woman’s accusers. The girl’s father denied being present at the time his daughter was cut and has been acquitted by the jury.
Female genital mutilation, which is defined as intentionally altering or injuring the female external genitalia for non-medical reasons, carries a jail sentence of a maximum of 14 years. In the U.K., FGM has been illegal since 1985 under the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act, which in 2003 was modernized in the Female Genital Mutilation Act. In 2015, the Government introduced a law requiring professionals to report known cases of FGM in under-18s to the police.
According to estimates by City University, there are 137,000 women and girls who have undergone FGM and a further 144,000 girls at risk of FGM in England and Wales. The Home Office has identified women from many East African communities including Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, as being most at risk.
However, so far, only 3 other cases of FGM have been brought to trial in the U.K. and have all ended in acquittal. This shows that although the law is in place, the number of cases leading to people who perform FGM being held accountable for their actions is extremely low.
There have been 298 protection orders put in place to protect children who have been perceived as ‘at risk’. If someone is at risk of FGM or knows someone who is, they can apply for a protection order to keep them safe from a person who may bring them harm. This also applies for people who are already victims of FGM, for example, so that the victim can’t be prevented from returning to the U.K.
However, campaigners against FGM say that one of the reasons that it has been hard to prosecute the tens of thousands of FGM cases that are known to have happened is because prosecutions rely on people willing to report – and possibly testify against – close family members. FGM campaigner Aneeta Prem, from Freedom Charity, said convictions were hard to secure because cuttings were ‘hidden in secrecy.’ ‘People are scared to come forward, professionals are scared to come forward to report this,’ she told the BBC.
Furthermore, Inspector Allen Davis, the FGM lead for the Metropolitan Police, points out that ‘often you are relying on a child giving evidence against someone close to them.’ He also urges professionals to fulfill their duty in sharing information with the police. Data from 2018 showed that there had been just 36 referrals of alleged FGM to the Crown Prosecution Service since 2010, which prosecutors believe is due to not obtaining enough evidence to secure a conviction. Davis points out that the reports it receives include many where a child may be at risk but no offence has been committed yet, and also cases where a person has undergone FGM before living in the U.K.
Charlotte Proudman, a human rights barrister with a PhD in FGM law and policy, last year interviewed 40 women from Somali communities in London, Leicester and Birmingham, and held two focus groups on FGM, whilst speaking to 39 professionals. She says that finding out who performs FGM in the U.K. is extremely difficult and that women don’t inform people about what is going on. The task of locating those carrying it out remains incredibly difficult. Proudman found that because many of the affected communities are socially isolated, or resistant to dealing with public services, this makes the gathering of intelligence difficult and gives those who provide the service ways to evade the law.
If these are the barriers which are stopping the people who are practising FGM to be taken to court, despite the law being in place to safeguard individuals, what further can be done to prevent the potential suffering of thousands of girls and women each year?
As Inspector Davis, the police lead on FGM, says, FGM is happening in Britain ‘behind a cloak of secrecy.’ He says that information is needed from people in communities who are aware that FGM is happening, including who is at risk and who is doing the cutting.
This is why the newly formed Anti-FGM Network, which is a cross-sector forum made up of representatives from the police, Crown Prosecution Service and voluntary sector, has been set up to hold the government to account on tackling FGM. They have made recommendations including a national public health campaign, improved training for professionals and better use of social media to engage young people. Dr. Sharon Raymond, a GP and safeguarding expert, has told the forum that there is a shocking lack of awareness about what FGM is between doctors, nurses and social workers, as well as the different types and what the law is. Although the Serious Crimes Act 2015 brought in mandatory reporting of FGM in order to secure successful convictions, she says that if professionals are not aware of their duty, we will not get very far in increasing the actual number of convictions.
Although NHS employees, social workers and teachers are bound by this duty to report cases of FGM to the police, experts say that there is a lack awareness amongst these key groups and that urgent action is needed to address this. The current figures for mandatory reporting appear to be very low. Data is hard to obtain due to differences in the way the police forces record data, but figures from the Metropolitan Police show that there were just 60 cases of mandatory reporting in London over a 3-year period. There were 30,480 attendances by women and girls at medical centres in relation to FGM, between April 2015 and June 2018, according to NHS Digital data. The Anti-FGM Network is calling for a cross-department action group on FGM to be established in order to push the government to fund a national campaign and improve bespoke clinics and services for survivors. Currently, there are 13 clinics in England, 8 of which are in London, where women can seek help with the physical complications of FGM. There is only one specialist pediatric clinic in the whole of the U.K. and very few counseling services. This is not enough for women who have undergone FGM and need extensive psychological support. Other recommendations include the establishment of a dedicated national FGM hotline and blanket screening of patients across all NHS registration systems.
Perhaps the most important change that is needed is more cooperation from schools and communities to share intelligence around FGM. Inspector Davis recognizes the need to work with young people in schools for awareness-raising and information-sharing, which is currently not occurring at an adequate level. Leethen Bartholomew, head of the National FGM Centre and former social worker, says that there have been good examples of FGM lessons being introduced in schools but that these need to be replicated across the country and more children need to grasp the ideas.
However, some schools have faced resistance from practising communities, who do not wish for their children to take part in such lessons, due to their beliefs. These children, whose attendance is stopped by parents, are the ones most at risk. When charities have been allowed to speak to pupils, boys are often excluded from the discussions. FGM needs to be part of the national curriculum and whilst it will be included in the new relationships and sex education (RSE) curriculum to be brought next year, it is currently unclear in what capacity it will be featured.
The chair of the Anti-FGM Network, Alex Adams, says, ‘we will be lobbying for mandatory basic FGM awareness training in all schools for all staff, not just teachers.’ He believes that empowering children and young people as gatekeepers of their human rights is very effective, particularly the future plans to use social media and technology to engage with this demographic on the issue of FGM.
This work proposed by the Anti-FGM Network highlights the key educational changes which need to be brought about to reduce the spread of FGM. However, this must work alongside the law because, if communities aren’t seeing the consequences of taking part in FGM translated into successful prosecution of those involved, it will be difficult to crack down on the older generations involved in the practice. The U.K.’s first conviction has been called a ‘landmark ruling’ by campaigners who hope that the outcome of this case will give others the strength and courage to speak out. Police believe the conviction will send a strong message that FGM is child abuse – and will be prosecuted.
In conclusion, for further convictions to be made, there should be a review of mandatory disclosure rules, as professionals are only bound to report cases of those under the age of 18 who have made a direct disclosure. More training and education is needed for NHS workers, schools and social workers to recognize the signs of FGM and how they can relay this information to the police. Support needs to be given to those who are already victims of FGM, via specialized health clinics around the country. Finally, even though the law is in place, education of communities where FGM takes place needs to be more strongly pushed for, as the law is a deterrent but has not been taken seriously. The communities who practise this inhumane tradition need to understand the impacts and consequences for the girls and women involved, in order to stop the passing down of the tradition to future generations.
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